Neuropundits Gone Wild!

Befuddling brain science on the opinion pages of the New York Times.

A swing-voter responds to Hillary Clinton

An op-ed from Sunday’s New York Times, “This Is Your Brain on Politics,” proposes to answer what must be the most vexing question of modern American politics: What’s going on inside the head of a swing voter? The authors—a team of neuroscientists and political consultants—ran 20 of these undecided volunteers through a brain scanner and showed them pictures and video of the major candidates from both parties. The results, laid out both in print and an online slide show, purport to give us some insight as to how the upcoming primaries will play out: “Mitt Romney may have some potential,” the researchers conclude, and Hillary Clinton seems to have an edge at winning over her opponents.

Don’t believe a word of it. To liken these neurological pundits to snake-oil salesmen would be far too generous. Their imaging study has not been published in any science journal, nor has it been vetted by experts in the field; it can’t rightly be called an “experiment,” since the authors weren’t testing any particular hypothesis; and the arbitrary conclusions they draw from the data aren’t even consistent with their own previous research.

But before we evaluate those conclusions, let’s consider the source. The study comes straight from FKF Applied Research, a D.C.-based “neuromarketing” firm that conducts brain-based focus groups for Fortune 500 companies. For the past two years, FKF has finagled widespread coverage of its business by conducting spurious fMRI analyses of Super Bowl commercials and then announcing the winners and losers. (See, for example, “This Is Your Brain on a Super Bowl Ad.”) Business Week, Time, Reuters, and MSNBC have all boosted the company’s bottom line with free publicity, but no publication has been nearly as generous as the Times. To date, the paper has published eight articles about the company (including one on the front page) since it was founded three years ago. And now, as of Sunday, the Times has gone so far as to run two op-ed columns by FKF’s Josh Freedman with exactly the same title. In neither case did the newspaper disclose his connection to the firm.

As the authors of what is essentially an extended FKF advertorial, Freedman and his colleagues have a strong incentive to tout their services and sex up the findings. Even so, many of their conclusions seem either haphazard or comically vague. Take their first point: When test subjects were shown the name of a political party—either the words Republican, Democrat, or Independent—they responded with neural activity in the amygdala, the insula, and the striatum. According to the authors, these regions of the brain correspond to feelings of anxiety, disgust, and pleasure. Really, all three? From that meaningless mishmash of emotions, they meekly conclude that “voters sense both peril and promise in party brands.”

Their assessment of Hillary Clinton might be more illuminating. Subjects who claimed to dislike the senator before the experiment began showed activation of the anterior cingulate cortex—an area thought to be associated with internal conflict—when confronted with her picture. “It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton,” say the authors. “This phenomenon, not found for any other candidate, suggests that Mrs. Clinton may be able to gather support from some swing voters who oppose her.” Is this a hint that she’s not too polarizing to get elected? Now that would be something worth knowing.

But their interpretation of the Hillary data starts to look a little fishy if you take into account a similar round of FKF brain scans from the last presidential election. In 2004, the same researchers put 20 highly partisan voters into an MRI machine and showed them pictures of George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader. The result: Voters showed heightened activity in the conflict areas—including the anterior cingulate cortex—when they viewed the candidate they hated, as opposed to one they loved. In other words, when a hard-core Democrat looks at a picture of the dreaded George Bush, you get the same brain activity as when a swing voter looks at Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, the Hillary results don’t seem so promising.

(It’s worth noting that FKF co-founder Tom Freedman—that’s Josh’s brother—worked on the 1996 presidential campaign and served as a senior adviser in the Clinton White House. Could his relationship with the Clintons have swayed the results in favor of Hillary? It’s at least worth a disclosure.)

A look back at the findings from 2004 casts doubt on their other conclusions as well. In 2007, activation of the superior temporal sulcus and the inferior frontal cortex was deemed a good sign for Fred Thompson—he was inspiring empathy from prospective voters. But in the previous study, activation of the same so-called “mirror neuron system” occurred only when voters viewed candidates of the opposing party, whom they despised. Likewise, when brain scans turned up relatively little activity in response to images of Barack Obama and John McCain, the authors concluded that these candidates “have work to do.” But similar data from the 2004 experiment suggested just the opposite: Highly partisan voters showed much less brain activity when presented with the candidates they supported.

Across two analogous studies, the FKF team has interpreted the very same patterns of brain activity in very different ways—indeed, in opposite ways. When I posed this to lead author Josh Freedman, he explained that you have to tailor your interpretations to fit the context; i.e., the same brain scan might mean something different for a partisan than it does for a swing voter. But the only way to know if your subject is a partisan or a swing voter is to ask him before he goes in the scanner. And if you can get honest answers from your subject about his political beliefs, then why bother with the brain scans at all?

So, the study’s findings aren’t believable on their own terms. Take a step back, and there may be more fundamental problems. At the Neuroethics and Law Blog, cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah tweaks the FKF team for assuming that activity in a given brain region always reflects the same emotional state. When subjects looked at photos of Mitt Romney, they showed increased blood flow to the amygdala—which the researchers interpreted here and elsewhere as a sign of anxiety. That’s not necessarily true: The amygdala can also light up during the experience of anger, happiness, or sexual arousal.

Why has the New York Times proved so willing to donate its column space to this private company and its sloppy experiments? Perhaps the paper’seditors have fallen prey to what psychologist Frank Keil calls the “illusion of explanatory depth.” As Keil has shown in his own research, even gazing dumbly at a picture of the brain makes us feel as though we’re deepening our understanding of the human mind. The fMRI scans published on Sunday, and the largely unsurprising findings they are meant to support, reveal the strength of this illusion.