Could brain scans become campaign tool?

Brain scans used to examine how people make decisions

November 03, 2006|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

How do you make up your mind when you cast your ballot on Election Day?

Scientists are scanning human brains to try to find out. And they're learning that "your brain on Bush" may be very different from "your brain on Kerry."

The researcher's newest tool is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and some say the high-tech scanner could soon join the focus group and telephone survey as part of the campaign strategist's tool kit.

"It's meant a sea change in our ability to understand what we're thinking and feeling. It's like what the telescope was to astronomy in the 15th century," said Joshua Freedman, a University of California, Los Angeles psychiatrist who investigates the effect of political ads on the minds of volunteers.

One possible problem: convincing campaign managers that brain-peeping isn't too expensive, or just a bit too creepy.

fMRI uses the magnetic properties of the oxygen in the bloodstream to track blood flow to regions of the brain when we perform particular tasks - even something as mundane as viewing a photo.

This makes the technology a powerful tool for tracking the brain's reaction to the advertising that bombards us everyday. In fact, fMRI's potential became apparent three years ago when Texas researchers gave brain scans to more than 60 people in a modified Coke versus Pepsi taste test.

They found that when the soft drink labels were displayed, volunteers preferred Coke over Pepsi - and that brain regions associated with the sense of self were more likely to light up when they knew they were sipping Coke.

"People are buying a label; they're tasting a label," said Read Montague, the researcher at Baylor College of Medicine who conducted the test to gauge the effects of cultural messages on choice.

Such work is opening the door for using fMRI to probe into unknown and deeply hidden reactions to what we see and hear - and how we decide what we like. That can mean candidates as well as soft drinks.

"Whether you choose Coke or Pepsi, it's just a step away from whether you like person No. 1 or person No. 2," Montague said.

As hard-fought as Maryland's current election campaigns may be, they haven't reached the brain-scan stage yet.

"Voters want to know where a candidate stands on healthcare and Social Security and the war in Iraq. We don't need brain scans to tell us where voters stand on those kinds of issues," said Oren Shur, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

"It's probably not a technology we'd employ. It sounds like it would be expensive - and these races are expensive enough as it is," said Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election campaign.

fMRI would be an expensive campaign tool. Scans cost about $600 per test, said Darren Schreiber, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who uses fMRI to contrast politically experienced and inexperienced voters.

Technology not ready yet

Some experts say the technology, developed in the 1990s, is still too unreliable for political campaigns. The signals it detects are often weak and inconsistent from one test subject to the next. And too little is known about the brain to decipher the meaning behind activation of specific regions, skeptics say.

"It's a little like trying to figure out what's in a dark room by match light," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

But Loewenstein and other experts argue that as costs drop and scientists learn more about the brain's signals, fMRI's potential improves.

"It is absolutely in its infancy. If you wanted to know which of two political ads may be more effective, we're not there yet. But we're getting there," said Drew Westen, a researcher at Emory University in Atlanta.

Persuading undecided voters can be a subtle process, and people aren't always aware of what influences them in an advertisement, experts say. That's a weakness in focus groups and surveys that depend on a viewer's response.

"Persuasion is two-thirds an unconscious process," Westen said. "You're changing people's associations to things."

People will sometimes say they don't like negative ads - but they respond to them, Westen said. That's why the so-called Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry's war record damaged his 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, Westen said.

"We can take guesses about how images will affect how people feel about things, but those guesses are just educated guesses and they're usually wrong," he said.

This year, Westen reported results of a study in which he scanned 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans while they read a statement from President Bush or Kerry, followed by an account showing contradictions in that statement.

Westen asked the volunteers to rate whether the statement was contradictory or not on a four-point scale. The process was repeated six times for each candidate.

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