Obama’s Brain Scientists

November 20, 2012 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices, Previous · Leave a Comment

The day before the election, my son Daniel (16) and I volunteered at the Obama campaign offices.  Our job was to call Virginia voters who usually don’t vote (or answer the phone, apparently) and encourage them to get to the polls.  Our trainer said to be sure to ask them what time they are going to vote.  “Research shows,” he said, “that they are 4% more likely to vote if we ask them that question.”

The day after Obama won, the New York Times ran an article about how the campaign used behavior science research to craft campaign messages and increase voter turnout.  One study showed that “the election is close” is a stronger inducement to vote than “your neighbors are voting,” which works better than “it’s your civic duty.” This kind of research has been used to increase our desire for Tide detergent and Toyotas, but its emergence in the campaign is significant for two reasons.

First, the exploding field of neuroscience is using electro-magnetic imaging and other tools for measuring our brain’s reactions and rapidly increasing the amount of data available about the causes and effects of human behavior.  At the recent Neuroleadership Summit, an annual event where researchers and practitioners on leadership development come together to look at the latest findings, research was presented on the importance of emotional intelligence for team performance and changes in the brain that are needed for emerging leaders to make successful leadership transitions, among other topics.  The conference itself was designed with the brain in mind.  

Second, if we want a second Obama term to produce more concrete social change than the first, we’re going to have to use the kind of sophisticated understanding of human behavior that was used to get him elected.  What are the in-group and out-group dynamics at play in the immigration debate?  What message about the weather will generate demand for legislation to restrict CO2 emissions?

As you will notice in this photo, Daniel is updating his Twitter followers about his time on the phone bank rather than making calls.  In the world of brain science, that’s a good thing.  By focusing attention on a new behavior, he was actually embedding the wiring that might keep him politically active long after those foot-dragging Virginia voters have gone to the polls.


Leave a Reply