American Psychological Association
Boston, August 14-17 2008
Drew Westen, introduced by panel chair Sharon Brennan, began by having the audience take part in an "experiment" where we were to memorize 3 pairs of words, and then say the name of a car (as a test &/or "distractor item") and then the name of a laundry detergent. Almost everyone chose "Tide", after being "primed" by exposure to several words such as "moon" and "ocean". His point was made. We hear the same buzz words and associations, or "networks" of word associations all the time, in ads for detergent and ads for our Presidents. What are the psychological principles at play here, and how are some campaigns exploiting the power of the media in successful ways while some get nowhere with their efforts at generating voter enthusiasm? This report, along with Drew Westen's presentation, is non-partisan, and he made that point. And in fact, his illustrations of the good, bad, and ugly presentations of candidates poked equal fun (on their own, usually) at people of all persuasions, politically.
Following his word association demonstration, he showed a video of a news anchor making a slip so that he mouthed a sexual slang word rather than a similarly sounding word. Examining the clip we could see that he was following a type of internal linguistic script and where his processing went awry because of similar sound sequences having upset his pattern of speaking. (You had to be there. This article is intent on being not only non-partisan, but also G-rated!)
One of the strengths of the GOP (Republican Party) has been their "brand recognition" as the party of democracy, small government, etc... but as news followers clearly see, the "brand" is no longer selling on name alone, and people are inclined to vote for personal priorities being represented, and for ideals - including "this person has values I believe in" and "I feel I can trust this person to lead us in the right direction". The good news for Republicans who are confronting a tarnished brand now, is that Democrats don't have a viable "brand" either. So you know the level of discussion now: it's about the future, core values, and leadership.
There are constraints on Democrats, such as how to approach guns, even on the heels of recent gun massacres. The numbers are in: 75% of Americans believe in the right to hunt, and the right to protect one's family. Stated like that, that's an impressive core belief. Worded differently, however, we find that 100% of parents questioned said they want their children to come home safely from school. Clearly there is room here for some reflection on implications. But the right notes have to be sounded, and people doze off with discussions of 12 point plans and complex plans which only vaguely relate to core issues. Al Gore did not help his efforts to reign in gun access by saying 'I believe in registering new handguns but not old ones'. "Is there a principle?"
Republicans "always lead with their principles". Democrats lead with policy. "Here's what I believe in" versus "Here's my 12-point plan".
Other bad ideas include talking about S-CHIP rather than "children's health". One needs to better explain "universal health care" in trying to promote it. The first problem is the phrase, which like "liberal" has been turned into a catch phrase for communism or socialism, "socialized medicine" devoid of choice, etc. Westen would not use the words "universal health care", since our network of associations almost invariably connect this to "socialized medicine" and "bad". What would happen if there was a push for "a family doctor for every family"? Unfortunately for Democrats, they often "work on the plan but not the language". The Republicans have become masters, meanwhile, at their version of "instant messaging". [However they have not exploited the Internet as well as Democrats, and their Presidential standard bearer for change does not know how to use a computer. Many pundits are wondering the extent to which the Internet factor will exert a role.]
Another example of how hot-button words get connected to a network of associations and responses: abortion. "If you say 'reproductive health', they say 'baby killer'. That outweighs it. But you could win by 20 points if you speak instead about a woman's 'right to choose'".
Americans (85%) are religious. One might acknowledge and use this in several ways, as we can observe in the daily news. This could be framed differently as well: One side might focus on "the woman's right to choose versus God's right to choose", and the other might reply "I just don't like the idea of the government telling a couple when they should start a family". Choosing one's network of associations can change one's effectiveness. "The difference between winning and losing depends on what networks you choose to activate."
One needs to be aware that there is cultural and historical context as well. While many people embrace a "woman's right to choose" as a core human right, it was a central theme of the "women's movement", very powerful, but in a different time. Words and networks change over time.
Too much detail turns people off, notwithstanding the inevitable calls for "details", often from the media. Al Gore was seen as doing fabulous in a debate, but even after listening to it 100 times, it's not easy to recall the points. Listening to Bush, who was seen as (technically) a much poorer performer, it is clear that he came across as a person who knew what he wanted, whereas Gore was talking about actuaries and assuming people knew what they are. "Simplicity... tell people you mean it."
Competence is not a big factor in persuading people to vote for them. What is? Passion. The best predictors of garnering votes are:
- Feelings towards the principles of the parties (You can't just think "liberal" and "conservative" these days as shorthand for "what I believe in" since the GOP managed to poison the word "liberal".)
- Feelings toward the candidate.
- Feelings towards attributes - leadership, trustworthiness, etc.
- Feeling towards policies of the candidate - something particularly important for the single-issue voter.
- Facts about the candidate's policies. [Interestingly, this factor alone has very little predictive power.]
Looking ahead at the dynamics of this election, the Republicans have no choice but to deal with their "branding problem" now, and they are out of practice changing (a huge theme in this election!). Plus, when one reviews the brand's performance these past 7 years, it seems things didn't work out so well in terms of delivering.
More advice to candidates: Don't play up having gone to Harvard or Yale. It seems our country has "an anti-intellectual bent". Bush followed this rule: He went to Andover, Yale and Harvard, and ran as a "common man", buying a ranch the year before running. He was never called on this. Even Rumsfeld reinforced the anti-intellectual message: (Paraphrasing) - "You have to work with the brain you have and not the brain you wish you had". Message?
And what are voters truly seeking?
Briefly, with time running out, and the crowd urging him to go on, Dr. Westen showed a few video clips illustrating the worst of the offenders against his rules of effectively using networked word associations. The #1 prize of this year's political season, for worst idea, goes to the Christmas-time ad which had Hillary pulling off leafs from the tree with the wish-list of things she wants: Universal Health Care (she could've stopped with that, the worst-possible buzz phrase), Bring Troops Home, "Where did I put universal Pre-K?", etc. She distilled her grand ideals into precisely the words and phrases which have already been effectively poisoned by the very effective GOP media machines. In contrast, her rival Obama had an ad with his family gathered around a tree, simply wishing everyone a blessed Holiday, no politics, no poisonous words. Which one was more effective, in terms of pushing positive buttons?
- I want someone who shares my values.
- I want someone I can trust.
Another golden rule of successful campaign management, one which we can freely observe in action every day, watching the ads and candidate sound bites in the news: There are 4 dynamics you must master in order to succeed:
Returning to the example of Hillary Clinton's Christmas ad, and the anatomy of a bad psychological message, follow up study suggested that the result of the ad was that it reinforced a perception of her as "opportunistic". Hers were not the top issues of the pollsters but she placed them out there during the primaries. How did they relate to the strong feelings of Iowans at that moment?
- What story are you telling about yourself?
- What story are you telling about the opponent?
- What stories are your opponents telling about themselves?
- What stories are your opponents telling about you?
Obama's ad, more effective than hers and engendering a smile in almost everybody as his daughter took some air time, had "virtually no substance and was one of the best ads of this political season" with the fireplace, little girl, tree, etc. "It was impossible not to smile". He gave a balanced, ecumenical message, invited us into his home, and thanked the audience for inviting him into theirs.... "I don't think it's an accident he won the Iowa caucus", Westen said.
There was a brief Q&A, as the session wound up quickly, with the next symposium due to start momentarily. He continued with the audience in the hallway, eager to get his thoughts on a variety of hot political topics.