The Neuroscience of Decision-Making in 2016


How many presidential candidates have you actually met in person? Not that many. A large majority of us — the electorate — meet our candidates through media. Whether it is watching a debate on television, scanning social media commentary from friends, or reading political analysis in a newspaper, nearly all of the evidence the presidential electorate utilizes in its voting decisions is delivered by media. If we are to have a chance at understanding how this evidence leads to a decision on Election Day then we must zoom in on the cycle of evidence and decision formation: did a campaign commercial or a debate appearance sway the voter’s choice? Did either compel the voter to donate to the candidate’s campaign or PAC?

The neuroscience of decision-making during presidential elections is a difficult problem. Nevertheless, armed with an experimental approach and analysis methods that aim to capture the way voters experience the candidates, I am leading a study at the Harmony Institute that begins to tackle this problem. The Harmony Institute is a non-profit research institute specializing in the impact of media on social issues. We are observing eligible voters’ neural responses as they watch excerpts from the presidential debates held within each party. After viewing a live debate excerpt, the voter is given a choice as to which candidate he/she prefers on the viewed material. Then, the voter is asked whether he/she would like to support that candidate by a donation, a ‘Like’ on Facebook, or a one-time vote.

The holy grail of such an experiment is to find a neural signal captured during the preceding video clip that predicts the voter’s choice. Right now, scientists are far from that capability. However, the first look at our results paints a fascinating picture of what the voters comprehend on —> Read More