Attention Perks Up When Politicians Break With Party Line

March 1, 2021
Ingrid Haas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska

Craig Chandler/University of Nebraska – Lincoln

In a time of extreme political polarization, hearing that a political candidate has taken a stance inconsistent with their party might raise some questions for constituents. Why don't they agree with the party's position? Do we know for sure this is where they stand?

A new study co-authored by researchers at the University of Arizona, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and University of California – Merced finds that the human brain processes politically incongruent statements differently — attention perks up — and that the candidate's conviction toward the stated position also plays a role.

In other words, a stronger neurological response happens when, for example, a Republican takes a position favorable to new taxes, or a Democratic candidate adopts an opinion critical of environmental regulation, but it may be easier for us to ignore these positions when we're not exactly sure where the candidate stands.

"Uncertainty is something we encounter often in politics, especially when it comes to figuring out where politicians stand on issues. It can be expressed unintentionally when politicians honestly don't know much about an issue, or it can be deployed strategically if a politician is afraid they will be seen as abandoning the party line," said study co-author Frank Gonzalez, an assistant professor in the UArizona School of Government and Public Policy in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, lead study author Ingrid Haas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, worked with Gonzalez and Melissa Baker of the University of California – Merced, to examine the insula and anterior cingular cortex in 58 individuals. Both of those regions of the brain are involved with cognitive function. The researchers found increased activity when participants read candidate statements that were incongruent with the candidate's stated party affiliation, especially when candidates expressed certainty about their incongruent positions.

"The biggest takeaway is that people paid more attention to uncertainty when it was attached to the consistent information, and they were more likely to dismiss it when it was attached to the inconsistent information," Haas said. "In these brain regions, the most activation was to incongruent trials that were certain.

"If you definitely know that the candidate is deviating from party lines, so to speak, that seemed to garner more response from our participants, whereas if there's a suspicion that they're deviating from party line, but it's attached to more uncertainty, we didn't see participants engaged in so much processing of that information."

The trials didn't examine what the voter might decide to do with this information.

"More research will be needed to study the downstream consequences of this heightened brain activity, such as whether it changes who they will vote for," Gonzalez said. "However, we find that in addition to heightened neural activity, participants took longer to respond to the certain-incongruent trials, suggesting they were being 'drawn in' more by these statements. This finding, in itself, tells us voters pay attention to uncertainty and deviations from the party line, which has implications for understanding things like why the U.S. is polarized and how it might be addressed."

The research raises a possible answer to the perennial question of why politicians are frequently less explicit in their opinions, or why they may flip-flop on a stated position.

"Our work points to a reason why politicians might deploy uncertainty in a strategic way," Haas said. "If a politician has a position that is definitely incongruent from the party's stated position, the idea is that rather than put that out there, given that people might grasp onto it and pay more attention to it, it might be strategic for them to mask their true positions instead."

The article, "Political uncertainty moderates neural evaluation of incongruent policy positions," is published in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions B, "The political brain: neurocognitive and computational mechanisms."

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