Your Brain on Politics

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Much has been said and written about the moment Hillary teared up in New Hampshire on Monday, and how it turned the tide in her favor by rallying women voters to her side. But I think there was an earlier Hillary moment that was equally important and, by and large, just as misread by the political class. It came when she got “angry” during the ABC debate on Saturday night, raising her voice and gesticulating with her hands as she insisted that she didn’t just want change, like her opponents; she’d already “made change!”

That night members of Time‘s political team fired emails back and forth predicting the impact of Hillary’s “outburst” on her struggling campaign: would it prove fatal, merely damaging or — the minority view — helpful?

Given the results of the primary, it appears that showing she could get angry helped Hillary as much as revealing her vulnerability did. And there’s some scientific data to back up that deduction. For their debates Saturday night ABC brought in a cutting-edge market research company called Lucid Systems to do brain research on a group of undecided New Hampshire voters.* They placed a cap with electrodes on each voter to measure their brain activity as they watched the debate. One of the most interesting findings was that all of the voters’ brains responded positively as they watched Hillary get angry. Also, they responded extremely negatively when Obama delivered his mild barb, “Hillary, you’re nice enough.”

The undecideds – or their brains – also liked it when Hillary joked, “Well, that hurts my feelings.”

Sometimes voters, even in focus groups, say they feel one way and their brain activity indicates otherwise. This brain research is designed to find out how people really feel, regardless of what they say — what the Lucid people call “the unspoken truth.” In the New Hampshire group, no one verbalized their unhappiness with Obama’s barb, but their negative brain activity went wild. The voters didn’t know how much they didn’t like it.

On the Republican side, Huckabee’s riposte to Romney about his position on the war – “Which one?” – drew a negative response. McCain’s dig at Romney, on the other hand – “We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change” – produced almost no response because, luckily for McCain, the voters didn’t understand it.

(*My wife worked on the piece about this experiment that aired on Good Morning America.)

UPDATE: As the first commenter, Mike M, notes, this was the first debate broadcast by a network, meaning, one assumes, that far more people tuned in.