By Bryan Caplan
If you want to publish obvious results, it really helps to scan some brains first. Case in point: “This is Your Brain on Politics,” an op-ed in Sunday’s NYT:
In anticipation of the 2008 presidential election, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch the brains of a group of swing voters as they responded to the leading presidential candidates. Our results reveal some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.
Voter impressions on which this election may well turn include the shocking findings that:
1. Voters sense both peril and promise in party brands.
2. Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed.
Admittedly, there’s more to this study than platitudes. It also has leaps of faith, like “The gender gap may be closing.” Evidence?
In recent presidential elections, Democrats have done better with female voters, while Republicans have appealed more to men. So far this time, male swing voters seem to be looking more closely at the Democrats. After viewing all the candidate videos, our male subjects, when viewing still photos of the Democrats, showed significantly higher activity in the medial orbital prefrontal cortex, an area that is activated by rewarding stimuli, than they did while looking at pictures of the Republicans.
Women did not display such a one-party skew, but rather tended to react to individual candidates. So the traditional gender pattern of party preference may not be as prominent this year, particularly among men, and that may be good news for Democrats.
In 2004, men were 4 percentage-points more supportive of Bush than women. Do these brain scans make anyone want to bet at even odds that the gender gap will be 2 percentage-points or less in 2008?
Bottom line: Just because brain researchers have some colorful pictures doesn’t mean they’ve advanced beyond common sense, much less traditional public opinion research.