We’ve now entered the home stretch of the long and highly emotional 2004 US presidential race. Only about 50% of the eligible voters typically vote in presidential elections, and current polls suggest that about 90% of those have already made up their mind. Since the two major candidates are currently in a dead heat, they’ll spend zillions to gain the support of the few who are uncommitted and the many who are apathetic.

It isn’t only politicians who want to know how people make up their mind, and what factors encourage them to change their mind. Advertisers, brokers, clergymen, doctors, and educators begin the long alphabetic list of people who hope to influence preferences and choices.

The media are currently focused on political decision-making processes, however, and the three examples below are especially intriguing. A current film explores science fiction elements; a scientific journal explores recent neuroimaging developments; and a new book by a renowned cognitive scientist explores the cognitive processes that make up and change our mind.

FILM. The Manchurian Candidate is an engaging update of the 1962 Cold War film that explored the possibility that highly stressed soldiers could be brainwashed into decisions they wouldn’t normally make. That folks join cults, get trapped into destructive relationships, and use prescription medications and illicit drugs that affect their behavior lent credibility to the original film.

The current updated version manipulates a future presidential election by imagining a massive global corporation that uses its biotechnology capabilities to develop and implant computer chips that alter memory and decision-making. It’s a currently implausible proposal but the film is sufficiently engaging to spark thought and discussion in normal folks, and to energize conspiracy theory fans.

SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL. The July 31 New Scientist reports on recent neuroimaging developments that can observe (but not manipulate) the brain systems involved in decision-making processes.

Our decision-making processes must differentiate between veridical decisions—knowing and reporting the correct answer to a factual problem that has a single correct answer (such as 6X5=30), and adaptive decisions—developing and enacting a choice among several legitimate responses to a problem (such as what to order off a restaurant menu or who to vote for in an election). Voting is thus an adaptive decision, but political advertising seeks to convince voters that it’s a veridical decision (Sylwester, 2003).

Scientists who observe our brain’s decision-making process are discovering that it isn’t the purely rational process folks formerly thought, but that it also involves emotion, social context, and an intriguing separately processed weighing of potential costs and benefits. For example, many people who had expressed a preference for Pepsi over Coke in blind taste tests continued to express a preference for Coke after they were told the contrary results of their taste test. Members of a political party may also exhibit such brand loyalty even after they discover that their party’s decisions have negatively affected their life. Political parties must thus provide wavering voters with acceptable justifications for past failures in order to maintain their loyalty (and both parties are currently busy doing this).

Neuroimaging research is currently exploring the brain areas that are active when we make such decisions and other cognitive behaviors that these brain areas regulate. For example, during a game in which subjects could either cooperate or compete, scientists observed elevated activity within the orbitofrontal-striatal circuitry of those who cooperated. This network integrates the cost/benefit information associated with a decision, and any consequent sense of reward. When interviewed, the subjects indicated that although they would have profited from a competitive strategy, they preferred collaborative activity. We’re a social species, so personal material gains don’t necessarily trump social/emotional values in decision-making.

This may explain the purpose of political rallies, which rarely change votes, since most attendees have already decided how they’ll vote. Emotionally connecting with like-minded cheering folks during a rally can solidify one’s decision, however. Consider the similar emotional/social impact of a church service, family reunion, football game—and even a TV sitcom. A sitcom laugh track provides the artificial social/emotional context that allows us to imagine that others are sharing our enjoyment. We rationally know the laugh track is fake, but we emotionally go with the flow and laugh with the recording. Check the current political campaign ads. Like other advertising, their content and delivery are typically more directed to our brain’s social/emotional than rational/factual processing systems.

BOOK. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences changed many minds about the nature of intelligence. His intriguing new book, Changing Minds (2004) explores what cognitive scientists have learned about how we change our own and other people’s minds.

Gardner persuasively argues that an important mind change is rarely a sudden phenomenon, but rather typically occurs over time as we weigh the relative significance of seven central cognitive properties that gradually lead us to (or away from) a mind change:

  1. Reason. We rationally identify and analyze the relevant objective elements of the issue.
  2. Research. We systematically gather and compare relevant data. Since most folks have only a functional understanding at best of statistical and qualitative analysis, they’re vulnerable to deliberate distortion.
  3. Resonance. We move beyond objective reason to a subjective consideration of how we feel about the issue (an especially powerful factor in intimate decisions). The power of emotional/social resonance is easily demonstrated in an adolescent’s decision to smoke. Adolescents know all the rational/research arguments against it, but smoking will resonate better with them if their friends smoke.
  4. Representational Redescriptions. We are cognitively capable of using many formats and metaphors to represent issues. This capability allows us to imagine the issue in many settings, and so it enhances the possibility of a mind change.
  5. Resources and Rewards. The presence of funding or powerful support can bias a decision.
  6. Real World Events. Similarly, events such as an accident, illness, or unexpected good fortune can change folks’ minds about many elements in their life. The 9/11 tragedy certainly affected the views of many about terrorism as a national security threat.
  7. Resistances. A mind change often forces us to give up something that may be important. For example, the decision to accept a position in another community could meet powerful resistance if a family has strong ties to their current community.

Gardner uses excellent case studies to show how various successful leaders used an appropriate mix of these elements to effect major political and institutional changes; and how important scientific, artistic, and cultural developments have similarly helped people change their view of the world. Educators will especially appreciate the intriguing way in which he discusses school as an important change agent—in what students come to accept, and in how they develop the requisite skills for changing their mind when it becomes appropriate to do so.

As we mature, we tend to get comfortable with the series of decisions that gradually brought us to where we are. It thus becomes more difficult to change any strong political, religious, and cultural beliefs. Gardner’s book is thus a fascinating useful guide for those who want to know why they made the decisions they’ve made—and how to change their mind if doubts are emerging.

As cognitive neuroscientists continue to seek where and how our brain integrates Gardner’s seven elements, they’ll develop a better understanding of the neurobiology of decision-making and of the possibility of manipulating it through drug and chip interventions.

Marketers and politicians will certainly (and cynically) seek to adapt such new research discoveries to their advantage. Therefore, the rest of us also need to understand this research if we hope to stay one step ahead—and truly make up our own mind.