NeuroPolitical study investigates nonconscious viewer response to Biden’s Joint Session Speech

On Wednesday, April 28th, the night of his 100th day in office, President Joe Biden delivered his first public address before a joint session of Congress. Biden touched on a wide range of issues in addition to the pandemic, urging Republicans to work with Democrats to address gun violence, climate change, police reform and more.

President Biden received high praise from Democrats on social media as the speech began with more than 250,000 posts related to the address and the hashtag #JointAddress began to trend, along with #HelpIsHere and #PresidentialAddress.

It wasn’t just Democrats who tweeted responses to the speech, Republicans also tweeted and called out President Biden for taking all the credit for the vaccine rollout. The hashtag #OperationWarpSpeed also began to trend on Wednesday.

During his speech, a consortium of market research companies (HCD Research, IVP Research Labs, Shimmer Research, and The Schlesinger Group) alongside an academic partner at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication (Washington State University) leveraged neuroscience measurements to gauge the non-conscious responses of Republican and Democrat viewers. Applied consumer neuroscience allows marketers to identify behaviors and nonconscious responses to communications, media, and experiences through a combination of neuroscientific, psychological, and traditional market research methodologies. Viewers are often unwilling or unable to express themselves when directly asked their opinions;, neuroscientific measures, however, offer an opportunity to uncover these unarticulated reactions via passive, unobtrusive measurement of psychophysiological response. As such, applied consumer neuroscience enables marketers to gain a deeper understanding of even the slightest reactions while viewers make decisions and develop opinions. In a time when the United States seems more divided than ever, HCD Research hopes to better understand emotional reactions that participants may struggle to express vocally.

Neuroscience Analysis of Joint Session Address.

“He’s actually going to get something done,” “Very, very hard to stay awake myself” – These were some of the post-address reactions by participating viewers to President Biden’s address to Congress. Despite what viewers said, neuroscientific measures utilized in this study found that, throughout the speech, Republicans illustrated larger, and more sustained overall reactions to President Biden’s address vis-à-vis Democrats. The divided response is very much a reflection of how divided the United States remains, and therefor shouldn’t be surprising that reactions to the speech were drawn along party lines.

“This Biden speech is just so comfortingly normal,” suggested political commentator Aisha C. Mills (@AishaMoodMills), perhaps suggesting why we observed democrat viewer responses as more reserved.

Participating viewers were connected to biometric sensors measuring their psychophysiological response to the statements, demeanor, and stage movements of President Biden. For this study, we employed Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) using Shimmer NeuroLynQ devices. GSR is a biometric signal that is used to study the autonomic (or psychophysiological, neuro-) activation of sweat glands, where increased sweating (from arousal, or excitement) increases skin conductance (as measured by GSR). Live data showed percent response (high and medium arousal) for each viewer group (Republican and Democrat). GSR measured second-by-second changes of autonomic activation, allowing for both Republican and Democrat viewer segments to be watched in real time on HCD’s YouTube live (view the full recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ilV7PU7fcY ).

Researchers analyzed psychophysiological reactions between Republicans and Democrats during pivotal moments and controversial subjects of President Biden’s speech. Neuro-activity reached one of its highest peaks for Republican viewers during Biden’s mention of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Elections and cyberattacks on American government and business. As President Biden stated, “I made it clear to Putin that we are not going to seek escalation, but their actions will have consequences…,” Republican reaction surged, reaching its height when the President mentioned President Putin by name. Democrats, on the other hand, were only moderately reactive during discussion of Russian interference, reaching a moderate peak when President Biden mentioned President Putin by name.

While Republican viewers maintained elevated response levels throughout most of President Biden’s address, Democrat viewer responses were more sparse. President Biden’s discussion regarding progressive immigration ranked among the top in garnering a noteworthy Democrat reaction. When President Biden mentioned that he “Sent a comprehensive immigration bill to the United States Congress,” Democrat activity soared, resulting in one of the highest sustained response levels of the address for Democrat viewers. Conversely, while Republican activity maintained moderately high reaction levels throughout the subject of progressive immigration, the immigration bill itself only gained a slight moderate response by Republican viewers.

One trend that is important to note was the lack of Republican reaction during discussions on racial equality in America. In fact, as President Biden said, “She looked at me, she said, ‘My daddy changed the world,’” Republican response declined to one of the lowest sustained levels of the address for the Republican segment. Democrat activity maintained moderate levels through this section of President Biden’s speech, increasing only when President Biden mentioned, “We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans,” and then nearly flatlining after President Biden stated “The vast majority of men and women wearing the uniform and a badge, serve our communities and they serve them honorably. I know them…”

During the portion of President Biden’s address where he discussed restricting the ability to own or buy specific types of guns, the Democrat response remained moderately elevated, while Republican viewers demonstrated more activity. Republican viewers were particularly reactive when President Biden argued “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,” and when he asserted “One of them [actions being taken to impact the gun violence epidemic] is banning so-called ghost guns.”

While discussing bipartisan relations, both Democrat and Republican viewers exhibited elevated activity levels, correlating similarly in time with each other. Republican and, to a smaller degree, Democrat response levels spiked during President Biden’s dialogue on facilitating bipartisan discussion of the American Jobs Plan. Republican reactions also increased when President Biden claimed that “Doing nothing is not an option.” Republican viewers were particularly reactive to the comparison between the competitive nature of America and other nations. Democrat reactions declined considerably as President Biden mentioned his discussions with President Xi Jinping. There was also a distinct lack of significant reaction from both Democrat and Republican viewers when President Biden spoke about bringing troops home from Afghanistan.

Key Take-Away: “America is on the move again.” 

As President Joe Biden took to the stage to give his first public address before a joint session of Congress, biometric sensors measuring psychophysiological response of Democrat and Republican viewers gave deeper insights into the overall experience. Democrat response peaked during a few key portions of the speech, most namely when President Biden discussed progressive immigration reform; however, this study found Republicans were the most reactive. While Democrat Congresspeople and many media news pundits celebrated Biden’s words, there wasn’t nearly as much reaction from democrat viewers.

Dan Merica (@merica), national political reporter for CNN, wrote, “And there is the Biden line that will be played countless times: ‘Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again.’ #JointAddress”

Learning what topics do or do not elicit reactions gives researchers and political enthusiasts an interesting window into the viewers’ experience and thinking. Understanding and reading these reactions live during a speech or event may provide key insights that would benefit reporters, media pundits, and enthusiasts. Reactions between party lines are clearly very different to this first address to Congress, perhaps reflective of a still very divided nation. Only time will tell how these perceptions may change over the next four years.  

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If you are interested in learning more about this neuropolitical research, please contact Allison Gutkowski (Allison.Gutkowski@hcdi.net).