Politics on the Brain

Now that the great Washington horse race is over — along with the barrage of political advertising, debates, political news and pundit shows — I would like to make some observations regarding the political ads and communications tactics as they pertain to how the human mind processes media content.

First, I invite you to step outside all the noise that was associated with the political campaign season and perhaps even your own ideology to look at the phenomenon of political communication through a different lens.  A lens that those of us in the business of researching and developing “communications” can use to take a hard look at our work in an effort  to more effectively serve our clients and their target audience.

In my opinion, there is no other realm of communication that illustrates the complex and dynamic nature of human communication like the content and conversations that surround political campaigns. The complex and dynamic nature of communication is particularly important to content managers and researchers because that is what underlies ALL desired effects of media content.

In order to maximize the value of research dollars, communication professionals must work with a  research vendor that is staffed with intelligent researchers who grasp the complex, dynamic nature of human communication and interaction with media content, and can apply that knowledge through every stage of the research process. So let’s take a look at political media content and how it brings out the complex and dynamic nature of human communication.

To appreciate political communication in this way — as opposed to getting annoyed by yet another political ad and the pundits you love to hate — you need to grasp a few fundamental facts about how media scientists view “media use” and “audience.” The complexity of the “audience” and “media” interaction is what really excites scientists like me and has huge implications for the work of all communication professionals, whether you are leading the research and strategy for a presidential campaign or the new messaging for a brand of toothpaste.

Media scientists — the community of scholars engaged in advancing knowledge of how individuals process and are effected by media  — now view this phenomenon as an ongoing across time, dynamic interaction between  the embodied mind of an individual and the media the individual is exposed to.  To truly comprehend this at a level where you can begin to conduct valid and useful research, you must have a thorough understanding of “embodied mind” and “media use.”

The embodied mind is viewed as an active, motivated, limited capacity, dynamic information processor.  In other words, the first job of the mind is to evaluate all incoming sensory information, including media content, for motivational significance and mobilize limited cognitive resources to process the information and respond. In doing so, independent motivational systems associated with threat and reward, which all of us are biologically equipped with, are activated and ultimately shape our responses.

Throughout the process, we have the ability to integrate past experiences and existing attitudes, along with our imagined future and real-time mental processing of media content in order to form new memories and attitudes and behaviorally respond to the messages. The ability to integrate new information that we are exposed to through media content, with elements from our past experiences, and our expectations of the future in a NON-linear fashion is what makes us “dynamic” non-linear information processors.  “Media use” is defined by media scientists as simply an ongoing across time dynamic interaction between media content and the embodied mind.

So, how does political media content put the complex, dynamic nature of human communication and information processing on full display? I would argue that the nature of political content, particularly in a highly partisan political environment, engages the dynamic nature of our embodied minds to a higher degree than most, if not all other forms of media content. For example, one property of our motivational /emotional response system in the embodied mind is that notions of “pleasantness” and “unpleasantness” exist as independent dimensions of emotional response meaning that the same stimulus can evoke a wide array of negative and positive responses. This is what media scientists now call “co-active” emotional responding.

I would also argue that political media content in any form (ads, news and editorials) elicits a wide variety of positive and negative emotional responses and, in my opinion, political strategists have become masters at eliciting these responses. Furthermore, few communication contexts so explicitly engage pre-existing attitudes — even among the politically apathetic, which itself is a political attitude – and our expectations for the future in processing and responding to media content.

Media effects scholars have identified what they call the “hostile media effect” where individuals holding diametrically opposed ideologies perceive the exact same political news story as biased against their position.  The only way this is possible is by having pre-existing attitudes and memories exert an extremely powerful influence on how new information is represented in memory and responded to.  These are only two examples of how mental processing of political media content places the complex, dynamic nature of our embodied mind on display.  My academic colleagues working in this area are continuing to reveal even more complex nuances into how our minds process political communication.

Now what does this say about how communication research and strategy professionals ought to look at their work?  Well, to state the obvious, whether the media content is a presidential campaign or a toothpaste commercial, the best way to design the most effective strategy and effective messages is to realize that the processes I described above are going to unfold in varying degrees as your target audience processes and responds to YOUR messages.

Despite the high interest in biometrics and neuromarketing – which introduce tools for measuring mental processes in real time – most of the communication industry remains mired in a traditional static “effects” view of how audiences process and respond to content.  This approach is focused on measuring outcomes of exposure to media content rather than dynamic mental processes underlying the desired effects of media content.  As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, this approach can only supply shallow “yes or no” answers as to whether messages appear to have the desired effects and cannot provide explanations of WHY messages succeed or fail at having the desired effects on the target.

Many industry applications of biometric or neuromarketing techniques fall into this shallow approach by focusing simply on correlations between physiological measures of brain activity and message effectiveness. This approach is completely misguided as it is unlikely to achieve the predictive value the marketing industry so desires because it ignores the dynamic, complex nature of the embodied mind –the processor of media content — as well as media use.

As we have all recently experienced, political media content can easily become tiresome and annoying, and may have caused many of us to count the days until the election was finally over.  However, I hope in this blog I’ve introduced you to a different way of looking at political content.  One that is focused on using it to gain new insight and respect for how the amazing human mind processes media, and how that knowledge might help you in your professional work.