27 September 2008

Why do politicians try to lower expectations before debates?

Well before the presidential candidates took the stage yesterday evening, both of their campaigns worked hard (see articles here and here) to lower expectations for their performance. [Intentionally or not, Sarah Palin has done a masterful job of lowering, some might say demolishing, expectations for her performance, especially in her interview with Katie Couric.] It is a well-established tactic that now has strong support in fundmental findings from leading edge research in neuroscience.

For over 50 years, neurobiologists have been intensively studying an important network of neurons that use the neurotransmitter dopamine. A great deal of data suggests that these neurons are part of a system in the brain that encodes reward: drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine exert their addictive effects in part by increasing the duration of dopamine action in the brain, and, even more remarkably, rats will repeatedly press a lever to get a tiny jolt of electricity that activates dopamine pathways, even foregoing food and sex in favor of such self-stimulation.

The field was revolutionized by a series experiments carried out by Wolfram Schultz and his colleagues who showed that dopamine neurons don't respond to rewarding stimuli unconditionally, but rather do so in relation to expectations. The basic behavior of a dopamine neuron is to fire at a slow, steady rate; that is what is happening in your brain right now. If an animal is not expecting a reward (let's say a squirt of fruit juice) and it arrives, their dopamine neurons start firing like crazy, and their brains interpret this as rewarding. If the animal is already expecting the fruit juice when it arrives, nothing much changes; the dopamine neurons continue their boring, steady firing. The inescapable conclusion is that dopamine neurons do not encode reward per se - the fruit juice is the same in both cases - but rather compare expectation with outcome. And when we are pleasantly surprised, the burst of dopamine tells our brains that something wonderful has happened and we experience delight.

You can see this in everyday life as well. Imagine you come home from work one day and for no particular reason your partner has prepared a wonderful meal, there are flowers on the table and two glasses of wine sitting on the counter. A feeling of pleasant surprise washes over you and the evening is a success. Now imagine that this is the scene that awaits you every day; in short order you find it pleasant enough but its sheer predictability substantially reduces that feeling of delight.

By lowering expectations before the debates, political campaigns are really manipulating our brains in a fundamental way, priming our dopamine neurons to fire in a burst when the candidate performs reasonably well. Why should we care? What we really want to know is not how someone performs compared to our expectations but how they perform in some sort of absolute sense. The inherent wiring of our brains makes this a challenge, and lowering expectations makes it even more difficult.

The Vice-Presidential debate is scheduled for Thursday. Barring some dramatic change such as Sarah Palin withdrawing from the campaign this week, think about the role of your dopamine neurons in your perception of the outcome and try to evaluate her performance objectively rather than in relation to how (poorly) everyone expects her to perform. And if the pundits say she did better than expected, tell them that their dopamine neurons are modifying reality.

Really.

Cross posted to Open Salon