Neuromarketing and 21st century politics

by Joe Brewer

One of the greatest threats to democracy in the 21st Century is the profound ability for marketing to influence human behavior. How can we claim that politicians are elected by the people when the foundations of human decision-making are outside conscious awareness? I’ve been reading The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind by A.K. Prandeep and pondering how contemporary brain research is capable of influencing elections and managing public perceptions.

Deep insights into the workings of our brains are being packaged for marketing practitioners in the corporate world, as this video declares in no uncertain terms:

Scanning blogs like Neuroscience Marketing we can see that the latest findings in cognitive science are already being applied to the manipulation of consumer decisions. One article goes so far as to assert that “neuromarketers know you better than you know yourself.” And the author is right. What are the implications of this growing field on the climate debate, media coverage of environmental disasters caused by large corporations, and social movements spawned by billionaires to influence political outcomes?

We are living in a time of great consequences. The monumental threats of human-caused climate disruption, depletion of natural resources, and massive income inequality must be addressed in the next several decades. These are immensely challenging problems that require unprecedented levels of global cooperation to solve. We need political systems that are transparent and accountable, yet the most powerful influencers of global governance — multinational corporations — are as cryptic as ever in their methods. And the inclusion of neuromarketing will only give them greater abilities to mold the world’s citizens into consumers.

When I set out to understand the human mind nearly a decade ago, my hope was that we could bring a more accurate picture of human nature to the institutions of society. Economic systems that reflect the biological, moral, and social dimensions of human interaction. Civic engagement spurred by evoking the deeply held concerns of people in a world of complex threats that are very real. Instead, what I am seeing is a greater encroachment upon the unconscious aspects of human thought and behavior by predatory actors in a planetary competition to colonize the cognitive landscape with their brands.

Neuromarketing is a fundamental threat to democracy in the 21st Century. In what may well be our greatest time of need for legitimate governance, we have in our midst a set of practices so elusive that civil society may be ensnared without knowing it. There being no outward evidence or physical manifestation of the cage holding the public mind.

Will you join me in calling for greater scrutiny of the cognitive aspects of politics? As a practitioner of strategy development informed by cognitive science, I am fully aware of the need for high levels of accountability in this domain of practice. We must protect ourselves against unethical and exploitative operations by those who seek to gain dominion over our minds. At the same time, we must recognize the powerful role of psychology and brain research for comprehending large-scale human behavior in the midst of immense global challenges. This may be a fine line to walk, but there it remains.

Politics in the 21st Century will be dominated by insights into the political brain. The question that remains is whether this knowledge will be our liberation from harm or if it will be the enslavement that seals our doom.

Joe Brewer is Founder and Director of Cognitive Policy Works, a consulting firm that specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

8 replies »

  1. The fun part is the ethical conundrum. Do we use neuroscience to combat neuromarketing? I vote yes, but I’m not sure that’s going to be the consensus view… 🙂

    Thanks, Joe – great post.

  2. Sam,

    Of course we will use insights about the brain to more effectively engage people. The important thing we’ll have to keep in mind is that this ethical conundrum exists. Right now there is manipulative marketing at play. And it is keeping us from promoting the changes in social norms that are necessary to build a sustainable world.

    I employ insights about brain function in my work as an educator and strategic adviser. But I do so with transparency as part of the effort to democratize this knowledge. I wrote this article to stimulate ethical debate about the role of marketing in 21st Century politics and hope that we get a strong discussion going.

    • My first thought is that I wish our culture were sufficiently educated that it could participate fully in its own inoculation. Then again, I tend to track everything back to education…

  3. I disagree that “neuromarketing is the greatest threat,” etc. It just *is* -it exists. I’d argue the threat, and it’s one of our own making, is thinking the old Enlightenment concept of “Rational Discourse” was ever going to or will ever convince anyone of anything.

    The other side has done a good job of making human brain-friendly positions, but we have a couple of advantages, if we also adopt a brain-friendly approach to the progressive message. First, a majority of Americans actually agree with lots of progressive positions. And second, many of the opposition’s positions are inherently inconsistent and some are nonsensical – e.g, denial of evolution, opposition to government as a whole, and their theories about taxation.

    We’ve tried “explaining” this stuff to people, but explaining doesn’t work vs marketing. We now need to move our communications into the 21st century, make them cognitively appealing (I mean in the brain science sense) and start winning the ad wars for the polity.

  4. Nils,

    I agree with you on all counts. Yet the problem remains that neuromarketing techniques are currently being used to (a) turn people into mass consumption machines and (b) spread smears and doubt about real threats while stirring up false perceptions. The issue I am concerned about is ethical… how do we put a stop to harmful applications of marketing in the context of major global challenges that are left unaddressed by consumer culture?

    As for progressives getting on the 21st Century bandwagon, I’m totally with you.