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Linda Bergthold Headshot

The War of the Lizard Brains

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Our politics reward short answers to complicated questions. Those answers satisfy what scientists call the lizard brain, that primitive part of our brain that responds automatically and emotionally and not reflectively. I have been thinking for awhile that Obama needs to give shorter answers to the lizard-type questions. At the Rick Warren forum, McCain gave simple, even simplistic answers to all the questions. Obama, on the other hand, gave thoughtful and sometimes complex answers to most of the questions. He thought he was having a conversation with Warren, but the public did not see it that way. They reacted to McCain with their lizard brain not their listening brain.

There is a new book out called Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The authors write about how people make choices and decisions about their health, their money and their happiness. They talk about the two systems of the brain that people use -- the automatic brain, which harkens back to the more primitive lizard brain, and the reflective more rational part of their brain. They note that voters often react with the automatic lizard response to political choices. They even say "How can people be simultaneously so smart and so dumb?" Why do they act against their own self interest? They do it because they are not thinking with their rational brain, they are making off the cuff, instant judgments about people and policies, often without even realizing that they swallowed the sound bite whole.

Does that mean that we are doomed to listen to political discussions without really thinking rationally about what is going on? That politicians always have to give us short answers so we don't have to think?

Not really. The authors of Nudge note that small interventions can change people's behavior in significant ways without restricting their choice. How would that apply to politics? It might mean that, while most voters by now have made their instant lizard decisions about either Obama or McCain, those choices may not be as fixed as we think. Obama or McCain can change people's minds and change their style by introducing the unexpected into their campaign. McCain did that with Palin. Joe Biden did the unexpected in the primaries when asked a long and complicated question about a prior long and complicated answer he had given. This time he simply said "Yes." And Obama in his acceptance speech gained roaring approval when he shouted, "Enough. Eight is Enough." We got it. We had not heard him shout quite that way before.

Another type of jolt to the lizard brain can be the use of humor. The basis of all humor is really unexpected surprise. So when Olbermann asks Obama to respond to an ugly use of the word uppity, Obama just laughs when we expected anger. Or when McCain tries to reintroduce the term maverick into the campaign, Obama makes fun of it and shows the opposite of what maverick means.

People change their first lizard impressions if their friends nudge them into it as well. There's a lot of information out there about how friends can change friends' behavior. The Obama campaign has built a movement and that movement, so cynically disregarded by Republicans as community organizing, is actually a way to nudge people to change their minds by having thoughtful conversations among family members and friends.. They can change FROM their lizard mind to their thinking and listening mind if their friends encourage them.

The key is -- when you are asked a lizard question, you should give a lizard answer. Questions like Are you an elitist? Is your health plan socialized medicine? Would you rather lose a war than an election? Those questions deserve a lizard answer -- like No, No, and Hell No. But if the question is, How will you change Washington? What should be our strategy for fighting terrorism? What kind of education system do we need? Those questions deserve a non-lizard answer. An answer that is as complex as reality and requires thought.

So when Obama says he trusts the American people to make the right choices, what he is saying is --he trusts them to use their non-lizard brains. In this critical election, can we?