My Amygdala Made Me Vote for McCain/Obama

There is an old British saying, “a bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush.” Using this metaphor, John McCain is the known quantity (bird in the hand) and Barack Obama is relatively unknown (two in the bush). McCain has been in the public eye for over 35 years. The sheer number of years he has been in public service provides some comfort and familiarity to many. On the other side, Obama is very intelligent, calm under pressure, and seems very welcoming. However, he is new to the national scene. How will we decide who to vote for? This decision may already have been subconsciously made. It is now only a matter of consciously rationalizing the decision.

In the book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen explores the mind of voters and comes to the conclusion that, rather than issues, emotions will more than likely determine the next president. The republicans have been able to parlay emotional subjects such as guns, abortion, race, and taxes into astounding presidential wins. In fact, the only democratic president reelected to office since Franklin Roosevelt is Bill Clinton. It would seem that electing our president is more an emotional process than a deliberative one.

MRIThe amygdala, a one inch almond shaped structure, located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, is part of the limbic system. This system is important for basic functions, including the expression of emotions, aggression, and sexual response. The amygdala has been linked to an individual’s mental and emotional being and can influence behavior. Using animal models, early studies by H. Kluver and P.C. Bucy showed that lesions in the amygdala can affect behavior. Some neuroscientists explain that the amygdala is actually a highly evolved sensory organ that receives an enormous amount of stimulation or information from the environment and then interprets it. This interpretation consequently guides our behavior. Researchers at the University of California, Davis have demonstrated that lesions in the amygdala can result in the absence of fear. Adult monkeys whose amygdalae were selectively blunted showed less caution and decreased fear when confronted with anxiety provoking situations.

With the economic turmoil in the marketplace, two simultaneous wars in the Mid-East, housing instability, and the credit crunch, for some, the fear has reached fever pitch. Senator McCain might represent less ambiguity and a more reassuring vote. For others, the faltering economy and its consequences for their family evokes so much anxiety and fear that it has become their most pressing concern. Many of these voters may be willing to forgo relative stability and take a chance on the newcomer’s ideas.

As many political pundits say, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” Maybe what they should really say is, “As the amygdala goes, so goes the vote.”

Further Reading

Westen D. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. New York: PublicAffairs; 2007.


Dr. RD is a medical doctor with experience in clinical research. An author and co-author of publications in peer-reviewed medical journals, her passion is educating patients, and she feels this is one of the most effective ways for disease prevention. She enjoys keeping abreast of the latest studies and events around the world that directly or indirectly impacts the medical field.
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