Macron versus Le Pen: What science teaches us about our brain in the face of debate between rounds

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 debate.

Atlantico: While the roundtable debate is taking place this Wednesday, how does our brain react to a political debate? And what is the fruitfulness of this analysis?

Lou Safra: Taking an interest in how our brains react is interesting to understand the determinants of political choices and shed new light on new hypotheses about the reasons for voting or the change of election. What is shown in the cognitive sciences are the general mechanisms: the effect of certain contexts, such as the context of war, for example. This allows us to understand quite fundamental psychological mechanisms. This is all the more interesting as these data from cognitive science, the importance of appearance, and so on. these are things known to political communicators. We don’t give them tools for candidates, but we do produce tools to understand why individuals will move toward a certain type of leader and why reactions are different depending on the individual. What may be interesting is to use the cognitive sciences to understand the strategy of the candidates, as the candidates will seek to appear more dominant, more competent, depending on the context. This also makes it possible to analyze the reception of the debate by the recipients. In part we can explain why different political affiliations will perceive the debate differently or why certain positions or positions will be perceived favorably by some and unfavorably by others.

Precisely what characteristics can we be sensitive to according to our political sensibilities?

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The studies have been conducted mainly in the United States. The transfer to the French right-left axis is not perfect, but it helps to understand the general trend. They have shown that in a context of threat, of war, individuals will tend to prefer leaders who seem more dominant, more masculine, stronger, even higher. In these contexts, a priori we will have a specific attraction towards someone who, during a particular debate, asserts his or her dominance “independently” of strictly speaking political competition. What matters is not so much the objective situation as the perceived situation. For the Ukrainian war, there are big differences in the perception of the threat, which in turn will have a different impact on political choices. This was already true with the health crisis.

It has also been shown in the United States that Republicans have a preference for leaders who seem more dominant and more masculine, and vice versa than Democrats. Thus, showing certain characteristics may please one electorate but dislike another.

To what extent are our choices the result of confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias means that when we believe in something, we become more sensitive to what our theory confirms. The way we receive information will be skewed by what we think a priori. The way we perceive the candidates will be influenced by the signals they will send but also by ours a priori about this candidate. If I have a positive bias about a candidate and think that dominance is an important feature, I will be more sensitive to indications that lead me to believe that the candidate is truly dominant. If, on the other hand, I have an a priori negative about a candidate, I will be more sensitive to the clues that tend to confirm this negative image.

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In addition, our perception will also be influenced by our social circle. If we know that favoring one candidate over another will be right or wrong, we will be tempted to comply. Whether it’s a normative compliance, say something regardless of your thinking to conform to the group.

But we can also be informed: if everyone around me says that a candidate has been better, I will integrate the information to “update” my beliefs. This update is not neutral because it will depend on the trust of those who judge me. If they are relatives of mine, we can have relative confidence if we consider that their political competence is not zero. If they are journalists, it all depends on how much they trust the media. All this allows us to analyze in detail what is being built during and after the debate.

What biases, cognitive processes and neuropolitical analyzes should we pay attention to if we want to look at the Macron / Le Pen debate with all the necessary distance and be “armed”?

Confirmation bias is obviously important. The other thing to remember is that a debate is a theater scene. One issue we study is precisely to what extent we can change our social perceptions when we know that the context is completely artificial and that discourse and emotions are calculated. Therefore, it should be noted that the signals sent are calculated. And the interpretation has to take that into account.

What makes one candidate more convinced than another after an hour and a half of debate?

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Several things come into play. First impressions come into play: Does the person have the characteristics I would look for in a leader? This goes through a set of indexes. Superficial clues such as voice, gestures, appearance, make-up, but also in speech, more or less forceful words, a position of commitment or not, etc. Everything is fully staged. There is an intuitive but also theorized knowledge of the consequences of each choice. Therefore, the lower voice is interpreted as one more sign of dominance, for example. This will be integrated with everything that is known about the candidate before the debate. The discussion is additional information. So it will reinforce or nuance an image, not create it.

Do we know if one type of speech penetrates more than another, depending on the types of voters? A kind of record (pessimistic, optimistic, etc.)?

In the mechanisms of influence, we know that the more confident a person seems to be, the more he will be perceived as competent. And usually the more it is perceived as competent, the more we can vote for it. This has been studied both in the laboratory and in everyday life, but in the context of political discourse it can be a bit biased. Because a politician can seem very confident without being competent.

We know that angry individuals are perceived as more dominant, those who are happier are perceived as more affiliated, more reliable. A sincere smile, with narrowed eyes, will be taken rather as an indication that the interlocutor has positive intentions. All this plays with the perception of the candidate. The emotional intensity of the speech will also make you remember more or less. Another branch of research found that certain emotions were more representative of a particular political tendency. Therefore, a couple of emotions can have an impact.

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How good is convincing us and changing our minds?

This is not part of my field of study, because I work in more theoretical contexts with unknown candidates. In real life, candidates are known and we have a relatively rigid, but not fixed, idea of ​​them. However, we can assume that someone hesitant can be persuaded during the debate, if he does not have a too strong a priori about the candidates.

Does politics as an issue have an impact on the brain? Does it stimulate something specific?

This is a real issue and is still being debated. I am of the opinion that politics is a manifestation of our social behavior which will be influenced by a number of factors (historical, social, etc.). We can explain the differences between individuals by low-level psychological differences: differences in reasoning, perception. One hypothesis is, for example, that conservatives perceive threats more intensely than others. In short, these are profound psychological differences that can be manifested in political differences.

Should we then consider a candidate to be good or bad only subjectively?

This is what studies tend to show that yes, the characteristics sought are quite subjective. But at the same time, someone who didn’t seem at all confident would probably be perceived as incompetent. Therefore, a candidate can be “objectively” bad, but above all subjectively.

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