08. Neuroscience

Can New Information Sway Your Vote?

November 7, 2016

Without a doubt, the electoral race this year has been action-packed. With new accusations always emerging from both sides, it’s difficult to keep track of who did or said what. Nevertheless, newspapers and TV newscasts appear to be biased in one way more than any other: they focus on what is new. From Trump’s “locker room talk” scandal to Clinton coming under fire for her emails as Secretary of State, you’d think that nothing matters more than newness in this election.

Short Attention Span

At their best, commentators offer context and perspective about the news so that the newest information is synthesized with what is already known. Citizens are then able to draw more circumspect and sensible conclusions. With the election only a day away, this role will be especially vital. The public and its news media seem to have short attention spans. But letting the latest news cycles determine the U.S.A.’s future leader, does not appear to be the best idea.

Researchers have reported that many Americans may have chosen their preferred candidate months ago based on political platforms or core issues. As the election cycle has continued, however, voters have been presented with new information. Consequently, this new information has influenced some to change their perspectives on the candidates and, potentially, their votes. But, why does new information influence a person to change their mind?

New Information Influences Decisions

Well, scientists at The University of Texas at Austin can now map what happens neurologically when new information influences a person to change his or her mind. It’s a finding that offers more insight into the mechanics of learning. In the study, the researchers employed brain decoding techniques that allow deeper insight into the knowledge people have available to make decisions. They were able to measure when a person’s knowledge changes to reflect new goals or opinions.

According to researchers, the process involves two components of the brain. These components work together to update and “bias” conceptual knowledge with new information to form new ideas. The study’s lead author, Michael Mack, explained: “How we reconcile that new information with our prior knowledge is the essence of learning. And, understanding how that process happens in the brain is the key to solving the puzzle of why learning sometimes fails and how to put learning back on track.”

Selective Attention and Information Classification

In the study, researchers monitored neural activity while participants learned to classify a group of images in two different ways. First, the participants had to determine how the images were similar to each other based on similar features. Once the images were grouped together, the participants then had to switch to other features within the images. They then had to group them based on these similarities instead.

Rapidly updating visual representations is a process that occurs in the hippocampus (HPC). It’s located near the center of the brain and is responsible for recording experiences or episodic memory. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the front part of the brain, orchestrates thoughts and actions. In the study, it served to tune in selective attention to relevant features and compare that information with the existing conceptual knowledge in the HPC.

As a result, it updates the organization of the items based on the new relevant features. So, items that were once conceptually similar, may become very different. And, features that were once relevant, become irrelevant.

Whether you’ve been completely loyal to one candidate in this election, or new information has swayed your vote, tomorrow promises to be quite the race. Will you be on the edge of your seat?

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