The worm works

The ‘worm’ is to return to the NZ election campaign this year, giving insight to reactions as people hear from politicians.

The technique shows voter reactions to political messages as a graphical line wriggling on a positive to negative axis.

It is derided by people who think they arrived at their own prejudices after long intellectual consideration, and don’t appreciate the suggestion that people process information instantly. 

The worm is fascinating because it reveals the ‘success’ of a political message as the audience receives it. This is the point at which all of us measure a message for its relevance to us, its usefulness, and the extent to which is confirms or confounds patterns of experience, or our existing bias and outlook on life.

This is the point at which a message is measured by the brain for rejection or storage. Strong positive or negative reactions also indicate an emotional response to the message, ensuring it is retained. Mild responses indicate assent or rejection, but without much chance of retention.

Political messages ought to be measured as they are received – because that is when people decide what to do with them.

Opponents of the worm make the mistake of thinking this reaction is shallow. But humans are better scientists that most pundits credit. Chemical-electric signals race around the brain at around 358 meters per second processing incoming information against the existing database. Within this time, the brain is arriving at decisions based not just on neurological processing, but psychological processing as well. That is, not just fact-based, but emotionally-based.

The decision-making is sub-conscious, but we are conscious of the results; thus we cheer or jeer at the politician or their message. The worm effectively measures that conscious expression.

There is much more to our scientific processing of information than this instant reaction. We constantly test our hypothesis about people and life and it evolves. But the worm never claims to measure this, and ignoring it out of misguided intellectual snobbery means you miss the most important moments in voters’ decision making. 

Being aware of an experiment effects the result, so participants are likely to over-react (and mechanisms for measuring can lead to bias). So I discount the highs and lows of the worm by about 25%. But the trend is still present, observable and valuable.

Pundits can dismiss instant reaction measurements if they like, but politicians do so at their peril: because getting past voters’ first millisecond processing barrier is the key to success.

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