Photo by David Mark

We Should Care More About Campaign Finance

Science shows that principles are no match for money


“The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens.”

— Timothy Snyder

“I don’t care who [politician’s name] takes money from.”

I saw this comment on a Facebook post recently, and it shocked me. I had to remind myself that not too many years ago, I might have said the same sort of thing. I knew that some politicians are corrupt, but I also believed that for a genuinely principled person, money would have no real effect on their choices.

What changed my mind? Science.

Some years ago, I went through a period of fascination with behavioral economics — which, for those of you who don’t know, is kind of like the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup of the social sciences: “You got your economics in my psychology!” “You got your psychology in my economics!”

One of the books I read then was Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, which has a chapter on ‘conflicts of interest’. He begins by describing a landmark 2010 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, titled “Monetary Favors and Their Influence on Neural Responses and Revealed Preference.” The authors define ‘favor’ as a situation “in which one agent makes a gesture or provides a gift without any explicit expectation of reciprocity.” Like, say … a campaign donation.

The study was constructed like this: First, participants were told that their participation fee (variously $30, $100, or $300) was provided by one of two art galleries.

Next, the participants were shown a series of 60 paintings — each randomly paired with the logo of either the sponsor gallery or the non-sponsor one — while an fMRI machine ran brain scans. Finally, outside the scanner, they were shown the 60 paintings and logos again and asked to rate how much they liked or disliked each piece on a nine-point scale.



Karawynn Long

Queer Autistic disabled reader, writer, researcher of disparate things. Newsletter & journal at