investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Emotions get the vote

In Neuroscience, Previously published on April 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I wrote this piece predicting that Kevin Rudd would win the 2007 election. The argument — that emotion, not rational thinking, rules our decision-making processes — applies equally to the coming federal election. Just swap “government” for “Coalition” in the second sentence.

First published in The Age. To see the original article click here

HERE’S my prediction. The Coalition will lose the next federal election. Not because Labor offers better arguments or more appealing policies. Not because the electorate is impressed by Kevin Rudd’s intellect or wit. Not because “It’s Time” or because John Howard is seen as yesterday’s man. The Coalition will lose because of the way the human brain works.

Backed by research in neuroscience, political psychologists argue that the thought processes behind decision-making — including how we vote at elections — are fundamentally emotional, not rational.

In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen, a clinical, personality and political psychologist at Emory University, Atlanta, writes that because emotions are intertwined with our beliefs and values, purely rational appeals from politicians don’t connect with the brain’s emotional circuitry and so are unlikely to sway us.

Aristotle knew this when he observed that a speaker who resorts to emotion can win over an audience even when his argument is weak; 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was on the same track when he wrote that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around.

Neurological research provides more concrete evidence. Brain imaging of voters shows that while they watch and listen to candidates the emotion centres of the brain light up first, not the frontal lobes, where rationality resides. From this — and a range of other research — psychologists conclude that we make emotion-based decisions that we later rationalise. Interestingly, once that decision has been made, we tend to ignore evidence and argument contrary to our conclusion.

It follows that politicians who present their positions in emotional terms are more likely to succeed. Based on his analysis of 50 years of US presidential campaigns, Westen believes that the conservative side of politics there has long understood the need to tap into voters’ “emotional brain”, whereas those to the left tend to cling to the idea that good argument, facts, and being right is enough.

Al Gore also understands the role of emotion in political discourse. In The Assault on Reason, the former US vice-president writes that “emotions have much more power to affect reason than reason does to affect emotions — particularly the emotion of fear”.

Gore notes that America’s founding fathers were aware of the importance of reason in defending against fear and tried to hard-wire it into the US constitution: “They knew that under the right circumstances, fear can trigger the temptation to surrender freedom to a demagogue promising strength and security in return. They worried that when fear displaces reason, the result is often irrational hatred and division.”

During his 11 years as prime minister, John Howard has often played on the passions, prejudices and anxieties of the electorate to win support. The fear of uncontrolled interest rate rises, political correctness, terrorism, the Opposition’s economic irresponsibility, queue-jumping asylum seekers, boat people supposedly willing to throw their children into the sea, the menace of union bosses, cultural elites and their black armband view of history — all emotional issues Howard and his colleagues have used to keep the electorate on edge and on side.

It helped that the Opposition leaders were for the most part ineffective. Kim Beazley was tarred as a waffler with no ticker; Simon Crean was uninspiring; and Mark Latham appeared erratic and risky. Still, polls show that the electorate often toyed with the idea of supporting the Opposition. Despite this, Howard has been able to push voters’ emotional buttons each time and gain another term.

WorkChoices has broken that cycle.

A briefing paper in April — prepared by the Department of Workplace Relations to inform the Government’s television campaign and featuring Workplace Authority chief Barbara Bennett — found that people believe WorkChoices has hurt working people and their families. It reported the “key emotions” of the community response to the new laws included fear, panic, insecurity, cynicism, distrust and disempowerment.

The two images that have formed in the community’s minds about WorkChoices, the report said, are of a pendulum that has swung too far in favour of employers and of the little guy pitted alone and unprotected against the big corporations and the Government. This response does not come only from “soft” Labor voters.

Polling of Howard-supporting and unaligned “battlers” by Essential Research — which has ACTU connections — shows the same antagonism to the laws.

The ACTU’s emotive anti-WorkChoice ad campaign of mid-2005 helped create this perception. By the time the Government responded, it was too late: the characterisation of WorkChoices as unfair, bad for workers and good for big business was cemented and nothing the Government has said or done — no matter how many facts and figures about increased employment or real wages it attributes to WorkChoices — has changed that impression. Labor’s standing in the polls shot up and has never looked like falling — and this was 18 months before Kevin Rudd became ALP leader.

In the electorate’s mind, Howard and the Coalition are now the thing to be feared and, by presenting himself as the safe, non-threatening, conservative alternative, Rudd will win the election. It’s the emotional side of our brains at work.

To have any chance, the Coalition must make Rudd and his team seem more a threat to the electorate’s interests than WorkChoices. Without scrapping the laws, it is difficult to see how this can be done, which is why we’ll see the mother of all emotive scare campaigns waged against every name on the ALP’s ticket.

It’s also why Labor and the unions will reinforce the electorate’s fears about WorkChoices at every opportunity.

And you can bet neither side will let facts get in the way of a good emotion.

  1. Sometimes we are driven by logic, sometimes emotion and sometimes morality and often all three are in conflict. I’d like to think voting is driven by logic as a logical debate is more interesting than an emotional or moral one, but alas it is not to be. Simplistic name calling and bullying to appeal to emotions and values will always rule our politics.

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