The Political Brain

The Political Brain - the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation, by Drew Westen.

Westen summarises his main point as follows: Elections are won and lost not primarily on “the issues” but on the values and emotions of the electorate, including the “gut feelings” that summarise much of what voters think and feel about a candidate or party.

Did you know we decide emotionally?

Rational decision making is bounded by heuristics – shortcuts made by our brain. For example, availability bias causes us to overemphasise the importance of ideas that come readily to mind. So when the media repeats a message, our reasoning will be strongly led by those ideas.

Reason augments emotion; it doesn’t replace or overpower it. We have emotional decision-making apparatus in our brain and make most decisions emotionally, only falling back on the additional capacity to reason on occasion. Emotions and feelings influence which arguments receive our conscious reasoned attention, how much time we give them, and whether we seek to confirm or repudiate them. These emotional constraints are overwhelmingly more powerful than cognitive powers.

Politically engaged people – partisans – will tend to strengthen their assumptions when presented with evidence that seems to repudiate their stance, and to rationalise this process in the face of all available evidence. The higher the emotional stakes, the more pronounced the effect.

Emotional decision making goes far further back in our evolutionary story, and some emotional themes resonate particularly strongly because of their evolutionary significance. For example, family, reciprocal altruism and mutual protection are particularly strong emotional hooks.

How to use emotion

To ensure people listen to your message, open with an emotional connection and then link that gut feeling to your reasoned story. It can also be helpful to establish, in between those two steps, emotional dissonance with the opposition.

Rational analysis of policies will only have an impact if the voter is emotionally receptive, for example if they are anxious about the state of the economy, and if the policy influences their emotions, for example by offering reassurance. People response to policy proposals first, and most powerfully, with their gut.

Emotional hooks form networks of associated ideas with strong emotional resonance. They are like Lakoff’s deep frames, and for each person create an underlying network of values and instincts that guide our decision making. You should identify a list of deep frames – wishes and values – to associate with yourself, fears to associate with the opposition or the status quo.

Effective framing must:

·         Map onto the issue convincingly (be cognitively coherent)

·         Be emotionally satisfying (relating to a goal)

When developing a campaign, follow this hierarchy. In other words, if you aren’t addressing the first point don’t even bother to move further down the list.

·         Tell a coherent and emotionally compelling story about what you believe in, your values

·         Maximise positive and minimise negative feelings towards you, especially their gut feelings

·         Maximise positive feelings about your characteristics

·         Maximise positive feelings towards your policies and proposals

A compelling political narrative should have the elements of a story that a child could understand: a protagonist and antagonists, problems and solutions; only a small leaps of the intellect; a clear moral related to your values; be moving and memorable.

It is important to attack and undermine the emotional strength of an opposition narrative, for example re-frame their story with a different underlying moral or emotional resonance.

Never shy away from controversial topics, they arouse people’s passions and while you will always alienate those who are absolutely opposed to your position you will connect to the gut of supporters and people who are undecided.

Polls shouldn’t dictate your basic values and principles, your characteristics or your issue choices. Having picked your signature issues and defined yourself, polls can help hone your language.

If you are afraid of unconscious sentiments, such as prejudices about race or ethnicity, appeal to a strong conscious counter-narrative rather than trying to align yourself with the prejudice. For example, in responding to the BNP’s stance on immigration, address arguments about the cost and availability of housing rather than stirring up more fear about immigration.