We humans are emotional beings. It makes us all the more interesting. Most of the best things in life are emotional (and irrational) after all – from romantic love to supporting a sports team. These things do not make sense when considered in a reasoned way, but they are what drive our passions and thus they are the basis of our art, our music and our culture.
Psychologically some would suggest we human beings fall broadly into one of two categories – fast-mode or slow-mode thinker.
This brings us not to Brexit (though it very well could), but to a recent leaflet sent around the Botanic DEA of Belfast by one of the DUP candidates for the forthcoming local election.
To me and to almost anyone in my social circle, this leaflet is clearly appalling. However, almost everyone in my social circle is a “slow-mode” thinker when it comes to such things.
To a “fast-mode” thinker when it comes to politics, on the other hand, that leaflet is so appalling as to be likely to work. After all, a “fast-mode” thinker might say, are we seriously suggesting local homes shouldn’t go to local people? That we shouldn’t control immigration? That there shouldn’t be more funding for Loyalist areas in need?
The fast, automatic, unconscious response to such a leaflet is in fact to agree with it instinctively. From any sort of Unionist viewpoint, make any of the proposals negative and they are clearly wrong. This is why groups whose governmental record is atrocious but whose electoral record is good resort to such leaflets at election time – they draw the fast, automatic, unconscious response to agree, and thus they win support and votes (enabling them to continue to make a mess in government but get away with it electorally).
From a slow-mode thinker’s point of view, such a leaflet is extraordinarily difficult to counter, for two prime reasons. Firstly, those of us who engage with politics (and thus in “slow-mode” thought around political issues) and thus make the effort to consider the complexities of such things can see the appalling reality of what such a leaflet is trying to achieve – just a little reflection on it has us recognising that segregating society into “in-groups” and “out-groups” (and setting one against the other for apparently finite resources), exactly as that leaflet intends, rarely has happy consequences. Secondly, and worse still, we arrive at that conclusion so quickly (given our experience as “slow-mode” thinkers in politics) that we simply cannot comprehend how anyone else would not arrive at it. What a “slow-mode” thinker sees as obvious, a “fast-mode” thinker simply does not see at all – and vice-versa.
Ultimately, most people are too busy to spend vast amounts of time thinking about politics. That is for others to do (hence they often disparage “politicians” as a group, despite being responsible for electing them – politicians are supposed to be trusted to get on with their job while the res tof us get on with ours). This is a fundamental division which populists are brilliant at exploiting. They play to pre-conceptions (and worse) to deliver emotional appeals to “fast-mode” thinking which, without pause for consideration, seem obvious and incontrovertible. Slogans such as “Take back control” or “Make America Great Again” are perfect for this, appealing additionally to a sense of loss and an instinctive desire to put things right without really having to spend time thinking about the hows and whys.
“Liberals”, often academics or professionals who spend longer comtemplating government and politics, have not even yet worked out what is happening as they simply cannot comprehend the appeal of electoral slogans and promises which, to “slow-mode” thinking, are so obviously wrong. Furthermore, they also find it harder to deliver the same sort of unity the populists seem (initially at least) able to rely on. As “slow-mode” thinkers with regard to politics, these Liberals fall out with each other over details (last year the British Liberal Democrats even managed to lose one of their 12 remaining MPs over their European policy, previously their most defining and unifying policy area) and thus end up arguing with each other over minor side points. They have no influence over these minor side points anyway because, as political “slow-mode” thinkers, they cannot fathom the electoral appeal of cases made to “fast-mode” thinkers and thus keep losing elections.
I myself have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is, or I would long ago have shared it! What I do know is that political “slow-mode” thinkers have to get cuter than simply pointing to appalling leaflets and assuming that what is obvious to them will be obvious to everyone. My own suspicion is that “Liberals” will have to become less relentlessly negative, particularly apparently about those who engage in “fast-mode” thinking politically, and instead make appeals to them through more positive messaging on the key issues. For example, instead of pointing out how appalling an anti-immigration message is, they should attempt to sell immigration as a good thing; instead of pointing to the blatant sectarianism of prioritising only “Loyalist” areas in need, make the case for a deal for all areas in need and that they can achieve far more by working together rather than apart. Ultimately the task is to change the instinctive immediate response on issues such as immigration and sectarianism so those who have no time for political “slow-mode” thinking nevertheless share the instincts of those who have.
In short, “Liberals” too need to come to terms with the fact we are not primarily rational, but rather emotional animals. After all, that is what unites us and we are all the more interesting for it…
Updated slightly after a correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, linked to Kahneman hypothesis of “fast” versus “slow”; I am no psychologist but it is worth noting Kahneman’s early research was on “loss aversion” also referenced above as a key electoral driver, and that he also wrote extensively on the “illusion of control” (hence the success of the slogan).