The political brain at work

Through the years, many evangelists have successfully copied the religious conversion techniques of the great 18th Century English evangelist John Wesley. Governments and politicians have also copied and modified these techniques to achieve their own objectives.

Wesley understood how emotions changed beliefs, decisions and behaviour.  Contrary to what some economists and political scientists believe, today’s astute politicians understand that the political brain is really an emotional brain, not a logical analytical brain.

Wesley started his religious meetings by arousing his congregation. It didn’t matter whether the emotions were positive or negative. Once the people were aroused, it was easier to change them.  He claimed that the only people whom he could not convert, or whose beliefs he could not change, were those whom he could not arouse.

Using compelling oratory, Wesley further elevated the arousal level and generated high levels of fear, anxiety, and guilt. At this stage, he told his congregation that they were all sinners and that they would burn in the fires of Hell for their sins. He continued to intensify these emotions and then described in vivid detail what Hell was like. At this stage, the people experienced great fear, anxiety and feelings of entrapment and could not see a way out of their predicament. They were convinced they would go to Hell.

Wesley then delivered his message for change and showed them a way out. He presented them with a different outcome, Heaven, which he described in great detail. He convinced them that if they confessed their sins and accepted the Lord as their Saviour, they would find a place in Heaven. This was an extremely powerful message that the people could not resist; their response was overwhelming.

Against many odds, Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. He tapped into the emotions of the American people, intensified those emotions and then used them to change the thinking, feelings and decisions of a substantial portion of the electorate. He manufactured his own “Hell” by constantly putting down his country, its establishment, military, democratic processes and institutions, and by emphasizing that America had lost its standing and respect in the world and its reputation as a great power. “America no longer knows how to win; it is a loser in just about everything that it does.” Moreover, he warned the people that if they elected Hillary Clinton things would deteriorate further and the country would become trapped in an even worse “Hell”.

He then made his sales pitch in which he promised the people a new America, a new “Heaven”. “Make America great again,” was his slogan and he cleverly painted a vivid picture of what life would be like in the Heaven he would create.  Everyone’s life would improve and America would start winning again. It would win so often that its people would get tired of winning. He even told them that he was the only person who could take them to his promised land; he was in fact their Lord and Saviour.  What did they have to do to get there? Vote for him.

How would politicians run their campaigns if they understood how the minds and brains of voters actually worked? Drew Westen, a psychiatrist and psychologist at Emory University in the USA, has done some enlightening research on how the political brain actually works.  He claims that the political brain is not a logical, analytical, dispassionate brain, nor a calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, issues and policies to make a reasoned decision. The political brain is an emotional brain. When candidates assume that voters dispassionately make decisions solely on “the issues”, they lose.

Westen says that in politics when reason and emotion collide, emotion usually wins. He claims that elections are won in a marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, stories, moral sentiments and moving oratory in which logic plays only a supporting role. When a party has been in power for some time, people’s emotions and feelings toward that party and its leaders often change. “Stay the course” makes little sense to the voter in light of this emotional shift. Staying the course then becomes a prescription for change and possible failure.

Westen explains that in the USA, three things determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the party and its principles; their feelings toward the candidates; and if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.  The unusual 2016 presidential election turned some of these things on their heads.

Good communication skills are the foundation on which electoral success is built. Politicians however, should understand that the effectiveness of their communication is not determined by what they say, or by how they say it, but by what voters hear, see, understand and feel. To stimulate and attract voters, politicians must first get into their heads, hearts and bellies and then motivate them from there. They must also understand that the voter might not see the same things they are seeing. He sees things not as they are, but as he is.

They should first analyze and target their voters – who they are, what benefits they can provide for them, how the voters feel about them, what they know, what they don’t know, what their fears and concerns are, and what they want. They should also learn about the environment in which the voters live and work and understand how they interact with that environment.

Second, they should decide how they want the voters to feel and what they want them to do after hearing their sales pitch. They must guard against making the rhetoric/reality gap too wide.

And third, they should modify their delivery by changing their word choices, their vocal dynamics, their gestures, their movements, their facial expressions depending on how they want the voters to feel and what they want them to do.

To win voters and motivate action, the politician must connect with the voters at an emotional level.

(Dr Rudi V. Webster, a former Barbados ambassador to the United States, is a trained psychologist)

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