The Politics of Emotion

In the usual post-election fallout, there have been a huge amount of blogs across the whole political spectrum all discussing how to improve their perceived own party position. There is a common theme amongst most of them which basically boils down to the author suggesting one of two solutions namely:-

A) Change the policy (i.e. to an area that the author supports)
B) Change aspects of or even replace the author’s leader.

Now there are times where this is needed in any party but actually there is a third area often forgotten but well known in the training and psychology field and that is the power of emotion in affecting viewpoints and decision making.

So going back 15 years to my previous time as a trainer, here in one paragraph is a very simple summary:-

When people make decisions, they do so in two ways – emotional thinking and critical thinking. All of us do both to some degree but mainly critical thinkers are those who weigh up the pros and cons of a decision and come to a view based on evidence. Emotional thinkers are very different in that they tend to be instinctive and make decisions on how they feel rather than any facts.

Research is sketchy in this area but as a rough estimate, it is believed that around 20-25% of the population are essentially critical thinkers and the rest to varying degrees are mainly emotional thinkers.

But this is a political blog rather than psychology so how is this relevant to the UK political system? Well let’s take one particular topic – immigration and link to the current rise of UKIP and a general mistrust of politicians.

If we look at national and even local politics and politicians in all parties, they almost entirely come from and therefore talk to people in attempting to address opinion in the style of critical thinkers. You can see this when discussing a topic, they naturally reach for the answer being a practical policy and expect the voters to respond positively to this. Therefore, taking the issue of immigration, if you look at all of the party positions, they actually have a number of pretty similar views namely that they wish to support the concept of immigration, reduce overall net migration, encourage people to become part of their community and support UK residents in getting jobs. The vast majority of the public will not be able to tell you much about any party policy and especially any of the details and yet too much party political energy goes on this.

The problem with this approach is that no matter what the policy may be or indeed the pros and cons of a policy, it will not relate in any way to those in the population who are emotional thinkers. These are the majority of the population who are actually not particularly interested in the facts or even care about aspects such as the rational pros and cons of the European Union. Instead many of these people will take a view on say, immigration, based purely on an emotive or perceptive reason even if it is not based on any fact or reality.

So for example, when people say “There are too many foreigners in the country” – this is misunderstood by politicians who think that the answer is to set an figure or try and use facts or logic as a response. This won’t work for emotive thinkers and is why many in the “political class” are viewed as “out of touch”. What this person is actually seeking is not a number but an emotional response i.e. one which starts by recognising and addresses their emotional well-being rather than coming up with an actual solution.

At this point, “critical thinkers” then start to object because this type of response runs a different sort of risk. So for example, if a voter says, “There are too many foreigners in the country” – an answer of “You’re right and I agree with you” might quickly satisfy the voter on a doorstep but quickly fails under public scrutiny and inconsistent messaging. In the medium term, it doesn’t actually address any problem in a detailed policy setting and nor does it balance wider national and international interests that all governments must take into account.

Therefore, any serious political party needs a balance of both. UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular (along with Alex Salmond in Scotland and Boris Johnson to a lesser degree) are clearly aiming at the emotive thinkers by speaking in emotive ways e.g. “485 million people have the right to live and work in the UK” ignoring the fact that if we left the EU, 60 million UK people have the right to live and work in the much smaller area of Surrey Heath.

The challenge for other parties (and I am only really interested in the Labour side) is therefore nothing to do with policy or leadership but to reach out towards the emotional thinkers. In particular, it means making an emotional argument on some of the difficult subjects that politicians have been prone to avoid as they tend to be emotive.

So as someone who is pro-immigration, political messaging on the doorstep might mean…

– Point out that lots of famous people in the UK were actually born outside the UK (for example Boris Johnson, Cliff Richard, numerous England cricket players and even St.George himself – the patron saint of England – the list is endless) Some trade unions are already working on this strategy.

– Naming local people who are immigrants and invite people to ask what is wrong with them (doctors, businesses, care workers, restaurants) – I tried this recently when canvassing and found one resident initially complaining about immigration actually had very friendly neighbours from Pakistan and they got on really well but hadn’t made the link…

– If you know your football, ask whether they have a favourite football team and if they say Chelsea, ask what they think of Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez for Liverpool, Vincent Company for Man City etc. point out what a good player they are…sporting role models are particularly powerful argument.

– Ask why should British workers be banned from taking the jobs of foreigners abroad as would happen if free movement across the EU was stopped. Point out the huge number of retired Brits living abroad.

– Agree and empathise with whatever you can (for example issues around low pay, housing, crime in area) This can be done without you agreeing that immigrants are the cause of this.

There are many other emotional arguments that could be used and obviously they won’t work for every “emotional thinker”. However, the key is simple political messaging which allows space to highlight the positives and subtly change the dynamics. Will this happen at a national level – we’ll wait and see!

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