Conventional wisdom for practitioners, now proved by neuro-scientists: campaigns only work if they can trigger emotions
Successful campaigners knew it all along. Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky always had three topics prepared to convince Austrian voters: one for the pocketbook, one for the head, and one for the heart. They are now proven right by the enormous progress made in recent years in the field of neuroscience which shows that the heart ultimately plays a part in all human decision-making.
Contemporary brain research localizes the place where emotional decision-making takes place no longer inside the chest but in brain areas like the limbic system. Just how important these emotional centers of the brain are for our decisions is revealed in a dramatic way in cases where they do not work properly (as a result of an injury or a disease). The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio documents the case of a patient with a normal IQ who was not able to make even simple decisions such as setting an appointment. The process of rational deliberation never came to an end, because at no point he felt This is what I want!. Hence, it can be assumed that also decisions to support a political party or to buy a certain product cannot be made without the ancient emotional parts of our brain.
In his book The Political Brain, Drew Westen mentions another piece of evidence supporting the relevance of emotions for campaign professionals. The subjects in a psychological experiment are quite willing to sacrifice their own benefit for the common good. As soon as a small monetary reward is set, though, many of the participants stop behaving in an altruistic manner. The explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the nucleus accumbens, the reward centre in our brain which probably developed in primeval times to facilitate activities such as picking berries. (Today it is stimulated during gambling or when anticipating new messages in our email-inbox.) The reward centre reacts strongly to financial incentives but seems to submerge the activities of other areas of the brain which let us experience satisfaction when doing something for the community. Therefore, using an additional incentive in a fundraising campaign such as offering bonus miles for each Euro donated will rather harm than help the good cause.
Various other experiments yielded sufficient proof that communication trying to influence the target groups behavior must fail if they do not address our emotional (and often unconscious) areas of the brain. This should once and for all close the debate about the legitimacy of campaigns that appeal to our emotions, a debate that has been particularly popular in political parties seeing themselves in the tradition of the Enlightenment (from the Greens in Europe to the Democrats in the USA). George Lakoff (Think of an Elephant) held up a mirror to the US-Democrats arguing that, other than the Republicans, Democrats failed to speak to the voters unconscious scripts. Those scripts are small narrations and role clichés that influence the way in which we see the world, irrespective of how rational we think we are. Scripts are embedded in larger contexts of meaning, frames. Those who are able to define these frames will usually win the debate.
Lakoffs bestseller The Political Mind was published at the time of the primaries for the US presidential elections 2008. In this book, he called Barack Obama an exception among the Democrats because Obama was able to break an existing frame and to re-frame the debate in a way that he could win. Lakoff should be proven right. Obama and his advisors led an extraordinarily emotional campaign and set a milestone for the Democrats who had far too often focused on rationality exclusively.
It is interesting to note that Obama himself remained relatively cool even during his most intoxicating speeches. This made him an ideal canvas on which his supporters could project their emotions. Obama was an expert in triggering emotions through his rhetoric which was based on a thoughtful strategy and a lot of training. Hence, we see that politicians using emotions for their goals do not need to appear emotional themselves.
But which emotions count in political communication? Ted Brader shows in “Campaigning for Hearts and Minds” that there are two emotional states that matter in advertisement: enthusiasm and fear. Enthusiasm which is connected to a strong we-feeling and to optimism lays the perfect ground for positive messages such as Change we can believe in. On the other hand, the strong effect of fear may explain why in numerous campaigns more money is spent on negative campaigning than on self-promotion. This holds true even for the Obama campaign, at least when looking at TV ads.
Does this mean that we have to proclaim the end of rationality in political advertisement? Sigmund Freud, who opened our eyes to the power of the unconscious, wrote: The voice of the intellect is a soft one but it does not rest until it has made itself heard. The latest research in cognition research does not deny rationality an important role. Our emotional centers closely collaborate with the cognitive areas of the brain, and tedious calculations can over time turn into efficient intuitive decision-making. This is why the Austrian political legend Bruno Kreisky always used to have a head-topic in his pocket, but in combination with a heart-topic. For it is a very risky strategy to hope that reasonable arguments by themselves will in time – make their mark on those decisive emotional regions in the brain.
Christoph Hofinger is managing partner of the Austrian SORA Institute and president of the European Association of Political Consultants (EAPC). The EAPC is hosting its 15th annual conference on May 7 and 8, 2010, in Vienna. The conference focuses on “Emotions in Politics and Campaigning”, with George Lakoff, Drew Westen, Ted Brader, and other renowned speakers as key notes (more information at www.eapc2010.eu).
Article written by Christoph Hofinger and published by politik&kommunikation