APS News

Inside the Beltway

It’s the Emotion, Stupid!


by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

“Enough, already,” Laura whispered in my ear, can’t you see people’s eyes are glazing over.” I have to admit, it shut me up pretty fast.

Later, on the way home from the dinner party, she picked up where she had left off. “Physics, no matter how fascinating you may find it, bores most people to death. It’s not that they can’t understand what you’re saying–you are, after all, a very good teacher. But it’s too cerebral.”

“Too cerebral, what’s so cerebral about the greenhouse gas effect or renewable energy? Al Gore just got the Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar for his movie, Inconvenient Truth,” I replied, perspiration beads of irritability beginning to show on my brow.

“He didn’t win them for science. He won them by scaring the living @&#$ out of his audience,” Laura said, with her usual refreshing bit of vernacular. “People don’t spend their time 24-7 thinking with their brains; they mostly react with their emotions. You physicists just don’t get it.”

She had it right, at least if you believe the results of recent neuro-psychological brain-scan experiments–which ironically have used the tools physicists helped to create. And it pretty much explains why science rarely gets even a nanosecond’s worth of attention during any political campaign, the 2008 marathon thus far fitting neatly into the customary mold.

As Drew Westen, a well-known Emory University psychologist, notes in his recent book, The Political Brain–The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation (Public Affairs Books, New York, 2007), Republican guru Karl Rove had it figured out perfectly, years ago, well before brain-scan technology gave the principle any scientific gravitas: If you want to win elections, appeal to the strongest human emotions, fear and love.

It’s no accident that George W. Bush used terrorism as the winning strategy in the 2004 election or that his father used the Willie Horton ad to destroy Michael Dukakis in 1988. Or that two decades earlier, Lyndon Johnson ever so briefly used the granddaddy of fear-mongering negative ads–a mushroom cloud over a field of daisies–to torpedo Barry Goldwater’s White House campaign ship in 1964.

The flip-side of fear, love, also works wonders. Bill Clinton “felt everybody’s pain” in 1992 and, despite being tainted by more than whiffs of scandalous sexual adventures and comparative inexperience on the national stage, he eased his way into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And in 1984 Ronald Reagan made everyone feel warm, and cozy with his campaign theme, “It’s Morning in America!” and, despite a faltering economy, he cruised to a second White House term.

Westen, whose treatise has made it onto the “hot” reading list for anyone on the 2008 campaign trail, notes that you can’t reach people intellectually until you engage them emotionally. A campaign (Gore in 2000 or Kerry 2004) based solely on ideas is a loser. Put an emotional wrapper around those ideas, though, and it can be a winner.

Hillary Clinton has opened up a significant lead on her Democratic presidential primary opponents, and she connects well with people one-on-one, as I can personally testify. But she has difficulty creating an emotional bond with voters in larger settings. That, analysts say, could pose problems for her in the general election, where the opportunity for personal contact all but vanishes.

But former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuilani, whom many pundits had written off as far too socially liberal to have a decent shot at the Republican nomination, has used the 9-11 fear-factor to seize the front position in a crowded GOP field of wannabes. The emotional connection he has successfully forged with a sizable slice of voters, combined with Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable rating–46 percent in recent polling–probably explains why he is in a statistical dead heat with her in early national polling.

November 4, 2008, is still a far way off, and the election dynamics will take many unexpected turns, but if Westen is correct, the next occupant of the White House will likely be the person who most effectively taps into the emotions of the American voter. Competence will count heavily, as well, but policy specifics, that have no emotional context, no matter the clarity of the communication, will have little to do with the outcome.

Physicists may cringe at such a prediction. Good, unbiased science, after all, must be free from emotional content.

But nowhere is it written that effective communication of science should not tap into the emotion of the listener. In fact, Westen’s studies suggest it must. Whether the audience is policy makers, elected officials, the general public, or students in the classroom, establishing an emotional connection is an essential precursor to communicating serious information. Lighting up the amygdala gets the rest of the human brain to pay attention.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff