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King: Emotions drive our political choices

POSTED: March 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Is change really in the air? Perhaps, but people are fickle. The public may call for change, but individually people keep electing the same candidates, supporting the same party and reciting the same political rhetoric they did before.

Ask the man on the street to comment on Congress. You’ll probably get a tirade about the idiocy and ineffectiveness of that august body. But that same individual will walk into the polling booth and vote for the same member of Congress who represented him in the last election cycle. An incumbent, no matter which party, has an inherent advantage over any challenger.

But change is inevitable. Moreover, change tends to be cyclical, but it never repeats itself exactly, and this is the factor that drives us forward in time.

There’s another force at work: The tendency for each new cycle to be more complex than the last. Institutions that once worked well become more bureaucratic and more encumbered with minutia until the system begins to crack.

This is old stuff and understood by anyone with the least smidgen of insight, but we are all creatures of habit, and habit trumps rationality almost every time.

In his book "Predictably Irrational, The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions" author Dan Ariely says we are irrational because we are human. The things we value most — love, loyalty, faith in the unseen — are not rational.

Recently, my granddaughter and her dad watched some sort of sci-fi video where aliens were turning humans into creatures like themselves, people somewhat like the Spock character on "Star Trek:" calm, completely rational and devoid of human emotion.

The aliens insisted that when emotion was banished, there would be perfect peace and complete happiness. I only saw snippets of the show, but apparently Earth wasn’t buying this.

How about you? Would you trade your emotional life for global peace and domestic harmony?

Dan Ariely is a professor at MIT, and his book is more about economic choices than politics, but Drew Western of Emory University has watched the human brain as it wrestled with political decisions. When there was a strong emotional component involved, the brain behaved differently. Cognitive functions changed and thinking became irrational.

There will be change come November, but what kind and how much? It’s hard to tell by listening to the candidates.

Actually, I like all three front-runners, but for different reasons. John McCain is an honorable man, but he’s conditioned by his training to see things in military rather than diplomatic terms. I see no promise of ending the war in Iraq.

Hillary Clinton is smart, hard-working and well-connected around the world, but she carries too much baggage. Barack Obama is charismatic and has run a remarkably well-organized campaign, but his star could fall as quickly as it has risen.

Any one of the three would probably make a good president. Who wins will depend on a number of intangibles: A chance remark, some sort of international incident, a sharp turn in the stock market in either direction. But above all, it depends on the psychological disposition of the public, the emotional state of the voter when he or she walks into that booth, and this is where we are all vulnerable.

We are vulnerable because we prefer our personal bias to the truth. When a political operative was asked why he lies, he replied, "Because it works."

We are vulnerable because we are fearful. People can always be controlled, said Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command. "It’s easy: Tell them they are being attacked. It works in any country."

We are vulnerable because our personal lives are stressed. We are busy. We are struggling. We haven’t the time for details. Hyperbole and innuendo take the place of critical thinking.

We are vulnerable because we are human. We long for the security of childhood when all our needs were met. Basically we want a strong father figure (sorry Hillary; a strong mother figure) who will lead and protect us.

If you think about it, you’ll realize that all this is well understood by people whose job it is to sell you something. It doesn’t matter whether it’s corn flakes or the next president.

Our job as voters, or consumers, is to see through this appeal to our fears and longings. Until we understand the forces that shape our decisions, we are pawns in the hands of those who would manipulate us for their own ends.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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