Mixed-up emotions


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

– H.P. Lovecraft

Why do people, both as individuals and as groups, constantly act against their best interests, seemingly without logic?

A recent article by Alex Van Gestel caught my eye as it encapsulates many of my thoughts about the nature of emotion and its effect on political decisions. The emotion most frequently at play is of course fear. Van Gestel talks about emotion – specifically fear – as the driving force that swung the Brexit outcome in an unexpected direction.

In a high-stakes political campaign like Brexit, the winning side will be the one that harnesses the emotions of its target audience most effectively. Simply presenting an array of rational arguments, no matter how sensible they are, is not the way to do this. Rationality and emotion don’t mingle well – in fact they’re polar opposites.

In the case of Brexit, the Remain campaign, full of liberals, globalists and intelligentsia – the so-called elite – failed in its mission. It was outsmarted by the blatant emotional pandering of the Leave campaign. We might find it vile when Murdoch’s papers run headlines likening refugees to cockroaches, or when Nigel Farage uses a campaign poster depicting ‘hordes’ of brown men on their way to the UK border. These techniques are distasteful and unfair, but they’re also highly effective. The Leave side won because they sensed the spirit of the times and knew how it related to their target audience. All they had to do was channel emotions through carefully crafted messaging.

People often act against their best interests when emotion overrides reason. Think about all the irrational fears people have, such as fear of flying. All the flight safety statistics in the world won’t make an aviophobe feel comfortable on a plane. The fear emotion is too strong and well-primed.

Never forget that audiences “buy on feelings, not features,” as Van Gestel points out. When creating strategic campaigns for anything, from selling a product to instigating social change, the role of emotion should be kept at the core. To do this, we need to connect with our audience at a deep level to really get to know them and understand what they want. We need to know their fears, their dreams and their darkest desires.

This is where the Remain campaigners, among them some of the world’s best marketers, went wrong. They didn’t understand the concerns of the target audience. If the marketers had understood better, perhaps the Remain campaign could have responded more effectively to allay fears, instead of simply blinding the audience with logical arguments that fell on deaf ears.

The Leave campaign triggered people to vote against their economic interests. Places such as Cornwall, which receives a lot of support from the EU, voted overwhelmingly to leave it. An irrational fear of immigrants, stoked by the mainstream media, trumped people’s rational interests in their economic needs. Emotion cheated them from what was most beneficial.

To heighten the climate of fear still further, the brutal terrorist acts of Isis fed into an irrational reaction towards immigrants that drove the UK towards Brexit. Isis committed much-publicised atrocities in various cities around the world, from Istanbul and Baghdad (which people care about less), to those closer to home, Brussels and Paris, which deeply affected us in the UK.

At the root of this inconsistency is basic human emotion. Istanbul and Baghdad are far away and what happens there does not generally affect us. But bring the terror to our very doorstep and we start to get frightened. This is the perfect time for opportunistic political groups to seize the moment. Once fear is running high they can launch their campaigns for maximum effect. The message will resonate and people will respond, even if it is against all logic, rationality and common sense.

Fear creates a vicious cycle. As society becomes afraid of the ‘other’, it soon becomes more divided and suspicious. Those who don’t fit the mould become objects of fear. In the time of Isis it has meant that Muslims have borne most of the brunt of these fears. From innocent refugees to long-standing British Muslim citizens – the effect of rising Islamophobia has been felt deeply. The resulting hostility only serves to create further divisions. When people are afraid they are less likely to use logic.

Knowledge can quieten the madness of fear. Finding ways to cut through the fog of emotion and allow people to understand the true nature of a situation is key. One way to do this is by appealing to them on a grassroots, human, everyday level.

To explore this further, Fear Interrupted will soon begin publishing a series of interviews with people who are leading independent initiatives to dismantle fear and promote understanding.