Gut Feelings and Political Choice

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on July 2, 2007

Last week I introduced the phenomenon called “loss aversion” that steers people toward maintaining the status quo (even if it is harmful to them). The implications of this status quo bias for progressive efforts to change politics are paramount. The critical component of loss aversion that I would like to elaborate on now is the way unconscious “gut feelings” bias our preferences. The right-wing spin wizard Frank Luntz understands this well when he talks about which words conservatives should use to keep people from caring about the climate crisis:

“The public reacts differently to ‘climate change’ than ‘global warming.’ Global warming is more frightening to the public. Global warming is something that has a long-term consequence to it, whereas climate change, to Americans, is a little bit more benign.”

Unlike Luntz, who uses this information to craft spin messages for the right-wing, the Rockridge Institute seeks to empower progressives with knowledge of how these techniques work so that we are more resistant to being manipulated by them.

Feelings and Reason: Secret Lovers Intertwined

A long-standing idea in Western philosophical thought is that the mind and body are separate entities. Most of us know about this as the mind-body dualism of Rene Descartes, who famously declared “I think, therefore I am.” This idea has tremendous political significance because it tells us that we need to insulate our thinking as much as possible from the harmful influences of emotions, with the understanding that emotions reside in the body while thoughts are the essence of the mind.

Thus empathy is relegated to the status of an idea held by the mind. In truth, and recent empirical research shows this, it is our strong emotional bonds with fellow humans that shape the politics of our communities. Also, as I’ve noted previously, a tremendous body of converging evidence tells us conclusively that the mind is embodied – meaning that our minds work the way they do because of the structures of our bodies and our experiences in the world.

Last week I stated that feelings augment how the brain processes information, playing a critical role in reasoning. This understanding has been thoroughly developed by the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, in his widely influential book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. By studying how people with damage to specific areas of the brain are impacted by their injuries, he has been able to demonstrate the critical role emotions play in reasoning.

How the Body Reasons

It may sound odd to assert that the body is capable of reasoning. Isn’t reasoning the province of the mind, frequently associated with the brain in contemporary thought? As it turns out, the brain is not merely the lump of grey matter in our heads. For ease of analysis, the brain is conceptualized as the central core of the nervous system. But the body is filled with blood vessels and nerves woven seamlessly into the brain, that bring information in the form of electrical bursts (for neurons) and chemical messages (in the blood stream). In a way, this is like having parts of your brain in your fingertips, stomach, and tongue.

The presence of hormones transported by blood, such as adrenaline and seratonin, dramatically alter how the brain functions. Any shift in awareness is accompanied by these messengers that arrive from all areas of the body.

Here is an example Damasio gives of the body reasoning for us in a way that is crucial for our survival (pp. 166-167):

“Consider what happens when we move away briskly to avoid a falling object. There is a situation which calls for prompt action (e.g., falling object); there are options for action (to duck or not) and each has a different consequence. However, in order to select the response, we use neither conscious (explicit) knowledge nor a conscious reasoning strategy.

The requisite knowledge was once conscious, when we first learned that falling objects may hurt us and that avoiding them or stopping them is better than being hit. But experience with such scenarios as we grew up made our brains solidly pair the provoking stimulus with the most advantageous response.

The “strategy” for response selection now consists of activating the strong link between stimulus and response, such that the implementation of the response comes automatically and rapidly, without effort or deliberation, although one can willfully try to preempt it.”

Gut Feelings and Rapid Reasoning

Conscious deliberation is a slow and tedious process. Just think of how long you can weigh the pros and cons of different career paths. This cumbersome approach to decision making would quickly lead to your death in our world that is wrought with dangers (like falling objects) if it was the only way your brain is capable of making decisions.

The body has a remedy for this in the feelings of “goodness” or “badness” associated with different options that arise from past experiences. You only need to touch the hot stove once to learn that it is painful. Merely thinking of touching a scalding hot object will increase tension in your body and discourage you from doing it again. These gut feelings allow you to quickly discard some options while simultaneously honing in on the ones that “feel right.”

The name given to this phenomenon is the affect heuristic. It is active all the time, including when we think of ideas. There are emotion-laden body sensations associated with different concepts. Paul Slovic, director of the Decision Research Institute, likes to demonstrate this by asking people to think of the words “treasure” and “hate” while paying attention to how they feel. There is often a ripple of pleasure associated with “treasure” and a ripple of disgust for “hate.” (To learn more, check out this article: Rational Actors or Rational Fools? Implications of the Affect Heuristic for Behavioral Economics)

Example: Global Warming or Climate Change

Why is it that global warming evokes dread in people while climate change is ‘more benign’? The reason is that affective images (emotion-laden ideas associated with the concept – often visual images, but not always) are associated with global warming. You can see this by answering the following question:

What image pops into your mind when you think of global warming?

For most people, according to Tony Leiserowitz, it is images of melting glaciers, massive drought, or a flooded city. Each of these images evokes feelings of panic or dread. Yet, people have not been conditioned to associate negative images with climate change. This is why Luntz would rather have people use climate change. It doesn’t sound nearly as bad.

Note About Framing:
Remember that a frame is a mental structure that brings information from the lived experience to concepts. This information includes associated body feelings and emotions. Part of the global warming frame is the affective images and negative body feelings.

Gut Feelings and Political Choice

Politics involves people engaged in social interactions. These people are human beings, which means they reason in a manner that involves body feelings and emotions. This is quite different from what most of us have been taught about human reasoning.

It is especially important to note that social reasoning would be impossible without emotions!

Just think of how you might behave at a party if you were unable to feel shame, remorse, anger, happiness, etc. You would have a disastrous lack of perspective on the repercussions of your words and actions.

The same is true of politics, where complex forms of social reasoning play out continuously. When you see a political candidate speak on television, there are many kinds of information influencing your thinking in addition to conscious thoughts. If you are shown an image of a progressive candidate on the news while music plays that conveys stress and foreboding, your body will blend these different kinds of information together. The result being that you are discouraged from feeling good about the candidate.

This information is widely used in marketing. As progressives, we need to all be aware of how it shapes the concepts we use to reason about political ideas. The “death tax” evokes feelings of dread associated with death. The “War on Terror” does the same thing. Keep in mind the fact that people have stronger feelings of avoidance for things that feel bad than they have feelings of attraction to things that feel good (loss aversion). Thus, there is a bias toward being influenced by emotions like fear.

How Should Progressives Use This Knowledge?

Conservatives have been very successful at associating bad feelings with progressive concepts. The tainting of the concept for liberal is a shining example. So is the negative framing of taxation.

What do progressives need to do to change this?

How can we use knowledge of framing and body reasoning to shift political discourse?

How do you see this influencing how you relate to politics?