Election emotion and the politics of fear

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This is the next contribution to this blog by Associate Bob Bailly, a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

By Bob Bailly

In my first posting, I promised that this blog would investigate how human evolution has impacted the way we do business, why we are the way we are, and why we act and feel the way we do in our personal and business lives. When it comes to evolution, two areas of investigation are of interest: first, the evolution of the human brain as it relates to how we make decisions, and second, how and why we like to live and operate in tribes.

A few weeks ago a Globe and Mail column by Margaret Wente, The Amygdala Election, provided an eloquent discussion of both phenomena visibly on display in the current Canadian federal election.

The idea of believing and following the traditions of a tribe, in this case Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Bloc Quebecois or Green, are worthy of examination (and will be looked at in subsequent posts). But of more interest to this discussion, Wente sugggests that many Canadians have already made their voting decision in their paleomammalian brain – and their thoughts are being bathed in emotion.

She points out that while Canadians believe that their decisions are based upon on reason, “the neuroscientific evidence is overwhelming that we form our opinion first, then find the facts to back them up.” And these quick decisions often, if not always, have an emotional backing that is based upon fear. If detecting fear is simply a manifestation of our how our brains are wired, then politicians are quick to exploit this phenomenom.

David Linden, in his excellent book, The Accidental Mind, gives an eloquent argument for how the human brain has evolved and why. According to Linden, the design of the brain has been limited by three characteristics of its evolution:

1.   During the course of evolution, the brain has never been redesigned from the ground up. It can only add new systems onto exiting ones.

2.   The brain has a very limited capacity for turning off control systems, even when these systems are counterproductive in a given situation.

3.  Neurons, the basic processors of the brain, are slow and unreliable, and have a rather limited signaling range.

Gary Marcus writes of the brain as a Kluge in his book of the same title. A kluge is defined as “a clumsy or inelegant – yet successful – solution to a problem.”

Marcus points out that: “Adequacy, not beauty, is the name of the game.” It is a term much used by computer programmers rushed for time in software development. New programing is incorporated into old software to allow for additional features or applications without going to the effort of redeveloping that old code from the ground up. As long as the new combinations of programming don’t interfere with each other or cause issues, they will be kept. Over time, kluges can become quite complex.

Which explains why the evolution of the human brain is the reason we shouldn’t be too complacent about our decision-making prowess. Optimization is not an inevitable outcome of evolution, our brains are certainly not optimized, and our decisions are not always rational.

Me, myself and I

While humans have one head, that head is actually filled with three brains, each as distinct as our heart, lungs and liver in function. The newest of these brains in evolutionary terms is the cortex, which started to grow in size around three millions years ago and appears linked to bipedal motion. As humans we use this part of the brain for rational, complex thinking.

The cortex is layered on top of an older brain, often referred to as the mammalian brain, so named because we share this particular brain with all other mammals. In evolutionary terms this mid-brain started to become predominant in the geologic record in animals about 40 – 60 million years ago following the great extinction of the dinosaurs. This is the brain of our emotional processing, the place where feelings are formed and considered. It is where we find the amygdala.

The mammalian brain has in turn grown over a much more primitive brain – an old brain estimated to have evolved about 400 million years ago with the dinosaurs that is still prevalent and relevant in the lives of all land-based animals, including reptiles and amphibians.

It’s those giant lizards that give us the clue to the behaviours we share with all invertebrates, and it’s also the brain where most decisions arise. The old brain, or reptilian brain, sits atop the spinal column and is responsible for most of the subconscious functioning of our bodies. This is the brain of survival, controlling everything from our heart and liver to movement. It’s been so good at its role and function that it has remained pretty much intact over its 400 million-year pedigree. Snakes, turtles and crocodiles all share this brain with humans.

The key point of all this is humans are subject to the influence of all three brains, not just the cerebral thinking brain we are so proud of. As a result, human behaviour – and this certainly includes business behaviour – is subject to the intricate workings of our primitively designed brain operating in a new and complex environment. We shouldn’t be too surprised that sometimes our actions defy logic, because much of the time it’s our more emotional and survival brains that are really doing the “thinking” for us. Emotion over reason is more natural than reason over emotion. Which means that at election time, it would seem that our survival brains are simply looking for evidence to support a decision we’ve already made, and we’ll tend to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit our current view.

Or as Globe reader Anne Rowe wrote in a comment on Wente’s column: “Silly me – I thought my deep-seated visceral distrust of Stephen Harper was caused by his blatant abuse of power and incremental erosion of our democratic process and institutions. According to Margaret Wente, my fears and anxiety are rooted in my limbic system and more specifically in my amygdala. Holy smokes, does this mean that, to allay my concerns, all I have to do is locate a surgeon to remove that pesky little amygdala and ‘hey presto’ – Stephen Harper morphs into Lester Pearson! Phew, what a relief!”

Image: www.linuxhaxor.net

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