Sunday, February 17, 2008

Americans trust their guts not only when picking a perfect burger and fries but also when selecting a political candidate.

“Particularly in this election. It’s almost all gut-level,” says Susan Tolchin, professor of public policy at George Mason University. One of her areas of expertise is voting trends.

“In a primary, where two candidates are so similar — even I might not be able to tell you substantial differences between Obama and Clinton, and I follow this quite closely — we trust our instincts,” says Ms. Tolchin, who has been teaching public policy since the early 1960s. “And why not? Some of the best decisions we make are gut-level decisions.”

One sign that emotions are of utmost importance in this election season, she says, is that outcomes have been so difficult to predict on both the Republican and Democratic side.

“Pollsters have been wrong so much during this election, it’s the only way to explain it,” she says.

In election studies over the past four decades, it has been shown that after party affiliation (“My family and I have always voted Republican, so I will continue to do so”) voters tend to rate emotion as the second-most-important factor in their hierarchy of voting decisions.

“People will pick the person who inspires them,” says Drew Westen, author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” and professor of psychology at Emory University. “Or they may pick someone based on worry or fear.”

As in “I’m picking the candidate who makes me feel safe in this unsafe world” or, if you’re a Republican, “I’m picking the candidate who will ensure that we don’t lose our gains on the judicial-appointment side.”

Picking a candidate based on emotion means choosing while leaning heavily on intuition and instinct rather than basing decisions on the dissection and analysis of every aspect of a candidate’s platform — or, as it turns out, every aspect of jam, says Mr. Westen, offering the following on a survey of various jams:

During a taste test, people were asked to pick a favorite jam using two different criteria. One group simply was asked, “Which do you like best?” without having to qualify why. The other was asked first to rate several different qualities, such as texture and sweetness, before picking their overall favorite.

As it turned out, the first group (the one asked to pick a favorite without qualifying why) picked the jam that also was rated the highest by Consumer Reports’ panel of experts. The second group (the one asked to pick a favorite only after analyzing different attributes) picked one not favored by Consumer Reports.

“It says something about gut-level choices,” Mr. Westen says. “They’re important.”

But let’s move on from gut-level decisions and their implications on jam choices. … So, hope or fear? Which is stronger? Which trumps the other?

“It can be either,” Mr. Westen says. “Anxiety can be more important. On the other hand, if you have a transformational leader, like [Franklin D. Roosevelt] or Ronald Reagan, they may trump anxiety and fear.”

Ms. Tolchin says hope and inspiration often will trump fear, at least among the American electorate.

“Americans tend to be more positive,” she says. “We are moved by hope and inspiration.”

Our friends across the pond often express dismay that Americans treat presidential elections as popularity contests with little connection to substance.

“I think Europeans get it a little wrong. I think the American electorate is pretty smart, and pretty discerning,” says James Glass, government and politics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.

“Our candidates are talking about the issues, but someone like Obama couches it in the language of emotion,” says Mr. Glass, who confesses to being an Obama fan. “He connects with the audience on a deeper level. … It’s not just about policy deconstruction. It’s about something broader that involves feelings and values.”

Reason and emotion don’t have to cancel each other out, Mr. Glass says. They’re intertwined and can complement each other.

“Call it intelligent emotions if you will,” he says.

So in the voting-decision waltz, reason and emotion are clutching each other in a tight embrace, which makes sense if you think about their origin.

“They are infused. When the brain evolved, reason was linked with emotion,” Mr. Westen says. “We were making life-and-death decisions before we developed the intricate architecture to calculate things like mortgage costs.

“And we still make most our important decisions — like picking a spouse — not by making a cost-benefit analysis, but based on our emotions,” he says. “A marriage based on cost-benefit analysis probably wouldn’t last very long.”

The question is whether the emotion will play as much of a role in the general election, when the candidates’ platforms will be quite different.

“I think people will be voting their gut throughout this election,” Ms. Tolchin says, adding that she sees this as a post-partisan era. “It’s an important decision, and we have to feel good about it. An American president is a king and prime minister at the same time who affects war and peace and the economy. What’s more important than that?”

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