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Why emotion matters.

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Behavioural economists have long argued that humans do not always act in calculated, reasoned ways. This applies equally to policy as it does to economics. We often conflate reasoning (where our fact finding leads us to a conclusion) with rationalization (where we use facts to support a conclusion we were always going to reach). Emotion matters because it affects our choice to reason or to rationalize.

This post draws heavily from Hillary Kornblith’s powerful essay “Distrusting Reason”.

Let me tell you about Alex.

Alex passionately believes the UK should [“leave” or “remain in”] the European Union. His belief is driven by his values. His belief is a product of his vision of what it means to be British, and the role that Britain plays in the world. It is not driven by his understanding of the relevant empirical evidence.

Alex judges that his belief is also supported by empirical evidence, but his reasoning would not hold up if it came under scrutiny. He is not aware of this. He is sincere in considering that his belief is reasoned; he believes his arguments lead to his conclusion. 

His sincerity in considering that his belief is reasoned is a product of his engagement with commentary on the subject. He extensively reads the arguments made by others, and keenly remembers statistics that support his case.

When he is presented with empirical evidence that suggests his belief is invalid, he uses his considerable intelligence to identify flaws in the methodology, or flaws in the attributes or affiliation of the author. This makes the data appear untrustworthy and allows him to dismiss it.

Alex is exceptionally good at thinking on his feet. He is a skilled orator with a reputation for being able to convince his colleagues of the strength of his strategic choices. His abilities make him a force to be reckoned with when he makes the case for his beliefs to others.

But while Alex considers his beliefs to be supported by the facts, he is incorrect. The reasons for his belief are values-based, not reasoned. When he debates the issue with others, he does not offer reasons for his belief, he offers rationalizations. In other words, he finds arguments that support his preconceived conclusion. A conclusion driven by his values.

Preliminary findings from forthcoming We are Flint research suggests that a significant number of politically engaged Brits and Americans are aware that their hearts often rule their head when it comes to politics.

Moreso, there is a strong argument to be made (one Kornblith aptly makes) that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to rationalize - not reason - your beliefs. Again, our forthcoming research supports this thesis.

Emotion is powerful. We as policy communicators must adopt its strengths. Not just to engage with the public, but to engage with policymakers too.

Do you think there is enough emotion in policy communications?

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Tom Hashemi
tom@weareflint.co.uk

 
Tom HashemiComment