Editorial | Three Emotions Determine Political Decisions | Rich Elfers

Let’s face it; we humans make political decisions based largely on emotions. We like to think we’re rational and logical, but in reality three emotions really govern our political decision-making: trust, fear and hope. Being aware of these three emotions and how they interact can help us make better decisions when we vote this fall.

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  • Wednesday, May 30, 2012 4:32pm
  • Opinion

Let’s face it; we humans make political decisions based largely on emotions. We like to think we’re rational and logical, but in reality three emotions really govern our political decision-making: trust, fear and hope. Being aware of these three emotions and how they interact can help us make better decisions when we vote this fall.

Trust is believing the candidate will keep his/her promises. Part of what we weigh when we determine whether we trust is to ask ourselves whether the candidate really cares about us. This was a hard lesson I learned as a high school teacher for 31 years: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s the same with candidates for office. We want to know that they care about us and our needs. Candidates usually try to show this by pointing out their past record – showing where they have accomplished what they promised in the past, either in or out of politics.

Trying to destroy trust in their opponent is also a vital part of this, because we humans tend to remember the negatives about a person more readily than we remember the positives. Candidates and political handlers know this. That’s why there are so many negative ads – because they work to destroy trust in the opposition.

Candidates often try to create trust by acting like they are just like the voters. It’s called “Plain Folks.” That’s why candidates don’t wear ties in front of some groups, or they kiss babies, or they talk about their spouses and kids. That helps them relate to potential voters. The more candidates can make themselves appear to be like their constituents, the more likely their constituents will vote for them. Like attracts like. On the other end, the more the candidates can make their rivals look “out of touch” or “elitist” the more effective their campaigns will be.

Fear is a powerful emotion to tap. Both Democrats and Republicans use this to sway voters. In the 1870s, Southern Democrats used fear created through violence and intimidation to win elections. Republicans in our time use the fear of the loss of American values, the fear that our freedom will disappear through excessive government regulation and the fear that our money will be taken away through higher taxes.

Fear hijacks reason. That’s why it’s used so often. If the candidates can generate enough fear against their opponents in the eyes of the public, it is likely they will win. Fear plays on a desire for security and certainty, something we all want in some degree, but security and certainty are hard to attain because we don’t know the future.

Hope is the belief that conditions will improve (or stay the same) if a particular candidate is elected. This emotion is extremely powerful, especially in difficult times. (And when haven’t we had difficult times?) Voters will be roused out of their apathy by hope that their lives will be better – they’ll have more money, a bigger house and more happiness. It will stir people who often do not vote to vote.

This particular issue is especially true with Democrats who are greater in number but also more apathetic as voters unless stirred up by the emotion of hope.

Effective candidates play these emotions during elections. How well they play them and which emotion they elicit at just the right time with just the right group will help determine their success at the polls in November.

Since we are creatures who usually make political decisions based upon these three emotions, wouldn’t it be in our best interest to understand how candidates use them to play upon our feelings, hijack our reasoning and get us to act in ways that are not always in our best long-term interests? Shouldn’t we start attuning our ears to the words of trust, fear and hope?


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