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In the battle for public opinion, the big guns include fear and disgust (Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
In the battle for public opinion, the big guns include fear and disgust (Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

David Pizarro

We cannot be emotionless, but we are capable of rational debate Add to ...

In the battle for public opinion, emotions are the big guns. Few better strategies exist than making people feel that your position is the right one. The insight that manipulating the emotions of others can be an effective persuasive strategy is far from new, but in the past few years, research has confirmed it. We know that along with motivating action, emotions can influence our thoughts, decisions, actions, even our memories. Because many of our emotions can be elicited easily and reliably, emotional appeals are among the most efficient forms of persuasion.

This is distressing to those who happen to be on the wrong side of a successful emotional campaign. In the United States, many liberals have become frustrated at the surprisingly effective use of emotional appeals by Republicans over the past decade. They have seen how fear can motivate the passing of national security laws that border on Orwellian or the spreading of misinformation about health-care reform, and how the language of disgust can be used to justify discrimination.

On both sides of such debates, there is suspicion that emotions are playing a dangerous, biasing role in shaping public political judgment. And they are right - a wealth of recent findings are showing us just how much emotions seem to influence judgments in the political and moral domain.

Fear, for instance, is an emotion that motivates concern for safety and leads to heightened perception of risk - very handy when avoiding predators. But while our fear response is not calibrated for the complexities of our modern social world, it continues to influence our judgments. Fear makes individuals more likely to endorse security measures at the expense of other important freedoms, and encourages support for conservative policies in general. One study showed that whenever there were government-issued terror warnings, public support for president George W. Bush spiked.

In a similar vein, disgust - an emotion that protects us from ingesting substances that might make us sick - also appears to play a role in political judgments. Individuals who are easily disgusted in everyday life are more likely to be politically conservative, and are more likely to oppose gay marriage. Making people disgusted in the lab (with a foul smell) also appears to make them more homophobic. Unfortunately, an emotion meant to keep us away from bad food is affecting millions of people politically.

Needless to say, we have good reason to be wary of emotions. But how do we address the problem? One way is to try to take emotions out of the picture entirely. But this is misguided.

For one, it is inconsistent with what we know about human psychology. An emotion-free rational agent (like Spock from Star Trek) is simply not possible. Emotions are such a deep part of our psychology and physiology that when our emotional systems sustain damage, our ability to engage in rational thought suffers as well. And without the motivation that our emotions provide, we would care little about doing anything at all.

And second, we seem to deeply value the presence of certain emotions in others. We care that they feel the right emotions at the right times. When our leaders attempt to be too dispassionate, they run the risk of seeming less than human. This was seen in the 1988 U.S. presidential election, when Michael Dukakis was asked whether he would favour the death penalty if his wife had been raped and murdered. He answered "No," then launched into a defence of his position. Many viewed this moment as the nail in his campaign's coffin. We want our leaders to share our emotions, if only because it signals that they share our priorities. This is why Barack Obama was far more effective as a passionate candidate than he has been as a professorial President.

But there is another strategy that seems equally risky: whole-heartedly embracing the emotional appeal. If the other side uses it, the reasoning goes, we should use it even more.

Along these lines, I've been asked many times how liberals might use disgust in the same way conservatives have. This worries me. For one, such a strategy will simply cause rational people on the other side of the debate to throw their hands up in frustration.

But more importantly, even though we cannot be emotionless creatures, we are capable of rationality. And while it is true that rational people can have deep disagreements, I continue to believe that rational discourse is our best shot at reaching common ground. What we need is passionate deliberation - the sort of engaging participation in political discourse that can make use of emotional appeals to support reasonable arguments. But perhaps I am too optimistic.

David Pizarro is assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University. He speaks tonight at the 2010 Walter Gordon Symposium on Public Policy, co-sponsored by Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

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