Monday, March 28, 2016

Emotions trump logic

It is not unusual for a couple of students every term to bring up the issue of trade deficits and the government debt and, therefore, the compelling urgency to get rid of the welfare programs.  I would try to explain to them that we need to systematically parse all those in order to begin to understand if there is any causal relationship among them.  But, I almost always lose them even as I start going down that path.

Logical understanding of issues involves hard work.  Even if the world's best expert is there to answer the question, the listener has to think along as well.  And when that audience completely shuts off, even Einstein can't win them over.  

At least in my classroom, I have a captive audience that I can work on.  But, when those topics, and more, are discussed as hot political issues, the ongoing campaign season is fully exposing a deep flaw in the democratic process--logic be damned; it's about the voters' emotions!

Consider the case of the trade deficit.  Of course, the US runs deficits with a bunch of countries.  But, does it matter and, if so, why?  Before we can even begin to lecture about this, the frontrunner of the party--which the "local" and the "foreign" frequent commenters ardently support--has staked out his position:
Donald Trump believes that a half-trillion-dollar trade deficit with the rest of the world makes the United States a loser and countries with trade surpluses like China and Mexico winners.
“They’re beating us so badly,” he has said. “Every country we lose money with.”
You think that the nearly forty percent of the party faithful who support Drumpf care about parsing through that claim about winning and losing?  You think they will patiently scroll through the multiple screens of explanation?  Imagine sitting them down and saying, "let me explain to you the Triffin dilemma."  

To re-work an old campaign slogan that worked to elect the man whose wife is now--for now--the front running candidate in the other party. it's the emotions, stupid!

The trouble is that decisions based on emotions will likely cause way more problems than thoughtful decisions can.  Especially over the long haul.  But, almost always, emotions trumps logic.  Which is why even a significant percentage of evangelical voters have favored Trump thus far, even though the thrice-married guy has a long track record of pooh-poohing the very religious values that evangelicals supposedly hold dear.  If it comes down to Trump v. Clinton in November?
GOP-registered evangelicals will not vote for Hillary. You could make a very good argument that Hillary is much more a person of faith and closer to evangelicals on her understanding of God than Trump. But voters aren't moved by logic; they are moved by emotions.
Talk about strange bedfellows! 

Of course, intellectually we have been aware of voting as an emotional act.  What is new is how that visceral nature has been fully exposed this time around.
 Imagine a world in which ideology was ruled by rationality without any biases. In such a world there would be little room for political debate among intelligent people. If we were all exposed to the same facts we would end up reaching the same conclusions. We would still need parties and elections since our interests are not identical. But we would never remain split over questions such as which economic policy would benefit most British people, or which policy would be most effective for tackling terrorism.
The fact that we continue to debate these issues endlessly, and yet never seem to agree, suggests that there is something in ideologies far beyond rationality. This other thing is subjective taste, which, to a large extent, is shaped by our emotional being. De gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there can be no disputes), as the Latin idiom goes
Meanwhile, there is a petition drive "for allowing the open carry of guns at the Republican convention this July in Cleveland."   It might have started as a satirical statement, but has gained serious attention from Drumpf:
While proclaiming himself "a very, very strong person for Second Amendment," the Republican front-runner told ABC's This Week that "I have not seen the petition. I want to see what it says. I want to read the fine print."
Surely combining emotions and guns in a crowded and contested convention will be uber-rational!


Ramesh said...

Yeah emotions overrule reason all the time, especially in political beliefs. On the other end of the spectrum, the almost fanatical call to "feel the Bern", is the same thing.

But I disagree that even on a rational basis, you will have unanimity of views and political debate will end. Far from it. You have to choose from competing priorities and different completely rational people will come to different choices. You really think Paul Krugman or Amartya Sen will ever choose to pare down the deficit ?

Thankfully the Second Amendment mania is peculiarly your problem and the rest of the world can ignore your eccentricities as long as you don't export the problem.

Mike Hoth said...

The trouble with national politics as a concept is that it attempts to get a large group of self-centered beings to agree on a topic, and then a smaller group of even MORE self-centered being get together in a room to disagree with each other about what everybody agrees on. Nobody wins an election because the majority of voters think "this person will help the group that doesn't agree with me". The closest candidate we have to that is Bernie Sanders, who says he'll help the poor and the young, and guess who votes for his opposition? The rich and the old, because he isn't helping them!

Likewise, Trump isn't winning because his policies are good or he's particularly intelligent. Donald Trump is winning because he has targeted people who are angry. He gets on stage and say "I'm really angry about things!" and lots of people say "Yeah! I'm angry too! Let's be angry about things with Donald Trump!"

In this way, most of the candidates have an emotional undercurrent. Sanders is "I want free stuff", Clinton is "I want a woman president", Trump is "I'm angry" and Cruz is "I'm scared of Donald Trump". These aren't the reasons we would give for why we voted, but they're driving forces nonetheless.

Sriram Khé said...

Disagreement on a rational basis is completely different from acting on emotions. The Russians acted on their emotions, sick and tired of the War and the Czar and got swept up by Lenin. The German emotions, you know ...
Of course, there are emotional basis for the disagreements even between the Krugman and Sen you cite. It comes from the emotions related to, for instance, what kind of a social safety net that the government should provide. And that in turn is a manifestation of how much each thinks that we are our brother's keepers. These deep down emotions when logically discussed and debated rationally result in constructive policies, even if one person or group won't be happy. The raw visceral emotions are destructive.

Yes, Bernie is also tapping into the emotions. It will be a crazy November if it is Bernie v. Drumpf. But, if it comes down to that, I will vote to make sure that there is one more vote against the fascist!

Anne in Salem said...

I disagree with Winter, or at least with the paragraph you excerpted. I did not read the full article. "If we were all exposed to the same facts we would end up reaching the same conclusions" is wrong, as the climate change argument proves. Emotions aside, looking purely at facts, some will say global warming is a natural cyclic phenomenon. Others will be Henny Pennys.

An economic policy that will benefit people most? Impossible to agree on even without emotions. I think it is bad policy and bad for the American people to raise the wages for unskilled workers to $15/hour because it will do nothing to raise people out of poverty and will hurt the people intended to benefit by putting them out of work. Others will look at the same data about poverty and say it is obvious the solution is raising minimum wage to $15/hour.

Yes, emotion is inextricably intertwined in politics and most other decisions people make. This is not always a negative, but in politics and governing, it usually is.

Sriram Khé said...

Oooooh, global warming and climate change is not a good example in this context ;) Because logical and evidence-based thinking which is what scientists use is why there is an overwhelming majority of scientists and scientific organizations that are in agreement about the impacts of climate change. (like here: The only ones--a tiny minority--who question it are the ones who react out of emotions, even by lobbing a snowball in the Senate floor.

The $15 minimum wage is a valid one to bring up. Because there is nothing even remotely conclusive on whether or not this will work for the better. And the drive to increase it to 15 is mostly out of emotions. While the emotions are reactions to issues that we need to be concerned about, the $15 wage might not be the logical and rational answer to those issues.