The recent right-wing populist revival indicates that words are more important to winning elections than policy. The reason is our lazy brains.
No one questioned who had the best grasp of policy – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Hillary still lost, though. While mainstream politicians and pundits focus on actual politics and policies, right-wing populists have understood that, in our time, rhetoric and words is a more potent force for winning elections.
This is, of course, not an exclusively right-wing phenomenon; just look at the Five Star Movement, becoming Italy’s largest party at the general election in 2018. But, I believe there is something unique about right-wing populists’ ability to influence the electorate.
In our heated and polarized political era, the ability to arouse feelings is the ultimate currency. The fascinating thing is, though, that the answer to why that is, might be hardwired into our brains.
The populist communicator and her toolbox
Exceptional individuals like Churchill and Obama have made us accustomed to a certain degree of communicative finesse and rhetorical audacity, and given us the impression that this is a big advantage if you want to win elections. However, the last couple of years have proven that there is, indeed, more than one road that leads to Rome.
Whilst there is a plethora of tools in the communicative toolbox right-wing populists apply to get their message across, I have recently become very fascinated by their ability to exploit our cognitive fallacies and biases to get their message across. That is, exploiting the fact that our brains often deviate from the rational.
The way we create communications based on this understanding is only just beginning to catch up. Through H+K Smarter, Hill+Knowlton’s specialist behavioral insights and strategies team, we are combining the latest academic thinking with new research tools and our years of practical experience to create smarter, more effective communications.
Herding us into effortless thought
Many, if not most, have heard about Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, Kahneman explains two modes of thinking in the human brain. We have our System 1 brain, which is uncontrolled, unconscious, and fast. Then we have our System 2 brain, which is conscious, rational, and slow.
When individuals act in ways that might seem irrational – and we often do – it is because we apply our System 1 thinking much of the time. Unable to process the massive amount of impressions we receive, our brain applies mental shortcuts in order to keep up with all the information.
My hypothesis is that this is one of the reasons why right-wing populists are so successful in shaping and influencing hearts and minds in the public. They are highly efficient at appealing to our System 1. Instead of forcing us to analyze and reflect on the big and complex issues of our time, they frame the issues in a way that makes it possible for the public to put down its “rational” guard and fall back into fast and unconscious thinking.
Five specifics of System 1 influencing
Don’t get me wrong. Both left-wing populists and more middle-of-the-road politicians also appeal to our subconscious way of processing information. But my reflection is that right-wing populists have been especially efficient at this, as they often obtain support for rather controversial points of view.
In my mind, there are five cognitive biases they are especially skilled at targeting.
1. Ingroup bias. We tend to give preferential treatment to those we perceive to be members of our own ingroup. Populists excel at cementing ideas of who we should like and dislike. In the US, Donald Trump has managed to make many rural, white, Americans feel as an ingroup, whilst making the establishment, the elites, and the fake news media the clear outgroup.
2. Confirmation bias. We search for, and focus on, information that correlates with our own preconceptions. Right-wing populists, with their politically incorrect views expressed in public, have helped legitimize some of equally politically incorrect beliefs in the electorate. The electorate have gotten many of their opinions and beliefs confirmed by people they see as higher authorities.
3. Illusory truth effects. We tend to believe that something is true if it is easy to process or if it has been repeated multiple times. Populists simplify complex problems and repeat their messaging. “We’re going to build a wall” is a highly efficient way to make the issue of immigration easy to grasp.
4. Bandwagon effects. We tend to believe things because many others believe in the same thing. When Brexit general Nigel Farage visited a Trump rally in Mississippi in 2016, Farage drew significant parallels between Brexit and the US election: In both cases, it was the “the ordinary decent people” taking on the establishment. Voters in the US, UK, France, Austria, and all other places got a sense that many others were fighting the same fight as themselves; ordinary people standing up to the establishments and the elites.
5. Availability heuristics. We tend to overestimate the likelihood of events that are very emotionally charged, because they are easier to visualize and remember. Fear is one of our strongest emotions, and is one of the favorite buttons to push for right-wing populism. When they apply the memories of terrorist attacks to conjure up emotions of fear against Muslim immigration, they utilize the power of availability heuristics to the fullest.
Persuading minds and changing society
Being accused of only having words to offer, instead of actual solutions, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick said the following in a gubernatorial campaign speech:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Just words. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. Just words. I have a dream. Just words.”
His point being that “the right words… are a call to action.” Efficient use of words and communication holds the power to sway the opinions of individuals, institutions, and nations. They hold the power to change today and shape tomorrow.
In the game of persuasion, the communicators best equipped to stir up emotions and exploit our unintentional preference for effortless thought often comes out on top. And right now, right-wing populists are winning that game.
By Lars Erik Grønntun, CEO & Chairman EMEA, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore