A tale of two minds: Rational vs passionate

A BUSINESS newspaper has published a 12-page pullout on the run-up to Malaysia's 14th general election and posed a burning question that has been on the minds of political strategists the world over: will voters be swayed by political or economic factors?

While one can take the middle ground and say that when casting their votes, voters might take both economic and political factors into account, mainstream studies in political science and economics have accepted the idea that humans are by nature homo economicus.

Put in another way, as an economic man, humans are simple creatures who make all life's choices like a shopper who's shopping for the best deal car dealers have to offer on a model that has more or less the same features.

If that is your view of human nature, it is easy to create mathematical models of behaviour because there's really only one principle at work – self-interest. People do whatever it takes to maximise their utility.

If this view of human nature is correct then predicting the outcome of elections is not that challenging. Unfortunately, we know that human behaviour is much more complex than any mathematical model is able to predict, and the political mind is no different.

If we were to predict voting behaviour solely on how well the economy is doing then we will be in for a surprise. This is due to the fact that social scientists have long discovered that politics has always been as much about identity and community as about the economy. It is therefore erroneous to define self-interest purely in economic terms.

Such conception of a voter will only reduce a political party to an economics and social welfare outfit that is only interested in how fast is the economy growing, how many jobs are being created and whether or not the populace has been properly vaccinated.

This is not to suggest that the preceding factors are unimportant but political life is also concerned with the fundamental stuff of life such as who we are and how we organise our society.

As neuroscientist Drew Westen has said, it is easy to forget that the states that really determine elections are voters' states of mind. A peek into the voters' mind has revealed that their states of minds are really far from the assumptions made by conventional political scientists and economists – that they have dispassionate minds, which will lead them to logical conclusions.

The political mind, according to neuroscientists, is an emotional mind. What this essentially means is that the idea that humans are homo economicus, a view that has been dominant since the enlightenment, is incorrect. The political mind is a not dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, has also demonstrated that people reason and have moral intuitions. The relationship between reason and moral intuitions has been debated endlessly by philosophers, and there is no consensus among them as to whether reason or moral intuitions should be the master. Plato for example is of the opinion that reason should be the master.

The most recent study undertaken by Jonathan Haidt has shown that the mind is divided into two parts – controlled processes and automatic processes and when in conflict, the controlled processes are made to serve the automatic processes. It just goes to show that Plato's view that reason should guide our behaviour is far from the truth. The automatic processes or intuitions come first and strategic reasoning second.

What does this tell us about the political mind? The homo economicus view of the political mind tells us that if voters are made aware of the facts and figures, they should naturally reason to the right conclusion. Voters, in this view, will naturally vote for their interests, they will calculate which policies and programmes are in their best interests, and vote for political parties that advocate those policies and programmes.

Unfortunately, the political mind does not work that way and the long held phrase coined by James Carville – "it's the economy, stupid" has to be changed to "it's the voters' state of mind". Voters vote against their self-interests, they allow bias, prejudice, and emotion to guide their decisions.

In the political arena, emotion is both central and legitimate in political persuasion. If political parties want to change the political mind, they have to appeal to voters' intuitions because 98% of our thought is not conscious.

Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that unconscious thought is automatic. Conscious thought, on the other hand is reflective. Because most of our thought is unconscious, we are not able to control what our brains are doing in most cases.

In trying to understand the political mind, we need to move away from the homo economicus view that is based on old enlightenment values to the 21st century view of the mind as largely unconscious, embodied, emotional, empathetic, metaphorical, and only partly universal. Such a view will tell us why for the past 27 years voters in Kelantan did not vote in their economic interests and why the overwhelming blue collar workers in the US voted for a billionaire as their president.

Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is director of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.