There’s a psychological heuristic about the effectiveness of logical arguments compared to emotional ones. In essence, rational arguments weigh more heavily in the long term, often producing permanent changes, but emotional arguments weigh more heavily in the short term, often producing immediate action. This simple rule explains why the quality of political discourse has degraded so sharply in recent weeks, and why it will degrade further in the next two.
This human tendency was demonstrated with a study that examined tooth brushing habits. Two groups listened to two different lectures from dental health professionals. The first lecture used calm, reasonable, logical arguments to explain why people should brush their teeth, the second used fire and brimstone and tried to scare the listeners into doing so.
Although people who heard the first lecture only made a small increase in how regularly they brushed their teeth, the change in behaviour lasted for a long time. This was in stark contrast to the emotional lecture. People who heard this one made a sharp increase in tooth-brushing behaviour immediately after the lecture but, over the long term, this then fell away to much lower levels than the people who had heard the logical arguments in the first lecture.
Our political class and their advisers, highly sophisticated in the art of psychological persuasion, know all of this and are using this knowledge against the plebs right now. The rule they are operating by is: the closer we get to the day of the election, the less effective logical arguments become, and the more effective emotional arguments become.
One year out from an election, there’s no real reason to get emotional. The voters themselves have not yet been whipped into hysteria by the mainstream media, and so any politician that noticeably becomes emotional will look unstable and lose support.
That far out, it’s much better to focus on calm, logical arguments that a potential voter can ruminate over at their leisure before making a solid commitment to a party on the basis of reason. This is because, as with the toothbrush study, this influence will be minor but permanent.
The day before an election, by contrast, is not the time for calm and logical arguments. It doesn’t make psychological sense to aim for a moderate but long-term gain when the election is the next day and the preferences of voters in one year’s time doesn’t count for shit. At this point, it only makes sense to appeal to the heart (and almost always to fear), in the hope that this wave of raw emotion will not have subsided by the next day.
Right now, two weeks out from Election Day, fewer logical arguments are being made. “Let’s Do This!” is not a logical argument, and that is why we have seen expressions of it much more often over the past week. Neither is whipping up fears about being taxed into the poorhouse.
Here the political discourse can already be seen to have degraded, but things will only get worse over the next two weeks as the miserable calculus of persuasion shifts the balance ever-further towards whipping up hysteria and fear.
In two weeks’ time, the discourse will have degraded so far that National supporters will simply be yelling “COMMUNISM!!!”, Labour supporters will be screaming “SOLD DOWN THE RIVER!!!”, New Zealand First supporters will be bellowing “NEOLIBERALISM!!!” and Greens supporters will be shrieking “POO IN THE WATER!!!”
And it will take us three years to get over the shame of how low we all stooped before we can do it again.