When emotion, reason and economics collide, emotion invariably wins


Let us take the case of Germany, often believed to be a paragon of hard-headed rationality and good economic management.

When the Berlin Wall came down, East Germany was freed from Soviet rule just like the other Soviet satellite states. A surge of emotional, national feeling pushed Helmut Kohl to pursue an expensive reunification project. Did this make rational or economic sense?

Had East Germany been allowed to remain an independent state, it could well have progressed along the lines of Poland, Hungary, the now Czech Republic, and so on. There could have been a transition democracy, eventual membership of the EU, structural EU funds to help in that development, and the attraction of inward investment.

Instead, most of the costs of development of previous East Germany have been borne by what was West Germany. Incentives have not proven to be sufficiently powerful to attract substantial investment into the former East. De-population of the East continues as people migrate West in search of opportunity.

None of that is to be in the least critical of the reunification decision. Simply to point out that most of our decisions as human beings are emotionally driven and subsequently rationalised.

Our ability to rationalise allows us to maintain the delusion that we are primarily rational beings, albeit with some emotional overlay (what used to be called bounded rationality). The opposite is, in fact, the case although many still cling to the rationalist view even as it has become increasingly discredited.

This has significant implications for politics and public policy. Both need to be assessed through emotional lenses as well as rational, analytical ones. They also have to be presented in ways that have emotional resonance if they are to be effective.

We often manage to align emotional and rational lenses to project a cohesive picture. But when we don’t, we should be in no doubt that the emotional will always prevail.

And herein lies the success of populists. They differ from other politicians in two ways. First, they are masters at the art of emotional appeal. Second, they are unhindered by the need to rationalise too deeply. Once they have created emotional appeal, they understand that the flimsiest of rationalisations will suffice.

Their mainstream opponents’ error is to take them on with rational arguments rather than finding a counter-narrative that is just as emotionally resonant. Or else, they adopt the same lines but with less skill in communication. It’s tough, if not impossible, to make all that work.

Maybe we should re-define ‘populists’ as those who understand the human condition much better than mainstream forces.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    The art of politics is to realise that survival is the bottom line. As such, security and wellbeing are predicated on access to our ecological means of survival.

    Mainstream politicians often take survival for granted because in their own lives they have sustained access to beneficial financial renumeration. In other words they are emotionally secure regarding their own survival. Rational drift occurs when mainstream politicians become emotionally obsessed with their own importance and in the process project their survival security on to others with the false rationalisation that ecologically destructive growth is good for general prosperity and wellbeing when the truth is that they are emotionally attached to their own incumbency.

    As rational drift progresses, usually with a concomitant (m/p)aternalist overview of the population from their position of self importance, as does empathetic drift. In other words, mainstream politicians become increasingly detached both rationally and emotionally from the people they are meant to represent along the lines of power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Such is the case with EU officials despite the fact that the EU economic system is fundamentally unsustainable and unable to deliver long term economic, social and ecological prosperity and wellbeing without the continued and sustained appropriation of foreign resources and future reserves of renewable resources.

    In their closeted castles, they feel secure that their ecological means of survival is assured, because they see money as the main driver of security and wellbeing not energy. This similarly applies to the closeted castle of Parliament where mainstream politicians increasingly see money as the main driver of prosperity instead of energy. Thus, even when low security poor people feel that their ecological means of survival is being destroyed in order to make money, mainstream politicians rationalise this destruction as trickle down economics or a rising tide lifts all boats.

    When the rational and empathetic drift has extended to a point that ordinary folk feel that their ecological means of survival, the energetic basis of their existence, is under threat, the emotional insecurity and survival anxiety is registered by empathetic populists who, despite their own affluence, see and realise that energy, not money, is the proper basis of the good life. That rather than growth for growth sake, which adds competition and stress to the daily life of existence, sustainability, sufficiency and resilience are the true energetic concerns of most ordinary folk who simply want to enjoy life with adequate survival security.

    This divergence of world views, pits the empathetic populists against the unempathetic elites who prioritise money over and above mental and emotional wellbeing. The challenge for unempathetic mainstream politicians is to not only understand that energy is the most important basis of a good life, not money, but to deconstruct the reasons why they have been prone to rational and empathetic drift.

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