I Don’t Second That Emotion

Watch any newscast and you’ll be hard-pressed to find stories about people making rational decisions based on evidence. Rather we are in the realm of heroes and villains, myth and legend. And the language of the reportage is not that of cool analysis but of hyperventilating emotion.

In under a week the stock market loses over ten percent of its value. In China, nearly 40 percent, The word panic comes up often. Blame is spread around. Candidates for the highest office in the land are quick to play to fears in this case and any other. Behind every event the hunt is on for partisan bogeymen, enemies domestic and foreign.

Veteran pollster Peter Hart recently described the mood of the electorate as about one- third anger and two-thirds anxiety. Many grassroots voters are seeking a savior, literally it sometimes seems. A sign at a campaign rally reads, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump.” Islamic decision-making may be faith-based, but more than we like to admit so is ours.

A psychology study showed people photographs of faces and asked them to rate the people they saw for trustworthiness. In fact, they were all candidates for political office. Lo and behold, the large majority of those who were rated high on looking trustworthy won their elections. It didn’t mean that they were actually trustworthy, but it did show that humans often act for reasons having nothing to do with conscious thought.

We are prone to extol ourselves as the smart species. We have even given ourselves a name that means we are the smart species. But most of us most of the time are actually a lot more inclined to superstition than science, to ego and id than to analysis. We belong more to the Middle Ages than to The Enlightenment. We aren’t thinking creatures, but feeling creatures. We are rarely rational, almost always emotional.

Male chauvinists get a deservedly bad rap for saying woman can’t be trusted with power or responsibility since they are regularly whipsawed by hormones. Supposedly men are ruled by the little gray cells. Fat chance. They are uncontrolled tornados of testosterone. And neither gender wants to read a statistical analysis, but wants to be told a story.

PBS makes an occasional stab at brainy, or at least middle-brow, programming about science or history, but the big viewership shows up for the stormy emotions of “Masterpiece” melodramas or touchy-feely nature shows featuring cuddly creatures or predatory beasts. This is a difference in degree, not in kind, from “The Bachelor,” “Survivor,” “The Sleazy Housewives of Boca Raton,” blood-spattered crime shows or weepy romances.

Rationality doesn’t play well for most humans. Scientists are cold-blooded and analytical and wouldn’t score well on the trustworthiness test. Bond is hot. Dr. No is not cool. Doctors are encouraged to develop a bedside manner. Geeks and nerds are not complimentary terms. They may code like Olympian gods, but have less luck in cracking the interpersonal relations cipher and don’t get the girl.

Trump is a billionaire Americans warm to because he’s straight out of “Dallas,” or “the Sopranos,” a braggadocios cowboy capitalist who views the art of the deal as a kind of mano a mano test of machismo. Warren Buffett is beloved for his avuncular persona as the Dillybar eating, ukelele strumming grandpa, not for his actual investment practice. Those who understand his actual behavior are in awe of his inhuman ability to remove emotion entirely from the equation and make all his decisions in cold blood.

Most of the people who actually run things, like huge piles of money or major corporations, do not engage in gusty enthusiasms or volatile mood swings but are expected to coolly engineer superior results. They don’t do empathy and will fire a man with cancer or move a plant to Asia in a heartbeat if it improves the bottom line.

Thoughtful political candidate are doomed, of course. Except in rare cases. On paper, McCain should have beaten Obama on the basis of personality. But as the election neared and the economy tanked, he looked like a flibbertigibbet while the cool and collected Obama felt safer. Also, as a symbol Obama didn’t need to have emotion, he evoked it. In the next match, Romney was as cold a fish as possible. Obama easily vanquished him, but it wasn’t a fair fight. Humans like humans better than robots. The same contrast doomed Kerry and Gore who failed on the heat meter to the fart boy George W.

The classic case of a smart guy too cool to warm up to was Dukakis. When in a debate he was asked if he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, he gave an unemotional, scholarly, statistical explanation for why capital punishment was poor policy. He was toast.

We vote on emotion. We buy euphorically and sell in a panic. We believe in angels and demons and supernatural forces, but not in global warming because we got cold last winter and don’t want to hear that cutting foreign aid won’t balance the budget because it feels good to believe that and paying attention to the actual math make our heads hurt.

Homo Sapiens? I don’t think so. My heart feels sad for the fallible things we are, but my head says we are nothing but trouble.

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