I watched GOP presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, live, on TV when he visited Mobile, Alabama, just an hour east of where I live. Not long into his pep talk he said to the huge, deep red crowd:
“What’s my favorite book? The Bible!”
He held the Bible up in the air and the Trumpeting Elephants reacted predictably. Like many charismatic politicians and evangelists, Trump is a performer and entertainer; and like many politicians and evangelists, Trump attracts people using apocalyptic redemption stories.
Yesterday, in Dallas, Texas, Trump drew a crowd of about 15,000 at the American Airline Center. Within the first five minutes of his performance, he boasted about leading with the evangelicals, and invited an evangelical pastor to the podium, then praised him.
Why do so many people fall for these characters? Because they know how to pluck the limbic strings by using emotionally-charged statements based on opinions, although they confidently present them as facts. William Gavin, a media adviser and speech writer for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, stated:
“Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.”
Politicians and the religious hierarchy know that a vast number of people are drawn to emotionally oriented information. Reason is pushed to the back seat, or put in the trunk. Paying excessive attention to emotionally dominant information is called attentional bias, a predisposition of our attention to process certain types of information before others. It can cause people to ignore important information, profoundly influencing the decision-making process.
We have two thinking systems. Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on behavioral economics, and whose book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, was awarded best book in 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences, calls them System 1 and 2. However, the two systems are also known as the Autopilot System and Intentional System.
System 1 – Autopilot Thinking
The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. Its cognitive processes take place mainly in the amygdala and other older parts of the brain that developed early in our evolution. The role of this system is to guide our daily habits. It helps us make snap decisions, and is responsible for reacting to dangerous life-and-death situations—freeze, fight-or-flight responses. Making snap decisions without giving much thought to it was necessary when our ancestors were contending with predators such as saber-toothed tigers, but not nearly as needed in modern times.
Still, this older part of the brain (autopilot) sees small stresses that are not life-threatening as though they were a tiger, producing unnecessarily stress hormones that can undermining our mental an physical well being, and may cause an increase of gray matter volume in the right amygdala (fear). These snap judgements coming from the emotional region of our brain tend to feel “true”, but can lead us wrong in systemic and predictable ways.
- Fast, intuitive, emotional
- Requires no effort
- Automatic thinking, feeling, and behavior habits
- Prone to some predictable and systematic errors
System 2 – Intentional Thinking
This system represents our rational thinking, and is centered around the prefrontal cortex, the newer part of the brain that evolved more recently. Research shows that the frontal lobes (the part of the brain that makes us most human), developed as homo sapiens started to live within larger social groups, affording the ability to handle more complex mental activities, e.g., logical reasons, learning new information, and probabilistic thinking.
With enough training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where the autopilot system is prone to make errors, especially costly ones. The Navy trains their Seal recruits to do just that—bypass the autopilot system and immediately assess potentially dangerous situation from the prefrontal cortex. I wrote about it here.
- Conscious, reasoning, mindful
- Takes intentional effort to turn on but can exhaust mental energy
- Used mainly when we learn new information, and use reason and logic
- Can be trained to turn on when it detects Autopilot System may be making error
It has been said that the autopilot system is like an elephant (no pun intended). It’s by far the more powerful and predominant of the two systems, so our emotions can overwhelm our rational thinking. The elephant part of the brain takes up a lot of real estate, is unwieldy, slow to turn and change, and can stampede if it feels threatened. The majority of our life is spent on autopilot, and that’s not a bad thing, per se. If we thought intentionally about every action and decision, it would be mentally exhausting.
However, not thinking intentionally in critical decision making and actions will leave people vulnerable to emotional manipulation by others, and prone to predictable and systematic errors. When people allow the elephant to lead the rider, or allow others to be the rider of their elephant, it will not only impact their personal lives, but can negatively impact communities and large chunks of society. Even the world at large.
We can train the elephant so that it doesn’t work against us. We are hardwired for emotional appeal, so it takes work to not fall back into default with the side-effect of attentional bias and critical errors. Become aware of how information gets to you; seek a clear, evidence-based understanding of the reality of any given situation, and the likelihood of future events.