Political Persuasion: Aim for the Heart, Not the Head

Emotions may be more important than facts in sports and politics.

Posted Oct 20, 2016

Politics and sports are a lot alike—every match-up ends up with a winner and a loser. Although some of us like to “root for the underdogs,” most of us want to be on the winning side. Just like a sporting event stirs up feelings of allegiance, belonging, and intense competition, so, too, do political contests.

Politicians are masters at rousing emotions; they share their dreams in such a way that their dreams become our dreams. When we feel excited by the possible outcomes described by politicians, we become increasingly ardent in our efforts to make the now shared dreams a reality. Painting a picture of how public effort will change personal worlds for the better makes us sold on what they are selling.

The best way to get people to take action is to touch their emotions and give them a cause worth fighting for. We want our candidate to win, because we want to win. Competition takes us to a very primal place and when candidates paint a picture of a dark and desolate future if they’re not elected, fear takes root and we begin operating from that point of fear. This can lead us to fight dirty if the fear is strong enough or if we are overly zealous in support of our candidate.

In a recent study by Nabi and Prestin (2016) in which “fear” and “hope” were investigated as motivating factors in health care decisions, an interesting finding turned up. If fear is used as an argument for engaging in a particular behavior, and the lack of action is associated with dire consequences, people are as likely to commit to taking action as those who receive a message of hope, where choosing to act is associated with positive consequences for an individual.

Promise Change to Spur Change

So long as a message is emotionally congruent and consistent, both fear and hope can be equally pervasive. When a political candidate uses fear of negative repercussions if she is not elected or positive results if she is, you are likely to use your own frame of personal reference and concerns to guide your vote in the election booth. Just like the Chicago Cubs, the “lovable losers,” promise: “Wait until next year!” Where there is hope, it is said, there is life. Hope coupled with the potential for success in life and fear coupled with the power of your actions to change things for the better are both successful methods of motivating others to follow your lead.

Emotional calls for action are usually more inspiring than listening to a litany of logic-based proposals. So, if you are trying to convince a friend to join your political team or root for your team, aim for their heart and not their head.

Reference

Nabi, R. L., & Prestin, A. (2016). Unrealistic hope and unnecessary fear: Exploring how sensationalistic news stories influence health behavior motivation. Health Communication, 31(9), 1115-1126.