The slow pendulum of public rationality and emotionality

Looking back into human history–for instance at the amount of time it takes for conflicts on the scale of nations to resolve–I am more and more forced to the following conclusion:

The more people are involved in a complex decision making process, the slower their decision making style oscillates between being rational vs. emotional.

To unpack this a bit, think about the following simple example… You’re driving along the highway, and in the rear mirror you observe two drivers who seem to be locked in a kind of dangerous race. They come ever closer and your level of anxiety rises, as you might get caught up in an accident. They then fall “in line,” and both cars pass and disappear. Your anxiety level comes back down, and you can resume your normal driving.

For a single individual, the perception of a threat may naturally also be on a much larger time scale–say you know several months in advance about the day on which you have to take the bar exam or some other very difficult test–but by and large, as much as anxiety levels will increase as time progresses, healthy people do not remain in a constant state of anxiety for long periods of time.

On the other hand, if you imagine a larger collective of people, say an entire nation, is facing some kind of “cliff”, it truly seems that the collective minds of people shift away from more rational perception, judgment, and decision making towards an ever more emotional nature of cognition, one that is based on intuition, prejudice, and heel-digging to affix one’s position as securely as possible, probably in anticipation of some kind of storm that surely needs to be weathered.

While it is entirely possible that looking back at 2016 from a more distant future may prove me absolutely wrong, I cannot help looking at a whole set of events and occurrences, globally distributed, in which public opinion and decision making seems much more emotionally driven than, say, 10 or 20 years ago:

Naturally, the election cycle in the United States is the most accessible in my mind. Over the past few days, I’ve made it a point to post many individual items depicting the stark contrast between candidates Clinton and Trump. The former Secretary of State is, if anything, known as a “cool thinker”, someone who almost lacks emotion to the point of being bland, whereas Trump’s appeal seems to be explainable almost exclusively by his emotionality, the kind of “truthiness” associated with showing one’s own thought process in an “honest way”–interestingly, the fact that much of what Trump¬†says cannot be backed up by fact doesn’t deter his supporters, so long as he says these things with vigor and a seemingly honest conviction, that is it seems as though he believes what he is saying at the time, and that turns out to be more important that actually getting it right.

Other examples include recent remarks by Philippine President Duterte, who invoked a comparison with Hitler in that he is willing to take as many as 3 million drug addicts’ lives in his war against drugs; and many people in the Philippines seem to applaud this (hard) line of thinking. Similarly increasingly hardline stances can be observed in the executive branches of government in Turkey, Russia, and even the United Kingdom, where Theresa May, the new Prime Minister,¬†answered affirmative during a debate that she would use a nuclear bomb (something that, until then, had only been implied but not expressly stated).

So, overall, I would argue that people around the world seem to be experiencing an ever increasing threat scenario–what exactly the threat may be is difficult to ascertain, given that the day-to-day life of most people probably hasn’t changed much for the worse over the past years, or at least if those changes occurred they have not been satisfactorily linked to the swing in public “mood”.

It remains to be seen whether the trends I describe above are actually present (real), and where exactly they will lead. But just a bit like in Germany in the early 1930s, it seems that if a large enough proportion of people find that the current state of affairs (politically, economically, or in any other major way that is organized among a large group of people) contains a significant threat, those people will turn to extreme measures, based on fear and aggression, willing to take thousands if not millions of lives to protect what they feel is the foundation of their livelihood.

The role of a responsible media should then probably be to (a) determine whether or not people have reasonable cause to feel threatened, and then (b) if not, convince the people that they have been over-reacting or (c) help find the necessary changes to avert the actual threat with the least amount of damage possible.

Unfortunately, the commodification and corporatization of large media outlets, including social media (!), has made it ever harder to not be caught up in the financial incentive structure: with advertising revenue being the main driver behind decision making, it seems far more important to keep people on tenterhooks than to investigate to what extent this feeling of fear and dread on a massive scale is justified, and what actually should be done to improve the situation.