In case you missed it, on June 24th the UK voted to leave the European Union. This was despite the overwhelming number of experts saying that this would be a terrible idea. Yet, when the experts spoke, clearly only 48% of the population listened.
Brexit proponent and politician Michael Gove, even made it part of his platform to fight the nerds; “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Because, what do experts know about things, right? Wrong.
In a clearly historic referendum with immediate consequences, 52% of the population voted for Brexit. As the nerds predicted, the currency immediately plunged, the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK became “highly likely,” and many people felt betrayed by their country. Some of those who voted to leave immediately felt “regrexit” about their choice.
So, why should you care? Because our pro-Brexit politicians mirrored Trump's campaign tactics and won. Far beyond the comparatively sensible argument of political sovereignty, Brexit campaigners won with anti-immigration invective, lies, and a misguided attempt to reclaim a past that never was. The press claimed we needed to make Britain great again. That’s not to say that the remain campaign did not try to use the fear as well - particularly the fear of a ruined economy—to try to keep the UK in the EU, but this was not nearly as emotional an appeal as the tactics used by the Brexit camp.
I have already written about the influence of false memories of a glorious past on political voting, but xenophobia and expert shaming are on another level all-together.
What I'm saying to you, my dear American friends, is that if these tactics can win in the UK, they can also win in the US. It adds to my concern that Trump winning the US presidency is a definite possibility. I don't think that another campaign like Obama’s, which was largely based on a positive vision for the future and a generally logical approach, will win an election in the current social climate.
If you don't want an unqualified maniac running your country, listen up.
An appeal to fear
The kind of fear-driven political propaganda used by Trump and the Brexiters is called argumentum ad metum, or an ‘appeal to fear.’ This is a logically unsound way of presenting information. This approach tries to argue"
Either P or Q is true.
Q is scary.
Therefore, P is true.
Although this is an invalid argument, making no logical sense, on its surface it can be quite compelling. This is because fear is a powerful motivator, in terms of memory and decision-making.
Why fear wins
As I talk about for an entire chapter in my new book, The Memory Illusion, emotion and memory have a complex relationship. But research suggests that, overall, we are more likely to remember a statement that is highly emotional than something that is not.
This is mostly because adding emotions to claims means that we are storing two separate things - the claim and the emotion. For memory, this adds some complexity to the storage of this information in your brain, making a bigger memory network that is more likely to be recalled later.
We also know that emotions, particularly fear, can have a profound impact on decision making. When we are afraid, or asked to focus on arguments based on fear, we generally shift into something called peripheral processing.
Peripheral processing happens when we form an opinion based on cues that surround an argument, at its periphery. This is the information, like emotion, or the attractiveness of a speaker, that is related to how a message is presented rather than the message itself.
This is why arguments suggesting that the EU is bullying the U.K., or that migrants to the U.S. could be undercover ISIS agents, lead to decisions that are often less-than-evidence-based.
Why "ordinary people" don’t trust experts
Peripheral processing is also why people might ignore the advice of experts. They are focusing on their emotion and other things that don’t actually contribute to the logic of an argument.
Peripheral processing stands in contrast to so-called central processing. Central processing refers to situations in which we try to make deliberate arguments where we weigh the evidence and logic of the argument. This is almost always what experts do.
These are both part of something called the Elaboration Likelihood Model. As it turns out, this model suggests that we rarely can engage in both types of decision-making at once. That means that if we have been lulled into a superficial (peripheral), engagement with the information that we are asked to make decisions about, this largely excludes our ability to process the information deeply (central).
When pundits argue that people don’t need experts, they are actively trying to push you from using central processing to a peripheral approach. They are asking you to turn off your logic and turn on your emotion, because they know that it is difficult to use logic once fear takes over.
This is also why politicians like Trump and the Brexiters like to say they represent "ordinary people." Of course, "ordinary people" don’t exist. Even if they did, they'd be unlikely to be a billionaire or an old-Etonian who delivers speeches in Latin. Presenters of such arguments are trying to make you feel negative emotions against an imaginary opponent (usually the ‘elites,’ who also don’t actually exist), trying to get you to disregard evidence and logic.
What I want to leave you with is this; know that emotion-based campaigns can be incredibly compelling, and that they can severely cloud memory and decision making. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the British EU ‘Remain’ campaign, which severely overestimated the impact of calling on evidence and experts to convince people to vote in their favor.
If you want an effective campaign, you need more than logic and evidence, you also need a strong appeal to fundamental emotions. Unless you want Trump as your next president, that is.