Understanding the era of emotion

As Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News and campaign advisor to Donald Trump, once said: “If you tell people what to think, you’ve lost them. But if you tell them how to feel, they’re yours.” The events leading up to the 6 January assault on the US Capitol provide a perfect example. (AP/John Minchillo)

Less than three finger-widths, around four or five centimetres, separate the neocortex from the amygdala: our reason and our emotions. For centuries, thinkers and poets thought them to be worlds apart. It took the arrival of neuroscientists using censors capable of reading brain activity to prove that, in addition to their proximity to one another, reason and emotion work closely together – although one is always faster and stronger than the other.

“When we make a decision, whatever it may be, our emotional areas are always more active than our rational ones. We know this thanks to technological advances that allow us to visualise how the brain is activated. The amygdala, our emotional centre, lights up much more quickly than when we are thinking,” explains David Bueno i Torrens, PhD in biology and director of the Chair on Neuroeducation at the University of Barcelona.

When faced with a decision, reason can serve as a filter for discarding less sensible options. However, as Bueno i Torrens explains “the final decision is emotional” – and brands, traditional media, social media, and political parties know it.

In 2015, the Harvard Business Review warned of the arrival of a new emotional era. According to the publication, businesses can as much as triple their sales by employing emotions in marketing. As philosophy professor José Carlos Ruíz argues, immediacy, individualism and false connectivity account for the central role that emotions play today.

“We are living in a society where the past has lost its consistency and seems to be of little interest, while the future has become unpredictable. What we are experiencing is an expansion of the present and emotions are oriented to this, to living and experiencing the moment. The instant, the ephemeral, is the only thing that counts.”

In his most recent book El Arte de Pensar (The Art of Thinking), Ruíz warns that “the balance between reason and emotion has definitively tipped towards the latter.” And while the temptation to appeal to this most urgent and visceral part of the human being has always existed – think of the bread and circuses of Ancient Rome – our current technologies allow us to mobilise emotions ranging from anger to joy as never before.

Contagious emotions

Few would disagree that social media has helped to intensify the emotional climate. Feelings such as indignation, joy and even grief, previously reserved for the most private sphere, are now displayed, shared and transformed through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram into something viral, something contagious.

“The digital architecture of social media privileges the expression of emotions. It privileges the audiovisual over the written, the controversial over the moderate. All of this makes us more emotional,” explains Javier Serrano, a researcher on emotions and the media at the University of Navarra in Spain. The present phenomenon of ‘virality’ is driven by emotions, firstly because they are faster but also because, in our over-informed society, they always win the battle for our attention. Studies have shown that content with greater emotional intensity tends to be shared more, regardless of whether the emotions are positive or negative.

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“Social media didn’t invent emotionality but its business model seeks to enhance the emotional. Dozens of engineers have designed the product to ensure that you stay as long as possible, provide data and want to come back,” adds Serrano.

The documentary The Social Dilemma vividly portrays this dynamic. Every time someone clicks ‘like,’ ‘love,’ or ‘sad,’ they are not just sharing a mood but most significantly they are sharing valuable personal information that, with the right algorithm, can tell a lot about a person. According to research from Stanford University, 10 ‘likes’ are enough for anyone – be it a commercial brand or a political party – to know as much about you as a family member or close friend.

Technology companies didn’t invent emotion but they have been able to make the most of it, including popularising the use of what is now considered the smallest unit of emotionality: the emoji, a symbol symptomatic of this era, capable of replacing real expression with virtual expression, of replacing words with images – faster, more effective, direct to the amygdala.

Emotional artillery

Recent findings in the field of neuroscience reveal the power of emotions, for example, when it comes to shopping. It is known that customers who are emotionally connected to a brand are 52 per cent more profitable than customers who are simply satisfied. That is why advertising is armed with emotional artillery aimed at finding the quickest shortcut to the part of the brain that it is most interested in.

“Messages with an emotional component are more likely to be processed impulsively,” explains Bueno i Torrens. “If you only appeal to the emotions, it’s easy not to pass through the filter of reason.”

For some time now, political discourse has been adopting the same strategy, substituting emotional impact for arguments. In his book La Política de las Emociones (The Politics of Emotions), professor of political communication Toni Aira describes how feelings rule today’s world. “Humans have always toyed with emotions, but their ability to do so has increased exponentially. It’s not just that you can connect more with your audience and their moods, it’s that, through algorithms, you can monitor them,” he explains.

In his book, Aira profiles different political leaders according to the emotion that pervades their discourse: Vladimir Putin and revenge, Boris Johnson and optimism, Donald Trump and hate. When the latter was elected in 2016, the Oxford Dictionary chose ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year, a term that has a lot to do with the emotions. Post-truth is ‘felt truth,’ the victory of feelings over facts.

As Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News and campaign advisor to Donald Trump, once said: “If you tell people what to think, you’ve lost them. But if you tell them how to feel, they’re yours.” The 6 January storming of the US Capitol by a radicalised mob loyal to the now ex-president (number 45) provides a perfect example.

Exaggerations, inflammatory slogans and the permanent disqualification of the opposition are capable of provoking the most apathetic person and simplifying the most complex issue. “A dichotomy has been established: with me or against me,” says Aira. “It is a constant dialectic of election campaigning. Every day seems like election day, and that has a perverse side. When you reduce everything to a question of winners and losers, the only thing that matters is winning.”

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According to French essayist Christian Salmon, we are living in an “era of confrontation” in which the winners are those who make the most noise rather than those who construct the most coherent or compelling narrative. The media – which, as Javier Serrano points out, “also benefits from the emotional shockwave” – multiplies the effect of this noise, building audiences that are increasingly divided into simplistic categories, communities divided by emotion at visceral odds with one another.

“There is both ideological polarisation and affective polarisation,” explains Neftalí Villanueva, professor of philosophy at the University of Granada. “Affective polarisation is an attitude that has more to do with desires than with beliefs. People do not necessarily commit themselves to a series of ideas. What they do is express their support for one group and their rejection of the group they consider to be its opposite.”

Polarisation in itself does not necessarily have to be negative – it allows us to disagree, to express contrary opinions. According to the professor, it becomes dangerous “when we become indifferent to other people’s motivations. This is linked to affective polarisation. The more fanatical I become about the political identity I adhere to, the more irrational it becomes for me to pay attention to other people’s reasoning.”

Thinking is tiring

We are all vulnerable to the tyranny of emotions and the reason for this is essentially physiological. “Emotions consume little metabolic energy while reasoning consumes significantly more. Thinking is tiring, so when we’re already tired for other reasons, emotions come easily simply because they are not very tiring,” says Bueno i Torrens.

If this is so, today’s acute and precarious living conditions are undermining reason, making any shortcut all the more tempting.

Is it possible to find a balance for this excess emotionality? The answer is yes, although the solution is not intelligence but critical thinking, which is not the same thing. There are very intelligent people whose cognitive biases lead them to seek out only the information and data that confirm that which they already believe.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, entails intellectual humility, curiosity and openness to other points of view. As Carlos Ruiz argues, it is possible to be emotional – in fact it is inevitable – while also having well developed critical thinking. “I hope that sooner or later someone will realise how important it is to teach critical thinking, especially to younger generations. We should start by recovering the capacity for wonder and above all work on questioning, activating the rational, being more humble,” he adds. “Maybe that way we will be able to lower the current emotional temperature.”

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