Spiders and Soor Plooms: The Fear Neuropolitics of Scotland’s Independence Referendum
At times during the campaign, Better Together resembled the robot in Lost in Space – a great waving of rubber-sleeved mechanical arms, a whirring and shuffling and clanking, a stultifyingly repetitive and automatic ‘Warning, people of Scotchland! Warning!’ (Except that, in this case, the machine’s intentions were far from helpful.) No voters were robotically passionless in defending the Union, their outrage against the upstart Yes a choreographed Daily Mail -style sham rage. For the qualmpeddlers of automaton Britain, it was an affirmingly metallic moment.
Fear works. Just ask Blair McDougall. The outcomes of countless political campaigns have demonstrated that a frightened electorate is a malleable one. As H.L. Mencken put it:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
To rob Scotland of its potential independence, the fearmongers had first to rob the vulnerable of foresight. Then – to replace it with ‘hobgoblins’ – they undertook some blunt-instrument, but oddly consensual, brain surgery.
When parts of a brain ‘light up’ during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning, what is actually happening is that blood flow correlated with cognitive activity has increased in that area. The huge electromagnets in the scanner pick up these small fluctuations in flow and, combined with radio waves, amplify them to a point where they can be imaged on screen. This is truly revolutionary. No longer is the human brain a ‘black box’ explorable only by observing its behavioural output or by slicing it up; it is now a non-invasively accessible system – a dynamic, complex, fascinating and beautiful one.
Which areas ‘light up’ most strongly when we are afraid? One area associated with fear response is a deep brain structure called the amygdala (plural amygdalae – we have one on either side of our brain). Many studies, including ones where monitored test-subjects were shown horror movies, have shown that correlated blood flow increases in this area when we are frightened. The classic explanation is that, in evolutionary terms, this area developed to process survival-dependent fight-or-flight responses. Following from this, the amygdala is associated with aggression. However, it’s also associated with more subtle activity such as assessing risk and reward.
Our societies are composed of networks of brains interacting with one another. Politics is a form of human interaction that should employ our ‘higher’ brain functions, but which often seems to trigger our basest responses. ‘Neuropolitics’ aims to understand political inclinations and behaviours in terms of their neurobiological bases: how do they arise in the brain? How are they conditioned? Undoubtedly, there’s an emerging, sometimes unhelpful, trend of tacking ‘neuro’ onto the front of existing disciplines. (One amusing tweet I saw recently, giving advice on zeitgeisty Twitter names, suggested, ‘Call it neuro– something, it works with everything!’) Nevertheless, the value of neuropolitics shouldn’t be underestimated: it lights up the way towards not only understanding cognitive biases but also to restructuring our political systems to mitigate the worst of their effects.
In one recent study involving young people, fMRI scanning showed a correlation between self-reported political attitudes and increased grey-matter volume in specific brain regions. Self-reported conservatives showed more volume in the area of the amygdalae; liberals showed more in an evolutionarily newer and ‘higher function’ region, the anterior cingulate cortex.
The cack-handed reporting of a psychological study showing a correlation between strength of reaction to a picture of a spider and strength of reaction to the prospect of Scottish independence clouded the core purpose of the study: to show that reactions in common to apparently-disparate types of emotion-response eliciting stimuli can tell us something about a person’s habitual means of judging danger and risk.
Obviously, we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from such early studies. However, it’s hard to ignore the implication that conservatives are at least more likely to make their political decisions based on fears than are liberals. Setting aside genetic factors, regularly-reinforced, aversion-based thinking would certainly be more likely to strengthen neural connections in the amygdala than would patient, reasoned consideration of evidence.
This, then, is a neuropolitical hypothesis about why fear works in campaigns such as the independence referendum. Those who wish to stick with what they perceive to be the status quo are risk-averse and easily startled, because that’s how they tend to make their decisions. And this behaviour has, over time, consolidated the connections responsible for it. External risk-related ‘reinforcement messages’ from scaremongering politicians and ‘experts’ confirm biases and act as reward (cognitive soor plooms, perhaps) for the pre-set, conservative mind.
A recent survey by Unlock Democracy, reported in The National, appears to contradict this hypothesis. If, as the results of the survey suggest, only 1 in 10 No voters were convinced to vote that way by the arguments of Better Together, those reinforcement messages don’t appear to have been very effective. But the picture is more complex. One possibility is that BT’s arguments didn’t need to be convincing, because the vast majority of No voters had set their startle-addled minds rigidly against independence before the campaign even began. Those messages did, however, need to be present and in quantity in order to reach the required saturation level to achieve stasis. For the purposes of saturation, you can’t beat having the state broadcaster onside.
No voters see the situation very differently. Perhaps, as Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being suggests, the whole notion of independence is based on selfishness. This, too, is a neuropolitical hypothesis. Is there something in the minds of independence supporters that predisposes them to hoard resources for the exclusive use of their ‘in-group’, instead of sharing them with a wider ‘out-group’? There are certainly strong evolutionary roots to that kind of behaviour.
And cognitive biases work both ways. As Pat Kane discusses, ‘positive’ campaign messages also trigger (or reinforce) ways to relate, on a deeply personal level, to political actions ‘performed in the world’. Might our mirror neurons fire us in the direction of honestly-held but actually selfish mirroring actions as readily as empathetic, selfless ones?
It is true that we need to talk about what ‘selfishness’ means, what ‘sharing’ means, what ‘redistribution’ means. But it is hard to see how that conversation is progressed by covering up the size and nature of the resource-pool, or by screaming relentlessly from atop ivory towers that ‘trickle-down’ is the only way to get some of it to those in need. Specifically in Carol Craig’s case, accusing Yes voters of having a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, and talking of a ‘tartan gravy train’, is not helpful (and does nothing for any Scot’s sense of confidence or well-being).
Neuropolitics is here to stay. It works with all of politics because it is all of politics. It won’t be long before the mental states (and their underlying bases) of politicians and electorates become accepted topics of discussion in the media clamour of election campaigns. How long, then, before analysis of ‘beauty contests’ between candidates involves neural profiling? How great the impact of such profiles on our political decision-making?
The thickened amygdala, become our popular centrefold nemesis. Step forward, the well-turned cingulate cortex – your community, your nation, your planet have grave need of you.