Tory Emotional Gameplay: Fear Anger Panic, Lust Care Play

Pat Kane reads the runes of the Toryverse and tries to explain how such a seemingly dysfunctional and execrable group of people manage to still capture electoral success. The answer he suggests is in emotion science.

For the average progressive on these islands, and particularly furth of the Tweed, the perplexity ever deepens: Why are these Tories so impervious to harm, in their politics and poll ratings?

Why doesn’t a grim, factual recitation of their appalling record – the hundreds of thousands of Covid dead; taking money out of the pockets of the poor at their moment of greatest hardship; doing “access capitalism” and cash-for-honours with the world’s plutocrats – take them down? What is their attraction? 

For some years now, I’ve been digging around in the fields of what is generally known as “the science of emotion” (covering evolutionary psychology, affective neuroscience and other specialisms). It’s partly been about trying to find an answer to the questions above.

Like all scientific investigations—whether into questions of consciousness, emotion and motivation or not—the current map of emotion science is hardly definitive. There are huge contending schools, ongoing studies, etc.

But I think we can use some of this fields; tools to begin to explain the mysterious, irrational-seeming hold that the Tories have over post-Brexit popular consciousness. (It also helps us to see why Scots indy is such a direct threat to it – more on that towards the end).

I was sparked to write this by a piece from Matthew D’Ancona in Tortoise, trying to explain Boris Johnson’s durability, particularly this section:

“It is self-evidently the case that the [UK] government faces huge economic questions in the years ahead as it struggles with the self-harm of Brexit and the scarring of Covid.

But it is a big non sequitur to conclude that these challenges will neatly end the era in which identity, culture and belonging mattered as much as they have, and restore politics to its supposedly proper status as a branch of economics.

This is not because economic pressures do not matter – who could make such an absurd claim? – but because they are more intimately entangled than ever with questions of culture, self-perception and place.

Why does Johnson make so much of immigration? Because he knows that the “red wall” voters who elected Tory MPs on a probationary basis in 2019 make no distinction between economic and cultural precariousness.

The more fearful you are about your identity as an employee (or one of almost a million people who were still furloughed when the scheme ended last week), the more fearful you become about your place in the world and the perceived threats to it. This insight is at the heart of Johnson’s politics. [My emphasis]

Which is why he and his colleagues are waging their culture war so implacably at this conference. Yesterday, the party chair, Oliver Dowden, claimed that Labour “has got woke running through it like a stick of Brighton rock”, and took aim at those who argue that Britain is “dominated by privilege and oppression” and “should view its values and history with shame”.

Meanwhile, his successor as culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, told the Sun on Sunday that she “could almost hear the almond latte cups hitting the floor at the BBC when I got this job.”

The Human Homeostat

Let’s scan this passage through some of the lenses of emotion science. The most obvious one is the current research focus on homeostasis.

Homeostatis is the idea that our minds primarily evolved to help us survive the risks and threats of existence. Therefore, we are constantly trying to predict and anticipate what’s coming to us. We generate models of reality in our head in advance of moving through the world, which we “error-correct” in the face of experience.

To some extent, we crave the stability of the homeostat – the temperature device in your house which seeks a set point, and adjusts itself accordingly.

But we’re not room devices: we’re social, linguistic, complex mammals, living with others that are just as complex. So we need a guidance system – something that is more than a temperature number on a dial, helping us reach for (but never quite achieving) such a balance or homeostasis.

For mammals, that guidance system is our primary evolved emotions, evolved to help us survive over hundreds of millions of years.

The neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Mark Solms identify seven emotional systems – three negative (FEAR, ANGER, PANIC/SADNESS), three positive (LUST, CARE, PLAY), and one elemental, sitting behind all the systems (SEEKING). [They capitalise them to emphasize their primary, their evolutionary force, and I’ll follow that in this article.]

In the D’Ancona passage, you can see this whole system moving under the surface of the words. (The cards are somewhat stacked: it’s generally understood that the negative emotions are twice as powerful and compelling than the positive ones.)

The FEAR system is triggered by feelings of threat, which sends the mind whirling around looking for safety options. So immigration and the shaking of identity can combine to trigger the same primal FEAR system.

Emotion science uses the term “visceral” for these systems. Visceral indicates that our primal emotional response is largely involuntary: we are in the grip of these strong feelings, they are not amenable to higher-level, more cognitive brain control.

It’s why “Project Fear” was so successful in the indyref: once we’re induced into that state, we start to scrabble towards homeostasis, however we can achieve it. We become the “conservative animal”. Similarly, the Brexit phrase “taking back control” assumes that some force has already weakened us, has opened us up to predation.

This begins to explain the Tories’ command of their post-Brexit public (again, massively south of the Tweed), by the way they string together or orchestrate these viscerally-triggered emotions. You attach FEAR to ANGER – the requirement for aggression to resist a force or remove an object – by means of a culture “war”. That balanced, homeostatic identity, the sense of self that you crave, isn’t just challenged passively (by economic immigration) but actively (by “woke warriors”).

We underestimate the playful in politics

There’s something else this primary-emotions map reveals. What seems to be always underestimated and misunderstood by progressives is the way that post-Brexit Tories can attach FEAR and ANGER to PLAY.

PLAY is the primary emotional system that helps mammals explore and rehearse possibilities and new niches, in a joyful and pleasurable manner. PLAY helps us survive, if we can (as play scholars put it) “take reality lightly”, for some time at least.

Indeed the great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith once defined PLAY as “adaptive potentiation” – the means whereby we spin out options for surviving and thriving. Sutton-Smith also defined it as “the stylized performance of existential themes that mimic or mock the uncertainties and risks of survival”.

So you see that “mimicking and mocking” of survival, at the expense of those who induce FEAR and ANGER, in Nadine Dorries’ humour above. But it’s precisely what Keir Starmer doesn’t see, when he describes Johnson as a “trivial man” in his recent conference speech. The charge of triviality misses the point entirely.

Visibly PLAYful people are displaying their good cheer, surplus energy, imagination and optimism, in the face of existential threats. This is attractive within human communities. Progressives clutch their pearls when Johnson makes dumb social media riffs on “Take Back Batter” or “Take Back Butter”. Progressives also love to despise that image of Johnson on the flying fox wire, legs akimbo and hair sticking out like straw from under the helmet, tiny Union Jack flags in his hands.

But in that very image, Johnson is literally “mimicking or mocking the uncertainties and risks of survival”. In fact, after his own Covid brush with death, Johnson’s continued ebullience, his antic behaviour, becomes even more admirable and attractive.

Politicians demonstrating the capacity for PLAY – whether that comes in the shape of humour, or cultural appreciation – is something which often accompanies political success. We could say the same for Cool Britannia and early New Labour—as well as the tight association of leading Scottish independence ministers and politicians with arts and literature.

The ludic self-consciousness of Brexit Tories is everywhere evident. “Leveling up” itself is a video-game term (“freezones” might as well be). With “Global Brexit Britain” as the brand-name of the game space.

Is this Tory aptitude for playing the full emotional keyboard, from FEAR to PLAY scientifically informed? Are they reading what I’m reading? Not sure. There is a long-standing association of advertising and marketing (using psychology and other mind sciences to incite needs and desire) with conservative politics across the world, from the start of Freudianism in the early 20th century.

The legacy this might leave is a naked ambition about manipulating affect. They have no shame about entwining “attractive” and “aversive” emotional responses to the world, in the most effective way.

However, it’s useful to observe (from the Panksepp-Solms model at least) where the Toryverse doesn’t answer the full range of visceral emotions.

A huge Achilles heel might be the Tories’ record in answering longings for CARE. Take Tory willingness to impose austerity, old and new; or the ham-fisted and incompetent nature of the Conservative governments’ Covid responses; or the everyday shortages beginning to arise from Brexit’s regulations and malfunctions.

Another weakness might be how the Tories register on the emotional system of PANIC/SADNESS. This is the need for us to avoid the experience of being separated and isolated, left on our own as social animals (often a threat to our survival). Emotional politics could certainly trigger this with the rising incidence of mental and physical health problems (Covid is a battleground for this triggering). An opposition could shoot straight for this nexus, aiming to pin the negative and aversive feelings it raises onto the incumbent government.

But if using these “science of emotion” maps are useful in anyway – and it’s a huge, ongoing task to develop and enrich them – it’s about bringing home one big lesson to progressives. Which is that risks have to be taken emotionally with messaging and policy. The full keyboard of affect and feeling has to be played in your politics.

Scottish nationalism at the emotional keyboard

Finally, I tentatively suggest that the SNP’s robust electoral supremacy could be rooted in the way they perform at that primary-emotions keyboard. Sturgeon’s maternal-bureaucrat-of-the-nation role during Covid, combined with her avid love of contemporary literature both Scottish or global, is a mix of CARE and PLAY that is a strong counter to the Johnsonian persona. FEAR and ANGER against a Tory Westminster regime is reasonably easy to raise.

But what might also be the emotional secret-sauce for indy politics is its ready stimulus of what Panksepp and Solms call the SEEKING system. This is the basic curiosity which every organism needs – the thing that drives them to get started in their day, to feel their agency in and capability for the world.

National self-determination – the clue may be in the “s”-word there – could be regarded as a permanent horizon, which invites and incites a collective SEEKING. A desire or “conatus” (to quote Spinoza) that pushes you to make your way through the world, to explore it with coherence and integrity.

Doesn’t this Scottish constitutional up-for-it-ness challenge the Brexiteers’ own version of collective vitality – their “Global Britain” and “Empire 2.0”? Brexitannia needs to throw nails across, and take a hammer to, the emotional keyboard of Scottish civic nationalism.

Scottish independence offers a viable alternative route to national homeostasis. In fact, it’s more like what Antonio Damasio calls “homeodynamics” – aiming at a gentle flourishing, within a supportive Nordic and European context.

So what circumstances will trigger the popular sense that Scottish collective stability requires a shift to a new niche and environment? That we need a more satisfying and less threatening public answer to our range of primary emotions?

I’m a lay reader in the human sciences, not the Brahan Seer. But I could say this: we’ll know it when we inescapably and viscerally feel it.

Pat Kane is researching a book on politics, creativity and the science of emotions.

Further reading: 

Politics is visceral by Manos Tsakiris

Antonio Damasio and Manuel Castells in discussion, 2020

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Comments (25)

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  1. Chris Connolly* says:

    The Tory Party is also overwhelmingly supported by the national, and frequently local, press (our local rag is still owned by the family of the Earl of Stair). It’s certainly a great help to Boris Johnson that he can rely on the Mail, Sun, Express, Times and Telegraph to support him and to argue his case while deflecting evidence of his criminality and racism. These papers, together with the Mail-owned Metro and London’s Tory-supporting Evening Standard, are the most widely read in England, where most of BJ’s voters and supporters live. The character assassination of the basically-decent Jeremy Corbyn, together with a whitewash of Boris Johnson by the Brexit-supporting papers, must have been one of the most disgusting episodes in the history of the British media. We can expect similar treatment of Nicola Sturgeon when the next referendum on Scottish independence takes place.

    I honestly believe that the fact that rich, powerful people set the agenda for everybody else is the main reason for the electoral success of the Tory Party and for Labour’s abject failure to oppose them in any meaningful way; they are so scared of offending the snobs and class traitors who expound the values of the Mail and Express that they tie themselves in knots in their attempts to delete any notion of socialism that might affect their public image. At least in Scotland, unlike the poor English, we have an alternative administration and the chance to break free in spite of the ravings of the right wing press.

    1. Chris Connolly* says:

      Just like to add that the appeal to bigotry is also an important factor. The papers have been fanning the flames for years. Though it’s true that fewer people read the press than used to, you don’t have to actually look inside because the front covers shout at everybody who enters a Tesco or Morrison’s.

      I don’t think we need to look much further, to be honest, Pat. Donald Trump is one of the least attractive people on Earth as well as one of the most stupid but he still garnered enough votes from national chauvinists to win an election.

    2. Ray I says:

      There is no doubt in my mind that Fear played a large part in the last independence referendum and Johnson has continued to exploit this with his snide references to the Scottish ‘Nationalist’ Party at PMQs. ‘Nationalism’ is a dirty word and for that reason it was not used by Brexit supporters who preferred to talk about ‘taking back control’. It is a great pity that the SNP has not changed its name to the Scottish Independence Party as ‘ independence’ has positive and hopeful connotations.
      As a teenager I remember delivering the ‘Scots INDEPENDENT ‘ .

  2. Axel P Kulit says:

    I have said for years that we need to capture the emotions of No voters to sway them. This is an indication f how we might begin to do this.

    I think this ability to play on emotions along these axes is something (effective) politicians do instinctively. Starmer is not an effective politician, except at behind the scenes manipulation. He is a courtier not a leader.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Do you really think that telling voters you’re going to manipulate their feelings is going to win you more votes? Do you really think that voters are too stupid to see through such cynical attempts to exploit them?

      The bottom line is that what most voters want is more disposable income. Guarantee Middle Scotland that and you’re on to a winner.

      1. Axel P Kulit says:

        1. I said “capture” “manipulate”
        2. It worked for the NO side in 2014 and they expect it to work for them again in the next referendum.
        3. Emotion and tribalism trump reason and facts every time.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Yes, I know what you said. But you’re still proposing that voters should be emotionally manipulated or ‘groomed’ to get them to vote the way you want them to (i.e. to ‘capture’ them for the nationalist cause).

          I’m just wondering why you think voters will fall for such manipulation when what they’re mostly concerned about is their disposable income rather than political causes. It’s the economic argument the nationalists have to win. Middle Scotland wants more money in its pockets than a song in its heart. Materialism trumps idealism any day of the week, even Sundays.

          Unionism isn’t a positive choice; it’s the default deal that nationalism needs to better in order to tempt its customers to switch.

          1. Axel P Kulit says:

            Like I said, what you call manipulation worked in 2014.

            perhaps we need an emotionally based appeal as well as an economic one.

            People do not make decisions purely, if at all on economic grounds. With out some emotional prompt the only way to choose between two pairs of socks would be to flip a coin.

            There will come a time when “middle Scotland” thinks it will be better off with independence.

          2. It would be good to hear you definition of ‘middle Scotland’ and what numbers you are asiginng them? It would also be good to hear whether you thought the ‘needs’ of middle Scotland to thrive might be in conflict with other groups needs?

          3. Mons Meg says:

            I have in mind the ‘mainstream’ voter as opposed to minorities of all types (the rich or the poor, minorities, the politically active, the intelligentsia, etc.); it typically identifies as white, middle or lower-middle class, heterosexual, and otherwise ‘normal’ and has a strong work ethic, an average income (c.£38k) a mortgage, weans, a car, credit card, and a highly developed sense of conscientiousness/decency.

            MORI reckons Middle Scotland (or wherever) makes up about 25% of the electorate, and political parties that aspire to government consider it to be especially important as a grouping because of its potential to swing the results of ‘marginal’ votes (e.g. the 2014 referendum).

            Other groups’ needs needn’t be in conflict with the needs of Middle Scotland providing that the satisfaction of those needs doesn’t threaten its relative material comfort.

          4. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, perhaps you deliberately set out to send yourself up, but anyway, let’s look at your absurdist (not to say bigot-friendly) fantasy of ‘Middle Scotland’. Surprisingly, you reveal that the moral guardians of the nation have been identified by MORI, despite the rather spotty record of our pollsters in doing the day job:
            Perhaps you have advanced curtain-twitching to such an artform that you are sure about the moral rectitude of your immediate neighbours, but as far as I am aware, magic mind-reading telephones are not available to MORI’s researchers. Even more disappointingly, I cannot find any reference to ‘Middle Scotland’ in their online publications.

            I wonder also how MORI/Mons Meg managed to screen out all of those in the socio-economic demographic who fall short of this “strong work ethic” and “highly developed sense of conscientiousness/decency”, considering, oh, the amount of indecent exposure and white-collar crime (for example) committed by members of this group.

            Extremely puzzling was the bold assertion that this demographic excludes “minorities of all types”, both a complete impossibility and unintelligible even as rhetoric. Perhaps the only sure thing we can take from this definition of the elect is the self-estimation of Mons Meg’s ego: an expanse projected on a quarter of the nation’s electorate. As for the phantom votes from this politically-inactive segment, apparently pure of mind yet happy to let the world go to hell in a handbasket, I doubt you’d need more than a single digit to count them.

          5. Maybe later says:

            The idea that we are all rational actors on our own lives doesn’t ring true.

            Why does this mythical group of voters supposedly act differently from everyone else?
            Somehow they resist all emotional responses to the world and are able to ‘see clearer’ that the rest of us…
            That they only act in their own rational economic self interest above all else. That doesn’t sound right to me.

            It seems a bit like scapegoating for outcome of certain events that didn’t happen the way folk would’ve otherwise liked them to.

          6. Mons Meg says:

            You don’t believe there’s such a grouping, then, SD.

            And who said anything about the 25% being ‘the moral guardians of the nation’? They just consider themselves for the most part just decent, hard-working people who are less interested in politics than in having a wee bit more money to spend. If they were a colour, they’d be beige.

            Anyway, these are the folk that the nationalists have got to ‘capture’ in sufficient numbers if they’re going to swing a referendum on whether or not to disturb the status quo in their direction.

          7. Mons Meg says:

            So, ML, you too deny the existence of this 25% of voters.

            Middle Scotland acts differently from ‘everyone else’ because, as a demographic, it has different interests. Its constituents’ main interest lies in increasing their own disposable income rather than in national independence or whatever.

  3. John Monro says:

    Thank your for an interesting analysis and insight. But as others are commenting, Boris, the Brexiters, the Tories didn’t do this on their own. A massive apparatus of right wing, uber-rich, entitled and corrupt players here and in the US were, and still are, the driving force their the appalling success. Huge sums of money in patronage, donations and secret agenda setting organisations have bankrolled this wilting of democracy in the UK – the “media” including the BBC, being their mouthpieces and propagandists. The Pandora Papers, in all their massive awfulness, contain the merest hint of the planetary scale of duplicity and connectedness of power-corrupting wealth. On the other side of this reality is this one: there comes a point in many people’s lives when nothing is worth anything any longer, the struggle for survival is all consuming. Such people are fertile soil for any and all psychological and social manipulation coming their way as they seek a way out, or an explanation for their situation; as perfected in the US, such disaffected and disconnected citizenry cannot connect their own dire situation with the actions of the very apparatus that is drowning them and that they vote for. The cynicism by which the right now will feel emboldened to use any subterfuge, any anti-democratic action, any preposterous lie or any whipped up fear to advance their own advantage, to the disadvantage of so many, is almost total. Sociopathy as a political dogma. Cruelty as a moral precept. Dishonesty as working principle. Greed as a lauded virtue. The standing ovation accorded to Boris Johnson at the Tory conference after his truly ridiculous speech was the sign of UK, perhaps more accurately, English, democracy in the process of being deflowered – something that Boris is seems quite expert at in his own social life. That a Tory faithful, abandoning any sense or moral principal, should so applaud this entitled, uncaring excuse for humanity, who’s undoubted political skill is hiding his nastiness under a veneer of clownish buffoonery, even though every single one of them will be fully aware of his unfitness for office, should scare everyone rigid, because isn’t that how any democratically failing or challenged country behaves?

    1. John Monro says:

      I should add, after my rant, that I found your article extremely enlightening, Pat. I haven’t quite grasped all the points made yet, indeed I am unsure how accurate or relevant all of them are, but they are certainly worth thinking about and incorporating into one’s own perceptions and discussions.

  4. Simon Jonathan Taylor says:

    Here’s the problem with the emmotional context of your piece Pat.
    There is no question that the Tory / English vote has lurched to the right over the last 10 years. They’ll never say it but British Nationalism is ” blood and soil “, ( Does Gordon Brown know this ? ). How do you create an emmotional attachment to civic nationalsim without tipping over into the B an S varient ? Self determination requires an energy to drive it forward and maintain it. Does that mean embracing ” blood and soil ” nationalism here to drive forward self determination.
    My fear is that those NO voters are really going to need to see the bottom before they decide to embrace change.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      ‘How do you create an emmotional attachment to civic nationalsim without tipping over into
      the B an S varient ?’

      Civic nationality is an identity built around shared civic institutions (the institutions through which our public affairs – res publica – are governed) rather than around biological or cultural kinship. Thus, as a civic nation, ‘Scotland’ is defined not by blood, place, language, or tradition, but by institutions like the Scottish parliament, the NHS, Police Scotland, Creative Scotland, etc., etc.

      Accordingly, our attachment to the civic nation needn’t be emotional at all, on the analogy with ethnic nationalism. It can be based rather on the simple fact of citizenship; that is, on our ‘owning’ those institutions and, through them, ‘owning’ and participating in the governance of our public affairs.

      It also means that our attachment to one another – our nationhood – can be based on civility rather than tribalism, that as ‘Scots’ we can identify (dispassionately) with our neighbours, whatever their origins or ethnicity, rather than just (emotionally) with ‘oor ain folk’. That’s the sort of ‘Scotland’ I’d like to live in. That’s the sort of nation I think we should be building.

      But, of course, this does nothing to whip up flag-waving enthusiasm in Middle Scotland for ‘blank cheque’ independence.

  5. Bill Ramsay says:

    Fascinating , I did listen to Johnson’s speech. Lies of course but a bravura performance all the same. Here in Scotland the “seeking” is of course central in the paradigm Pat outlines. However the “arrival”, if I may put it like that, is the real issue that needs to be addressed.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I have heard Mark Solms explain this emotion system as part of a multi-disciplinary model of mind, which overall I found quite plausible.

    However, I felt there was a missing STARTLE/SURPRISE emotion subsystem, which would handle those ‘does not compute’ experiences and reactions, and would be particularly import in learning and uncovering deception and hypocrisy. Perhaps the Conservative performance is designed to jade the public by continual displays of shockworthy behavour until the public (at least older, conditioned generations) are no longer shocked, or outraged, and their expectations of politicians may be suitably lowered. Therefore putting it at odds with the “coherence and integrity” the article hopes for. Perhaps STARTLE/SURPRISE could be seen as a deadlock condition when different emotional systems are still competing, but I think it might be more than this.

    What follows from this is that people develop a theory of mind that they then project onto others. If your typical Conservative voter has a criminal mentality, they may see criminals everywhere. In practice, the hierarchical hypocrisy (public virtue, private vice) of historical Conservatives is perhaps best summed up by the Dungeons and Dragons alignment of Lawful Evil.

    1. Pat Kane says:

      Very interesting. The current predictive-processing model – where the organism strains to minimise all risk – can’t really cope with startle/surprise, often opened up by PLAY. Why *would* an organism driven by homeostatic survival imperatives open itself up to risks, unpredictabilities? (The beginnings of great answers here But politically, I would go to Putin’s master manipulator Surkov, ex dramatist, who literally scripts political shocks/surprises into the “worlds” he makes, out of full-spectrum propaganda (which the Tories just about have). I’m still thinking about what brings such a psychologically immersive regime down…

      1. Chris Connolly* says:

        I’m sorry, Pat, but this won’t wash. You are making everything far more complicated than it needs to be, in order to propound your favourite theories. Probably 99% of us have only the vaguest idea what you’re talking about, and almost certainly are none the poorer for it.

        I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s a shame you didn’t study something more useful and relevant at University, like history or anthropology. The reasons why people vote against their own interests have been debated for years and can be perfectly well summarised with bullet points. There’s no need to try and blind us with science; it seems a wee bit pretentious as well as pointless, to be honest.

        1. Axel P Kulit says:

          Could you give a few links, especially ones with bullet points for the benefit of those less into the literature please?

          1. Chris Connolly* says:

            I think you’re being disingenuous, my friend. I’m sure you can find what you’re looking for without any help from me.

  7. Evan Alston says:

    What political and ideological process produced a progressive majority in a Scotland that up to the 1950s voted Tory in the high 40s% and into 50s% ?
    As an exCPGBer I like to think that that party’s campaigning and strategy through the STUC and in lots of other organizations and communities in Scotland, helped form that progressive majority.
    I also feel compelled to say that Pat Kane always stimulates my grey matter and I thank him.

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