Feeling Wins Elections. Feeling Wins Arts Audiences, Too.

The power of emotion goes beyond the voting booth. You'll also find it at the box office.

This image: how does this make you...

The 2018 election is upon us. How does that make you feel?

In May 2014, the Pew Research Center asked 1,500 people which traits they thought would make for a great president in 2016. It didn’t ask about how they were feeling, just about what they thought.

Noting the disconnect between the traits those 1,500 people and the results of the 2016 election, you might wonder if the respondents were lying. But the short answer is no: lying would connote a conscious effort to hide the truth. For those voters, the way they thought about the election had less to do with their decision-making process than about how they were feeling. It was not that intelligence was meaningless for evaluating the candidates. It was secondary.

As David W. Terrell wrote last July on the CFR, among the Democrats running for president in 2016, candidate Bernie Sanders inspired more feeling in the potential electorate than in candidate Hillary Clinton. That made Clinton no less brilliant, no less hardworking, and no less, potentially, a powerful leader for the US. But the reason she captured the Democratic nomination wasn’t because she captured the imagination, the feeling, of the voters; it was instead her influence over the machine of the Democratic Party. Over on the other side of the aisle, Trump had no such issues with his own party, except for the candidates running against him. And Republicans, including his opponents, ultimately fell in line behind him. A vote for Trump was a “fuck you” to politics as usual from a huge group of people who were feeling abused — and still do.

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As Robert A. Boisture described this July in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, many experts consider American politics to be a zero-sum, pendulum-swinging machine:

The much bleaker reality is that as soon as one political party gains power, the other party’s top priority becomes ensuring its defeat.

And when, inevitably, the party in power fails to deliver progress on deeply embedded problems, the pendulum swings back to a divided government or to the other party’s control.

Alduous Huxley: “Words, words, words! They shut one off from the universe.” Photo: La Presse Archives.

According to intellectuals, think tanks, and peacemakers, the response to this chronic version of reality thus should flow more toward bridging divides and finding the center — compromise. As a strategy, that may be well thought out, but winning elections isn’t about thought or reason. It’s about feeling — about engaging with voters’ emotions. For Trump voters, then and now, it’s about feeling fury, about the feeling of powerlessness of many Americans toward the government and our leaders.

The power of emotion over intellectual intention also goes beyond the voting booth. You’ll also find it at the box office, where nonprofit arts organizations ask patrons to vote for a creative vision with their hard-earned dollars. The question is how, and whether, they are appealing to emotion to make their case.

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Let’s say you announced your new season sometime during the spring. You worked on it for months; your artistic vision has never been more exposed. You’re told that your task is to lead the audience — to be ahead of them, to pilot them on a journey of artistic merit. You’ve selected your productions. You’ve budgeted, contracted, scheduled.

And you wrote about it:

Drawing from unexpected sources of inspiration, the singular artists in next season are creating stories that often become microcosms of our larger world-stories brought to life in an exchange between people that can only happen in a theatre.

That was from Seattle Repertory Theatre’s announcement of its 2018-19 season earlier this year. Here’s the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale:

The 2018/19 season promises an eclectic array of sound experiences, with sacred vocal works by Bach, Mozart and Pärt, virtuosic concerti by Vivaldi and Geminiani, and Handel at his dramatic heights… We transport audiences to a musical terrain at once familiar and fresh, spare and sumptuous.

And here’s the GeVa Theatre Center in Rochester, NY:

One our core values [sic]…is to create work that celebrates the human experience…

Readers know they’re being asked to subscribe. But the words center around thoughts and ideas — they don’t elicit feeling as a response. And therefore the words are not particularly persuasive; they speak directly to the neocortex, not to the limbic system. At most, people will glean that these are intellectual, not emotional, experiences.

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This brings me to Leading the Audience — the fourth in a list of 15 fraught, flinch-worthy nonprofit arts phrases that I outlined in my first post on the CFR. Perhaps some artistic directors talk about “leading the audience” in a genuine effort to take a tour of intellectual travel, to combine tools of escapism, education and novelty. Perhaps other artistic directors use the term disingenuously, deflecting from the fact that they’re simply producing whatever they want to produce. Perhaps boards of trustees and staffs go along with either reason, believing that programming choices follow some mystical path to mission execution, that somehow they better mankind by the mere act of production.

But the phrase “To create work that celebrates the human experience,” as seen in a jolly boatload of arts organizations’ marketing, is both bothersome and insulting. “Celebrates the human experience”? As opposed to what, “Defiles the human experience”? As opposed to “Celebrates the cockatoo experience”? Given that every piece of every kind of art was created by a human, this flowery phrase is filled with gratuitous idiocy.

Leading the audience is neither an arts group’s responsibility nor a terribly good business practice to sway the market. The phrase assumes the arts organization is smarter than the reader. The feeling of inferiority is more powerful than any intellectual intention.

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It’s from the limbic brain that feeling emanates. This portion of the brain is disconnected from the neocortex, which controls language and speech and other thinking mechanisms. This is why we can often feel we know something that’s unprovable. Gut instinct is really the limbic brain responding to the environment. Voters thus choose candidates based on responses from their limbic brain, not from their neocortex:

(Ann-Marie Codori, Ph.D.)

Arts organizations should therefore appeal to the potential patron’s limbic system, not their neocortex. Don’t reflect on how smart you are for choosing an artistic work. At best, few people care; at worst, the reader may feel inferior for not being a part of the club. Find words that convey how your organization fulfills the physical, emotional, and — odd as it sounds — irrational needs of the visitor.

Irrationality compels people to buy tickets more than rational thought does. Think of all the times you stood in line to buy something and how, at the cash register, you thought better of it and put the item back on the shelf. To the retailer, “thought better” is anathema. It gives power to rational thought and removed power from a winning equation: irrational behavior + money.

Don’t tell people what they’re going to see. This is what they want to know, in this order:

  1. Why should I see this, generally speaking?
  2. How would seeing this make my life better, in detail?

Which arts organizations will progressively change the way they do business and speak to the limbic system of potential patrons? Which arts organization will inspire feeling first and intellect second?