The evolutionary psychology of political campaigning

Richard Shepherdson, Norwich Green Party member, writes about the evolutionary psychology of political campaigning, the harmful effects of PMQs, and the importance of taking a ‘calm’ approach.

House of Commons PMQs
House of Commons PMQs

Image Credit: "Prime Minister's Questions (Full Chamber)" by House of Commons (CC BY 3.0). 

Strong emotions make us stupid 

In the distant past, our brains evolved a trick that helps to keep us alive. When we perceive that we are in danger, we experience strong emotions which make us react before the neocortex – the thinking, intelligent, rational part of our brain – can get involved. When we are stressed, we switch to autopilot and respond without thinking properly; we go into simplistic, either/ or, black-and-white thinking and become incapable of seeing the grey areas or understanding subtleties. In this state of emotional arousal, it becomes impossible to think or learn. Most of us are aware that aggressive, authoritarian, teachers are less effective than calm, gentle teachers. For the same reason, individuals who are experiencing depression – an extremely strong emotion – find it impossible to read challenging material; they report that when they reach the bottom of a page they are unable to recall what they have just read. We all experience examples of this phenomenon during our lives. When we feel stressed or anxious, we are more likely to forget things, make errors or even have accidents. 

Adversarial Politics doesn’t work 

In the UK we have a tradition of fiercely adversarial politics in which party members frequently make a virtue of using inflammatory, emotive language. Ahead of each Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), party leaders compose speeches, deliberately intended to humiliate their opponents; they take pride in their ability to embarrass and express contempt for a perceived opposition. The trouble is, it is impossible to think, learn or understand when we are emotionally aroused; which is why PMQs does more harm than good. If we are seeking to be persuasive and be taken seriously, it is absolutely essential to express ourselves calmly. The science is clear, if we want others to engage the higher centres of their brains – and understand the points that we are making – they must be feeling calm. Controversially, barristers are well aware that when witnesses are under pressure, they are less able to think, respond clearly, and present their evidence in convincing ways. Angry or anxious witnesses are less credible than those who have the self-possession to speak in measured ways. 

Social media

When using social media, we will be more persuasive and convincing if we ensure that our comments are free from inflammatory or emotive language. In particular, we must avoid catastrophising or exaggerating. Here are some examples:

Calm v Emotive language


When I proof-read emails I take care to remove content that might spike emotion. I invariably delete the word ‘very’ and ensure that my punctuation is not so staccato that the reader feels pressured.

Glancing at some Green contributors to Twitter I notice that:

  • Boris Johnson is an idealogical cretin who spouts rubbish.
  • This ‘Government’ came to power due to anti-immigration hysteria.
  • …. the insane failure of our so-called Government
  • …and so on

Such tweets persuade no one. Paradoxically, the more forcefully we make our point the weaker it becomes. Apparent weakness is often a strength, whereas attempts to communicate powerfully are often perceived as weakness. Posts that are calm, clear and assertive are also compelling and cogent. Indeed a helpful training exercise is to print off a series of perhaps twenty inflammatory tweets, and support trainees to re-phrase them in dispassionate terms, without in any way changing the meaning

Calm people are better respected 

We are all subconsciously aware that antsy people’s brains are not working effectively and for this reason, stressed-out people are less well respected. 

John Wayne mug

John Wayne was an American actor who played ‘tough guys’ in the Wild West. When asked about his acting style, he famously replied: “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.” James Bond is well respected by friends and foes alike, indeed the Bond brand is created around his ability to retain his sense of humour and maintain his composure when under pressure. James never shouts and swears or bursts into tears just because Blofeld is being beastly to him again. Contrastingly, in Dad’s Army, Corporal Jones’ catchphrase is, “Don't panic, Captain Mainwaring!”. Ironically, the very act of shouting, “Don’t panic!” suggests that he is panicking! In fiction – as in real life – figures of fun are often represented as individuals who gabble, move erratically and have stressy, high-pitched voices. When we are under pressure, we tend to regress, revert back to child-like ways and metaphorically throw our toys out of the pram. If we are seeking to be effective, popular, politicians, we need to behave like statespeople and present ourselves as calm, composed, assertive adults.