Thursday, February 21, 2008

Feelings, Thinking and Voting

Have you suspended your disbelief recently?

Of course you have.

You do it whenever you watch a feature film, play a video game, read a novel or even take in so-called “Reality TV.”

You know that what you are seeing or reading is a media construction. It isn’t reality. And yet to fully enjoy the experience, you suspend your disbelief.

In short, you knowingly buy into the fantasy.

The suspension of disbelief is also the knowing suspension of our critical facilities. It’s no wonder then that advertisers plunk ads into the middle of such entertainment fare. The ads find us in a state of uncritical acceptance, a state of suspended disbelief.

We are sitting ducks for all kinds of pitches.

Recently I’ve been reading “Cracking the Code” by Portlander Thom Hartmann, the Air America talk show host and author. I’ve been following Hartmann’s excellent writing from his pre-Air America days.

“Cracking the Code,” published last year, is about techniques of persuasion, particularly political persuasion. Strangely enough, Hartmann doesn’t get into the effects of the suspension of disbelief on, say, those watching TV political ads.

But he does introduce another element that is equally important. According to Hartmann and his sources, political messages on TV, like other emotion-laden visual images, tap directly into our feelings, by-passing our rational thinking altogether.

He reports that scientists are discovering is that feeling precedes reasoning as the brain processes information. He cites the work of psychologist Robert Zajonc, who concludes that decision-making is based on our feelings.

That’s a stunner because as Hartmann notes, the foundation of democracy is rational thinking. But if Zajonc is right, we are voting based on feelings, not thinking.

Couple that idea with being in a state of suspended disbelief and you have eroded the foundation of democracy.

All of which goes a long way to explaining the success of a George W. Bush, and, in fairness, a host of other politicians and political interest groups with millions to spend on visual, non-rational, emotion-evoking images.

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