For some time now, my economist friends have had to put up with my dabbling in economics. See, e.g. They will be relieved to hear that I am presently more interested in psychology.
The role of emotion in policy (as opposed to politics) does not get much direct or systematic attention as such in the policy community. Perhaps we are all pretending that it is not there, because in one sense it ought not be there. One might say that people ought to decide among policy options objectively, and choose the best policy based on rational considerations and evidence. Of course this is not entirely possible. There is no point in asking people not to feel things. Since there is nothing to be done, perhaps there is nothing to be said, either?
My take is that this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. To start, we certainly do not know for certain there is nothing to be done until after some sort of discussion or analysis is complete. let me set out a few personal observations to serve as a starting point.
My experience in over a decade of public policy is that the closest anyone gets to systematic incorporation of considerations of emotion into public policy is media training and a bit of rhetoric. Simple tricks are brought to bear ... journalists know that sitting silently will encourage the interviewee to babble things he might regret later. The lawyer understands how to appeal to a jury by producing certain types of photographs or witnesses.
The level of sophistication here, however, is extremely low. Almost none of the study of mass psychology has seeped into public policy the way economics has seeped into law. Some psychology is used in marketing, which in turn plays a significant role in elections, but the purpose from which this deployed is simply to "win" the election, not to improve the process or to improve the quality of policy decisions. Emotion is used in sound bites, in opeds, in cartoons, everywhere; but if it is used "effectively" it is "effective" in the sense of getting certain results (a vote one way or the other, a wildly applauding crowd, an increase in donations, an increase in sales of papers)--it is not effective in the sense of becoming a part of improving decisions, or improving the understanding of decisions that are made. On top of these deliberate uses of emotion is another layer--the unintended play of emotion everywhere--rage, fear, sadness.
The role of emotion in public policy is heightened by the speed and volume of communications. Reasoning takes time, and most people do not have it. Neither voters nor legislators, nor journalists nor anyone else. The sound bite is the only chance that most people get. Also, emotional appeals are common in a democracy, because projects require support. Either a core group of supporters, or broad grassroots support... some kind of support. This is almost impossible to gain by appeals to reason alone.
Part of the problem is a problem of process and audience. One's first audience in crafting a policy argument is oneself. One tends to vent fear, anger, sadness, and so on. It is a tremendous relief to do so. One's second audience is likely to be someone sympathetic--very few people submit first drafts to their harshest critic. And emotional appeals to fear, anger, empathy, and so on are likely to strike a chord with those who already tend to agree. The next layer of audience might well be those to whom one is likely to appeal for support--again, those already in sympathy.
The audience to which one really hopes to reach ultimately are people outside this immediate circle. Anyone outside. The uniformed, the undecided, the skeptical, the opposition. But by the time one gets there, one's message is replete with language choices, comparisons, rhetoric, and appeals all of which are likely to strike Outsiders as unhelpful, overly simplistic, ridiculous, unfair, and so on. (My personal experience has been that audiences actually listen to more neutral, understated arguments that carefully avoiding loaded words, "straw" arguments, and so on.) It is no wonder that the debate becomes intensely personal; it is hard to escape the conclusion that the opposition is deliberately lying, merely trying to cause trouble, is stupid, and so on.
As a prolonged, persistent phenomena, these patterns are unlikely to result in good decisions. We will all be perpetually talking past one another. The quality of arguments made is likely to be very low. The present debate about health care offers a wealth of examples. Proposals for reform are compared to the worst sorts of nazi tyranny, on the one hand; on the other hand we are offered bitter castigation of current problems but almost no evidence that the "solution" proffered will work well. Surely there are fair points to be made on either side. But level-headed discussion has been almost entirely shunted aside by emotional appeals, the same sort of emotional appeals that we do not discuss, that we resent when we hear them directed to us, that the intelligentsia is so pleased to mock, the emotional appeals that we pretend not to be engaging in.
My question today is a larger one; is it true that there is nothing that can be done about this, except for participants in the debate to make personal resolutions to be more fair? (Not going to happen, sorry). One systemic measure is to hope that the process moves slowly although individual items of information pertinent to it are delivered quickly. Emotional appeals wind down over time. Good arguments tend to resonate over time.
I will try to think of some others. Otherwise, I cannot be optimistic. I can only be cheered by thinking of the process as a circus designed for amusement of those few people who tend to take a step back from things--some amusement is due us, we find little enough humor in ordinary sorts of jokes.