In recent days, I’ve been thinking about all of the “QAnon” followers, and how and whether they are reconciling recent events with their belief in Donald Trump’s role in purging the top echelons of politics and society before he left office. I’ve wondered how people believe it in the first place, based purely on anonymous online sources. And I’ve especially wondered how some are able to stick with the belief after the inauguration has come and gone without Trump triggering the promised mass arrests of Satanic baby-eating pedophiles. The answer is that, for this and other less grandiose conspiracy theories, it is not about rationality and reasons, rather it is about feelings and emotions. Conspiracy theories are attractive because they provide their adherents with an artificial sense of control and explanation, and that feels good.
In a recent article and lecture, Mathew Flinders of the University of Sheffield in the UK, addressed “Why Feelings Trump Facts” (Flinders, 2020). Speaking about the “increasingly polarized, fractious, and emotive contemporary context,” he connects both the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” trauma and America’s Trump years to the alienating social forces of modern society. As norms about gender, race, and economic status are increasingly challenged, a segment of the population is left isolated, or perhaps self-segregated. In the resulting anger and sense of being left behind, that part of the population rallies behind often dangerous forms of populism. And the appeal is no more complicated than the fact that it feels better. Professor Flinders observes, “politics has always been driven by emotions,” but adds that what may be changing is, “the nature, intensity and basic incompatibility of those emotions.” As a result, those who work in the fields of public persuasion need to account, not just for the reasons that underlie attitudes and beliefs, but in particular for the feelings that make those reasons attractive. “Practitioners of politics really need to understand why feelings matter and to engage at an emotional level.” Among those practitioners, litigators also should devote thought not just to what clicks logically, but also to what resonates emotionally.
Why Do Feelings Matter in a Rational Arena?
The legal arena is supposed to be based on evidence, reasons, and the law. But the feelings that a jury (or judge) brings to the evaluation will determine which of those rational components are attended to, understood, trusted, remembered, and used in reaching a decision. While decision makers won’t always consciously put their feelings front and center, those feelings nonetheless play a critical role. Explaining why it can be so hard to talk people out of irrational views at times, Professor Flinders notes, “Feelings remain ‘real’ to the individual irrespective of how irrational or difficult to understand they might seem to external observers who do not feel the same way.”
Confessing some of his own biases, he notes, “When I think of Brexit and Trump, I cannot help but think ‘How can so many people get it so wrong?’ But maybe this knee-jerk question reveals more about my lack of emotional intelligence – my emotional illiteracy — and the need for me to try and understand emotional truths.”
Of course, noting the “emotional truths” that Flinders writes about does not mean validating or tolerating fringe views like QAnon. But it does mean accounting for them in explaining why people develop and cling to beliefs that may lack a rational grounding. One reason is that it provides what is called “anchorage,” or a “sense of connection between an individual and the broader social milieu.” It is a kind of stability and tradition authoritarianism, or even racism can give you.
In the jury box, you won’t necessarily find those QAnon believers. But, then again, you might (that is why “social media analysis” is more important than ever). But what you will find, always, are people who have feelings one way or another on the parties, the conflict, and the story.
Check on Their Feelings
In a legal arena, the decision makers will try keep their focus on what is rational: They will try to follow instructions, and they will demand evidence. But even in this logical context, it is helpful to see feelings as playing a role that is kind of like gravity. They might try to fight against it, and they might even be successful, but there will always be that pull. So, it helps to understand the emotional component of the case.
How Do They Feel About the Client and the Conflict?
A juror’s emotional involvement provides a great reason why you want to ask more than yes/no, “Can you be fair?” questions in voir dire. Ask them how they feel about an issue, try to get them to share. When they tell you that they have some feelings, trust that, and don’t trust it when they tell you that they’ll be able to set aside those feelings. Listen carefully, and trust their tone as well.
How Would They Feel About Supporting You in the Lawsuit?
The other issue is how they will feel about themselves in your preferred role for them as a juror. Would they feel good or bad supporting you? What cause would they feel they are furthering by supporting your side in the case? Are they taking a stand for justice, for safety, or for the power of a promise? Or are they giving in to a legal argument, being led, or even manipulated? That emotional valence is one of the reasons why your message should always include not only “Here’s why I’m right…” but also “Here’s the good that we are doing by being right.“
Flinders, M. (2020). Why feelings trump facts: Anti-politics, citizenship and emotion. Emotions and Society, 2(1), 21-40.