Anger and hate may be the most visible but not the most challenging emotions the U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is facing among Trump’s voters, writes Timo Järvinen, CEO at NayaDaya Inc., the empathy analytics company from Finland.
In his victory speech, the U.S. President-elect Joe Biden emphasized that it’s time to lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again, and to stop treating opponents as enemies – since they are not enemies but Americans. The former U.S. President Barack Obama said the same while congratulating Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in his statement.
Biden finds the very heart of the problem: To unite the nation and to cope with all the current crises and suffering among Americans, it’s crucial to understand different perspectives and emotional experiences among the U.S. people, especially those 70 million citizens who voted for Trump. To put it simply, there is an urgent need for empathy.
Many people may find it impossible to bridge the gap between the two sides, Democrats and Republicans, but I don’t. I believe it’s going to be tough, but not impossible. I think that Biden and his future administration could indeed build the bridge by facing and dealing with the diverse angles, feelings, and behaviors of various different groups of people based on their age, gender, race, income, and education, for example.
Anger is real, but not the biggest challenge
Two studies, conducted in September and October by NayaDaya, YouGov, and Statista, explored U.S. voters’ emotions and behavior in the context of the presidential election – especially toward Trump’s re-election and Biden’s election. The results showed that anger and hate toward Biden’s election are factual, but their percentage of the overall outcome is quite small. However, considering the size of the U.S. population, we are still talking about millions of Americans.
Anger as an emotion is about someone's responsibility of damaging circumstances, and hate is about strong aversion, hatred, and acrimony. Anger and hate engage people negatively and tend to evoke accusation, aggression, and even hostile actions. People engaged by anger and hate may cause conflicts on the streets, especially if Trump, instead of calming them down, provokes them with his own bad behavior.
Even if anger and hate may be the most striking emotions, they are not the most challenging ones that the U.S. President-elect is facing among the Trump’s voters. Why? Since according to the said studies, where the samples represent the whole U.S. adult population, for every American who feels anger or hate toward Biden’s election, there are dozen times more people who feel other negative emotions, mostly fear, disgust, and disappointment.
So, what do these emotions mean, one might ask. They tell us about concrete meanings in people’s lives: Fear is about uncontrollable threats, disgust typically about morally questionable actions and decisions, and disappointment is about failed expectations and promises. We also know how they influence behavior: All these emotions tend to disengage people – meaning withdrawing, stagnating, and giving up.
In the case of Biden and these negative emotions toward his election, we are talking about tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, who are turning their backs on participation when it comes to Biden’s presidency.
The challenge is even harder if you think about the durability of these emotions. The above-mentioned studies show long-lasting emotional experiences and their behavioral consequences. The collected data supports this scientific approach: Emotions among the U.S. voters hardly changed from September to October, even though Trump had the Covid-19 infection and many other things happened.
It is fair to say that unless Biden manages to accomplish exactly what he says he will – to truly see and listen also those who voted for Trump – the emotions and behaviors in the 'Camp Trump' will remain unchanged.
Empathy may change the future
What could that mean in practice? And how do you leave negative emotions like fear, disgust, and disappointment, and also anger and hate, behind?
There’s no easy solution. You can say that we need to leave these emotions behind us, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t tell people not to feel something. Emotions are based on people’s subjective appraisals. If you want to change emotions and undesirable behavior, you need to influence those appraisals. That’s a scientific fact. And to have an impact on people’s own appraisals, you need to change those concrete meanings and conditions behind them.
Luckily, we know the typical meanings behind emotions. In this Biden’s election case, the studies and the scientific empathy analytics revealed the general causes and behavioral effects of the voters’ emotions toward Biden’s election, among different groups of people in different parts of the USA. This is not complicated; We are talking about everyday experiences that can be understood and influenced.
To tackle fear, Biden should diminish the experience of imminent and uncontrollable threat among those who are afraid. Fear is about uncertainty and insecurity – experiences which should be replaced by certainty and security. To deal with disgust, Biden needs to uncover its roots to find the right compensating actions. To minimize disappointment, he needs to keep his promises regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, racial problems, and economy, for example.
Biden should aim to replace negative emotions and behavior with something more desirable: positive emotions and engagement. By showing that his election does not mean undesirable experiences to his opponents, Biden could create relief which was the most common emotion among his own supporters. Relief indicates avoidance of the undesirable from happening.
Beyond relief, to fulfil his mission, Biden needs to involve people through interest, pride, admiration, joy, and compassion. Even love. All these emotions are achievable by strengthening the typical meanings behind them. Highly engaging interest, for example, can be cultivated through new opportunities that serve people’s interests. To build interest, high coping potential and a strong possibility to influence the course of events are needed. Prosocial compassion, on the other hand, can be created by encouraging people to step into each other's shoes.
All this is possible by systematically listening and understanding people’s perspectives, emotions, and behaviors – and above all, by acting from this understanding, to have an impact on behavior and engagement, to foster inclusiveness, and to bring people together to help each other.
Empathy and democracy are strong together
This understanding should include people’s experiences and behaviors not only for the Biden’s election but for the most critical phenomena in the future of the U.S. as a nation: corona pandemic, healthcare, racial problems, economy, and climate change, to name a few.
This kind of collective empathy is about drawing a roadmap to the better and more just future among different groups of people – to the well-being of the whole society. It’s about combining empathy and democracy, to face people through their diverse perspectives, and to strive for sustainable change in the context of social, economic, and environmental phenomena. By having the courage and empathy to truly see the people, it’s possible to shape the world of phenomena.
Biden clearly has the courage. He seems determined to deal with the different perspectives behind the deep polarization. We at NayaDaya Inc. did not pick any sides in the election while conducting these studies and analytics. Independence is vital when working with data. Despite our objectivity, I admit that I feel relief toward the election result together with millions of Americans. And the feeling of relief is actually growing into something else, something more engaging and encouraging.
If Biden makes the impossible possible, the U.S. can be stronger than ever. However, this is not about U.S. alone, but about our entire global community. It’s about all of us. If we share Biden’s hope, and if we desire to cope with our global crises and not only survive but even thrive, we need to start listening and understanding our citizens like never before.
Timo Järvinen, CEO & Co-founder, NayaDaya Inc.
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NayaDaya Inc. is an empathy analytics company that reveals the way emotions and behavior interact with phenomena. Through data, insight, empathy, and impact we empower organizations, authorities, brands, and leaders to strive for a sustainable change. News and further information: www.nayadaya.com.