The Simple Stories of Populism

May 29, 2019 12:00 AM
Bogdan Ianoșev (GCU)


Umut Korkut (GCU)


By Bogdan Ianoșev* and Umut Korkut**

A storytelling species

Humans are a narrative species, and human minds need simple narratives. We are inclined to believe what feels right even if we don’t have all the facts, we have certain ideas and expectations about events in the world and enjoy seeing them realized. Likewise, when they don’t get realized, we often become disillusioned.

Ever since the emergence of language, humans gathered around the campfire to tell stories about the world around them. In the last couple of centuries, anthropologists have collected innumerable stories from all over the world, depicting memorable events and remarkable individuals. These stories are a testament to the customs, culture, history, and way of life of the people that they described. Among the striking diversity of the stories however, anthropologists managed to identify common themes and similar types of concerns, cutting across cultures and communities around the globe.

Most stories emphasized the need to nurture the bonds to one’s family, to contribute fairly to the activity of the group, to nurture respect for others and for their property. They often come in the guise of simple narratives, sometimes depicting supernatural events and heroes that helped shape our culture and way of life in the distant past. We cherish the tales of our ancestors as part of our heritage, and use them to identify as a people. And even if they sometimes do not conform to our scientific understanding of nature and history, our defining stories feel right to us, and we trust them. So, why do simple stories matter? And, why do so many stories around the world seem to highlight similar types of concerns?

In order to better understand the universality and appeal of simple stories for populism, we need to first mention a few facts about the human intuitive psychology. Cognitive intuitions play an important part in selecting which stories seem more relevant, or more appealing. And it is precisely this side of our psychology populism seems most attracted to.

Human intuitive psychology

Scientists believe the human mind is made up of domain-specific processing mechanisms, emerged to deal with recurrent problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors in their environment. These mechanisms deploy quick inferences that take the form of intuitions in our common perception. This is an important feature. Because the hunter-gatherer environment is littered with dangers, and there was considerable pressure on individuals to act rapidly in order to stay alive, our mental mechanisms were designed to give quick responses. For instance, when encountering a natural predator, such as a poisonous snake, it was adaptive for our brain to signal the danger as fast as possible. However, one disadvantage of such quick processing is its lack of precision. In other words, it is better for the brain to immediately signal that there may be a threat, even in uncertain situations, instead of waiting to gather enough information for a more precise assessment before signalling the threat, at which point it may be already too late.       

Scientists also believe that intuitions and emotions are not distinct from reasoning, but that they function as motivations for reasoning. That is, whenever we reason about something, we focus on that particular issue, as opposed to another, because it was brought about by our intuitive psychology as relevant to us, at that particular time.

For most of human history, individuals depended on collaboration with other members of their group in order to secure vital resources, which they needed to then somehow distribute among their in-group. These repeated encounters, along a considerable span of evolutionary time, favoured the emergence of fairness intuitions to regulate collaboration and cooperation, as well as of intuitions to favour attachment to one’s group.

As a result, we get a mind which is using intuitions and emotions to guide our attention towards the more salient concerns we have always faced. And because all our minds are designed roughly the same way, we tend to highlight the same types of universal concerns irrespective of the culture we come from. That is why, despite being different, we often encounter the same types of stories around the world. But because the truth is always more complicated than we assume, simple stories are often inaccurate or incomplete representations of events. However, they make intuitive sense and are easier to digest.

The simple stories of populism. How it all comes together    

As we have already seen, our minds are wired to respond quickly to events in our environment. Just like our brain intuitively responds to the sound of the wind and the sight of a fallen branch, partially concealed by leaves in the forest, which may look like a snake in the heat of the moment, it will also respond to other perceived threats like menacing outgroups or our unfair treatment at the hands of others. However, while we may be able to easily conclude in a matter of a few more seconds whether a snake is real or not, the issue of whether or not an entire group of people poses a real threat is much more difficult to assess, and it involves further uncertainties.  

Populist leaders are experts in triggering our intuitive psychology by representing any given situation in the wake of uncertainty in terms that activate our intuitions. For instance, whenever we face threats or uncertainties coming from an outgroup, we get anxious and focus on enhancing in-group cohesion and intergroup differences. This is because our intuitive psychology provides us with a blueprint of how to deal with different types of situations, from which we then chose what we think, or feel, it’s the right solution. Populist leaders tell simple stories that portray the world as a dangerous place due to specific outgroups, elites or minorities who are threatening our economy, culture, values, and way of life, and propose simple solutions to complex problems.

The problem is that simple solutions aren’t always feasible, just like the simple stories they rely on aren’t always factual, and populist leaders don’t shy away from using myths, half-truths, and even conspiracy theories in order to get elected. Psychologists have shown that we tend to believe what we want to believe, despite encountering disproving evidence, and that the human mind acts more like a lawyer than a philosopher or scientist.  Which means, instead of just following the facts to wherever they lead us, we often have a version of events that feels right and in which we believe beforehand, even in extreme cases when our own beliefs may harm our health. We then end up defending our position at any cost, just like lawyers defend their clients.

The simple stories of Brexit

For instance, in the case of Brexit, researchers found that higher reliance on an intuitive thinking style and on rigid categorisations, a higher reliance on simplistic narratives such as conspiracy theories and the clash of civilizations’ narrative, as well as perceiving immigration as an existential and economic threat, were all linked to the increased likelihood of voting for Britain to leave the European Union (EU). These are all hallmarks of the simple stories we believe because they feel right, in spite of our better judgement.    

Populist leaders used immigration, and the idea of an alleged unfair treatment of ordinary British citizens by EU elites, to trigger people’s anxieties and uncertainties around intuitions of unfairness and of intergroup competition. They then proposed simplistic, often far-right solutions and promised that Brexit will somehow solve all of their problems. What is more, by signalling commitment to their goals, they lend credibility to the simple stories they tell, making them more persuasive in the eyes of their audience.

And in case you are tempted to think that triggering our intuitions wouldn’t be enough to affect rational voters, bear in mind that we constantly get happy, upset, or even outraged when our favourite fictional characters are treated unfairly in a fictional world, or even killed off for purposes of screenplay, despite consciously knowing that the story is not real. This is a testament to the robustness of human intuitions that evolved in a world where literally, what we saw was what we got.

DEMOS, populism, and the future of Europe

This is why focusing on the micro-level impact of populism is paramount to the future of democracy. The Horizon 2020 funded Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe (DEMOS) project represents a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary academic effort to document the social, psychological, economic, and political substrates of populism in Europe and Latin America[i]. Much work has been done in the past in the social sciences on the macro-economic impact of populism. DEMOS directly addresses the urgent need of understanding populism on a micro scale, that is, to understand the way in which populism impacts individuals intimately, how it appeals to their hopes and dreams, how it promises to deliver unrealistic solutions that rely on simplistic and sometimes dangerous worldviews, in a way that receives support from an ever-increasing part of the population of Europe and the Americas.

Conversely, the project is also looking at the way populism and populist narratives impact individuals who often find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination via populism-informed policies. DEMOS has dedicated tasks designed to systematically pursue these lines of enquiry both on quantitative as well as qualitative levels of analysis. The project will also address the discrepancies between the democratic processes of EU institutions and its member states, and the way ordinary citizens conceive of their own needs and aspirations in relation to the same democratic institutions of governance. Ultimately, the aim is to advance the understanding of populism and its repercussions, and to propose viable solutions for reconnecting democratic institutional processes with the needs and wellbeing of the general population.

*Bogdan Ianoșev is a PhD student at the Glasgow School for Business and Society, at Glasgow Caledonian University. He was previously awarded an MA in Philosophy from the University of Bucharest, as well as an MA in Cognitive Anthropology from Queens University, Belfast. He presently  works for DEMOS, as well as doing research into the cognitive & evolutionary underpinnings of populist discourse surrounding the Brexit referendum for his PhD thesis.

**Umut Korkut is a Professor of International Politics at Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University. He holds a DPhil magna cum laude from Central European University in Political Science. He is the coordinator for the European Commission AMIF funded project VOLPOWER on youth volunteering and social inclusion in Europe. He also serves as the Principal Investigator of the Glasgow Caledonian University team for Horizon 2020 funded RESPOND and DEMOS projects.​

[i] DEMOS project, Official website

Comments (0)