The raise of populism, the demise of slow thinkers.


Recently, I started reading a book which was given to my by someone who I deeply admire. The book is called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. I will be honest with you, I’ve not finished it yet, but it has evoked so many thoughts that I just needed to write them down.

As I was reading through the first chapters of the book, my mind kept relating what Kahneman says with what’s happening in politics across the globe. Populism, no matter if it’s right or left-wing, is taking over the Western world. Why is this happening? Well I don’t have the answer, but I have a theory that I’d like to share with you.

In a nutshell, Daniel Kahneman’s theory is that our brain has two systems. System number 1 and System number 2. System 1 is the first reaction, the emotional brain. System 2 is the rational brain, and it requires some effort to use it – and probably some training.

An example that comes to mind when I try to relate Kahneman’s theory to politics is the following: my grandfather died in a plane crash in the 90s. It is because of it that I’m not too fond of planes, I prefer cars. Now, I know that statistically speaking, I should feel less safe in a car, because it is more likely to be involved in a car accident than in a plane accident. Yet, if you come to me and say, “Hey statistically speaking, you should be more afraid of cars than of planes”. My immediate response to you (System 1) will probably be “well you are very insensitive, and clearly don’t understand my feelings at all”. Furthermore, in my experience, plane accidents are more common, because I don’t have any family members who have been in a fatal car accident (thankfully).

I think this could be applied to Brexit, Trump, LePen, Wilders, etc. They are all fast thinkers. Or at least, they are experts in taking advantage of System 1 by taping on our emotions. Some use the fear of muslim terrorists, some use the fear of an economical crisis or losing a country’s identity. The speech may vary, but the principle remains the same. I’ll expand on Brexit because it is close to home. I actively campaigned for the remain campaign and I had the chance to talk to hundreds of people who explained to me why they did or did not give a rats ass about the European Union. It was actually talking to people that something in me clicked, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I started reading Kahneman’s book.

I can’t talk for all of us, but in my case I think I made the mistake to think that because I had ‘evidence’ on my side, my arguments were more valid than the arguments of others. I actually looked at Brexiteers over my shoulder, I felt entitled… And why did I do this? Because I failed to think fast enough (i.e., I failed to empathise). I have always been an evidence based person. Feelings aside, whatever evidence shows, I’m with it. But let’s be honest, I am still afraid of planes. So, how can I expect others to listen to evidence when their own experience tells them otherwise? Who am I to tell them what evidence shows when what they see day after day is different?

People only know what they know. You can’t blame them for not knowing more. Yes, as citizens with the right to vote we have the responsibility of making informed decisions when it comes to elections. But again, not everyone makes decisions based on what evidence says, but on what our own experiences have taught us – what we are familiar with or what we feel passionate about. Populism feeds on people’s emotions – poverty, the underdogs, fear of the unknown. They are experts in outraging people who don’t think like them, and we bite the bate. We immediately dismiss them because “they don’t know what they are talking about, they don’t read enough, they come from a rural area…”. This is just so arrogant. We need to stop dismissing people’s emotions. We are humans, we feel and then we think. System 1 will always proceed System 2.

I feel like populism is threatening my dream, which is a united and multicultural Europe. I am no politician, but I know one thing, we are doing it wrong. If we keep ignoring people’s feelings and don’t stop dismissing people for being “irrational” we will lose this ideological war. It is in our hands to actually start listening to what people say, and helping them visualise why the EU is valuable to them, how immigration will make their country even greater, how fear is just getting in the way of them living a happy life. Because at the end of the day, that is all any human wants, and that is, to live a happy life.


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