Singing to Elephants and the Weakness of Invulnerability


So, this may be falling under the rubric of “too soon”, but I’ve been doing some thinking from a behavioral theological perspective on Clinton’s electoral loss. Two things: first, I write this as someone who voted for Clinton and am extremely troubled by the specter of a Trump presidency; second, by framing this as “Clinton’s electoral loss” I am beginning to lean towards the belief the results have less to do with a Trump victory than a Clinton defeat. In other words while a fan and admirer of HRC, I think the results had to do more with people voting against Clinton than with people voting for Trump.

For me it comes down to her unwillingness or inability to sing to elephants.

For those familiar with behavioral theology you know the fundamental distinction of cognitive science: our brains function with an automatic system 1 constantly processing information; along with a reflective system 2 that requires a great deal of effort. Elsewhere, I have cast these as being like Rebekah when she was pregnant with the cunning Jacob and emotional, mouth breathing Esau. Like Rebekah we have these two aspects fighting for dominance inside of us. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the helpful metaphor of a rider on an elephant. He casts the relationship between our cool reflective function and emotionally hot automatic function as a tiny rider astride an enormous emotional elephant.

While our rational riders aren’t entirely at the whim of our emotional elephants, it is fair to say that communication directed only at our reason will pale in comparison to communication crafted for our emotions.

In Made to Stick for example the Heath brothers explore why things like urban legends spread so quickly while other forms of communication don’t. It turns out sticky communication has less to do with voice and diction (the things we focus on in seminary) than with whether we are doing the hard work of crafting our message in ways that speak to emotion as well as reason. They highlight six elements that make ideas sticky to our elephants: simplicity; the unexpected; concreteness; credibility; emotional power; and narrative.

So, conveying a sticky message is more than just appealing to emotion, and it isn’t an either/or situation. I remember speaking with one person connected with the city club of Portland. I was presenting material on behavioral theology, and he struck up a conversation with me about the anti-vaccination debates that rage in places like the Pacific Northwest. He was frustrated that scientists like himself present all this data, but the public just don’t seem to care about that. He pointed out the other side didn’t have data at all just appealing to fear, a powerful emotion, indeed (especially when it comes to our children.) While frustrated at this situation he had a sense of resignation about it, because he felt that there was nothing to be done. He believed that communicating to our emotions was fundamentally manipulative, and as a scientist he refused to do that. My response to him was that as long as he only wanted to recite numbers to people, he was allowing the other side to win without putting up a fair fight. (And seriously, when Jenny McCarthy is your opponent, this should really be able to win.) Although it would require more work, scientists like him needed to find ways to sing to our elephants even as they are showing the numbers to our riders. I suggested while the anti-vaxxers raise the (unfounded) fear of autism, his side could show the very real danger of unvaccinated children dying from preventable diseases. Because this is based on the truth, this isn’t manipulative- it’s effective. And seeing the face of a child who died from a preventable disease is vastly more persuasive than hearing a statistics report.

This is why I believe Clinton lost the election more than Trump won. Throughout the campaign all Trump did was speak to our elephants, stoking fears, and eschewing articulating detailed plans. (Or any plans at all, really.) But for the most part, what Clinton offered in response were policy points, and when she attempted the sound bite, it came off as awkward, i.e. “trickle down, Trumped-up economics.”

Trump sang dark songs to the worst in our elephants; Clinton lectured our rider to sleep.

Now, please hear me well. Personally, I want a boring president who cares more about policy than sound bites. I voted for HRC, and I would vote for her again. But winning elections requires a story more compelling than “I know you don’t trust me, but I’m less frightening than this guy.”

When I’ve shared this view with friends, the immediate response is I’m piling on to the impossible task women face to be smart-but-not-too-smart, approachable-but-not-emotional, and so on. I think this is a fair point. My personal sense is gender did play an enormous role in this election and Clinton was held to an unfair double standard. But respectfully, other women in leadership bridge this gap and lead with authenticity. For instance Senator Elizabeth Warren manifests a fantastic ability to tell compelling stories, speak to our reason, and stir our passions, too. Yet, one of the few times in the campaign HRC told a compelling story, she was articulating her painful experience of sexism in law school as an explanation for why she chooses to be guarded. And while I understand the impulse to bury and defend, Brene Brown and David Whyte have convinced me that vulnerability is the only real option for one who would lead. Brown writes: “Courage begins by showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

My sense is HRC opted self-protection over allowing herself to be seen. Whether this was a conscious decision or just natural inclination I’ll never know. But this act of hiding, not mistakes like using a private email server, is fundamentally what eroded trust in her. And I get it. Vulnerability is excruciating. To show up means we can be seen. To be seen means we can be touched. To be touched means we can be hurt. And gracious knows she’s endured more public humiliation than most. But at the end of the day courage and authenticity come down to vulnerability. Period.

I offer this less as a Monday morning quarterback and more in the spirit of wanting other leaders to be successful. None of us have any idea what the next four years will bring. There is good reason to be extremely concerned. And we are going to need people of good conscience and character to show up and be seen.