Imagination and Fancy: How Stress is Making You a Bad Voter

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Few topics summon emotions more heated than the 2016 American Presidential Elections because few presidential candidates have been more controversial and despised by the public than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. We seem to have turned around a dark corner in our history, passing into unfamiliar territory in which we are electing our commander-in-chief based on the mantra, “Which is the lesser of two evils?” We have somehow chosen two of the most outrageous candidates in the election and pitted them against each other in a furious, mud-slinging battle of, “I know you are, but what am I?” However, America’s decision to nominate these two specific individuals can actually be philosophically and psychologically explained.

When examining the role that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary Imaginations play in the assimilation of information and the creation of perception, and the result of the brain chemically changing under stress, it really is little wonder that the two most hysteria-inducing presidential candidates were chosen as their parties’ nominees.

First, let us examine Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary Imagination.

“The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create…” (585-586)

In other words, Coleridge asserted that the mind does not just reflect the information being presented, but rather creates and gives meaning to experiences. The Primary Imagination gives us the capability to remember and picture what we have experienced: for example, a streaming of the presidential debates, or a YouTube video of the latest political scandal. The Primary Imagination would allow us to recall the experience.

The Secondary Imagination, on the other hand, helps us to create the world around us as we perceive it. It’s what helps us to synthesize individual or discordant pieces to form a whole; it finds the commonality or relativity, and then the meaning of the resulting figure. “Reason can only enumerate, divide and analyze. It is confined to the realm of what is already known, or perceived, or experienced, while imagination is the agent of innovation, novelty, originality and genius, in it the capacity to unite into new wholes previously unrelated elements.” (Wheeler 1989, p. 99). Imagination is “the senses, emotions, intuition, intellect, will—all human powers brought into harmonious action.” (Sherwood 1975, p. 26)

It is the Secondary Imagination that helps us to read about a candidate’s platform, learn of their public and private life, watch them in the debates, and create an intelligent opinion based on these facts. The Secondary Imagination is necessary for a strong political standpoint and good decision-making in general.

The problem is that the imagination is a part of the brain that is impaired by a chemical called cortisol—a chemical that is secreted when an individual experiences stress. In 2011, European Neuropsychopharmacology published a study in which the cortisol-levels of voters were measured before voting, and then connections were made between voters with high levels of cortisol and their voting patterns:

“…human experiments indicate that when cortisol was administered to participants prior to viewing arousing pictures (independent of their valance) and neutral ones, the former were remembered better than the latter (Kuhlmann and Wolf, 2006)…”

So we are more likely to have an impression made on us and remember the most emotionally-arousing candidates when our stress-levels are high. The study goes on to state that when cortisol was administered to human participants of the experiment, memory retrieval was impaired, even in recalling events that had occurred only the day before. This, however, is not the most dangerous side-effect.

“Cortisol administration also increases reward-seeking and risk-taking behavior, likely due to the increase in dopaminergic activity (Marinelli et al., 1998 and Putman et al., 2010). Similarly, stress-induced cortisol has significant effects on cognition. Acute stress disrupts decision-making (Keinan et al., 1987Preston et al., 2007 and Porcelli and Delgado, 2009), making those with higher levels of cortisol more sensitive to immediate rewards than those with lower levels (Piazza et al., 1993Adam and Epel, 2007 and Newman et al., 2007). The former are also more prone to making snap decisions, indicative of a loss of top-down control (Keinan et al., 1987 and Porcelli and Delgado, 2009). Cortisol administered individuals are much more risk seeking when the probability of losing and winning is high, a pattern that reflects the combined effect of reduced sensitivity to cues of punishment and increased sensitivity to reward (Putman et al., 2010).” (2011)

So are we just over-stressed as a nation? The answer is yes. The American Psychological Association actually released a document titled “Stress in America: U.S. Presidential Election 2016” which featured numbers reporting that the stress-levels of members of both parties are significantly higher than normal this election. (2016)

Expanding our view to the world stage, it has been a very stressful last couple of years for the entire globe. Issues such as ISIS, the refugee crisis, the war in Ukraine, Syria, the events leading up to the Black Lives Matter movement, and various other shootings of sexual and racial minorities, just to name a few, have really taken a toll on American voters. Our heightened cortisol-levels are leading us, in our state of impaired-imagination, to be drawn to the more extreme, attention-grabbing candidates, to forget certain key factors or traits of the candidates, and to take risks.

If the Primary Imagination and Secondary Imagination lead us to comprehend parts and create a whole, to make calculated decisions and be able to project future probability, then what part of the mind are we using to select our presidential candidates? Coleridge would answer that we are employing Fancy.

He states that “Fancy… has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” (586)

Fancy is taking ready-made chunks of experience and sticking them together to form a sort of mutant experience. It would be the equivalent of watching various programs on Fox News or CBS, taking the pre-digested, pre-prepped feed of views and smacking them together to create a Frankenstein’s monster of an opinion. There is no merging or assimilation of data, there is no creation of meaning—there is only an acceptance and accumulation of the stories promulgated by one’s already chosen source of information.

This is, of course, not new in the sphere of American politics. We choose our camps and then we stick with them. The problem is when, out of fear and stress, we take risks we are unable and unwilling to calculate. I would argue that the reason why this particular election is causing Americans such a great amount of stress is because the candidates are, in fact, purposefully fear-pandering. As their campaigns play to our anxieties and our suspicions (of terrorism, of leaked emails, of secret deals, of sex abuse scandals, etc.), predicting doomsday-like endings should the opponent win the presidency, our cortisol-levels continue to rise until we find ourselves on the threshold of a national panic attack. One only needs to turn on the TV to see the bloody smear campaign the left-wing media is waging on Trump, or watch footage of a Trump rally in which supporters are whipped into a violent, animalistic frenzy, to realize that both candidates are using the same sadistic tactic. They’re aiming to gun down the Secondary Imagination.

Though Coleridge, as a Romantic and a Transcendentalist, would argue that it is us who hold ultimate control over our minds, I would attest that the mental Imagination resides within the physical brain. Just as it is true that a student, having slept for eight hours, is more likely to write a cohesive and creative essay than another who slept for only two, we are only able to mentally process as much as the confines of the physical brain allow us.

So, if outside influences have the ability to affect us mentally, what is to be done? Must we give way to the Trumps and Hillarys who stroke our ever-mounting panic in an almost dystopian-like maneuver to shut down our minds for the sake of their power? Though we may not be able to shut out the barrage of distressing messages flung at us on the daily, Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination does grant us the ability to decide how we listen. Once those cortisol-levels rise, our brain is affected and our faculties are already impaired.

However, if we choose to be selective, if we choose to be wary of sensationalism, if we choose hope over fear, and balance over extremism, we will be able to maintain a cool head and a clear mind and a working Secondary Imagination. It is the scared animal inside of us that can be shut down, but it is the wise and autonomous human being that does not find pleasure in being frightened into employing Fancy and swallowing pre-chewed chunks of information. He recognizes the tell-tale signs of stress, steps back, takes a breath, and uses his Secondary Imagination to find a creative solution. So the next time you scour the internet, feeding on the horde of fear-mongering Facebook posts, do your cortisol-levels a favor and stop. Your country will thank you for it.  

“APA Survey Reveals 2016 Presidential Election Source of Significant Stress for More Than Half of Americans,” 13 Oct. 2016.  Washington D.C. Retrieved 27 Oct. 2016
Coleridge, Samuel “From Biographia Literaria,” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Leitch, Vincent, ed. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton and Co. New York. 2010.

Hope, Jensen Schau (2000) "Consumer Imagination, Identity and Self-Expression", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 50-56.

Sherwood, Margaret (1937), Coleridge’s Imaginative Conception of the Imagination, Wellesley, Mass: Wellesley Press.

Waismel-Manor, Israel et al. (2011) “When Endocrinology and Democracy Collide: Emotions, Cortisol and Voting at National Elections”

European Neuropsychopharmacology, Volume 21, Issue 11, 789 – 795
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