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In the absence of trust, we favour safety

| | Daniel Murray
Trust leadership

The most recent Australian Federal election was fought in the wrong parts of our brain. The human brain is an amazingly complex system. Around 85 billion neurons connected in trillions of pathways forming the most complex system in the known Universe. It can decipher, develop and debunk incredibly elaborate concepts through rational deduction, innovative construction and imaginary conceptualisation. Our ‘Big Brain’, the massive part of our brain that really sets humans apart from other species on the planet, are remarkable. Sadly, they are not as in control as we would like to believe.

There are other parts of our brain too. Famously described as the ‘Lizard Brain’, these ancient parts of our brain are important for many of our behaviours. This part also is where many of our emotional and survival-based instincts are created. Imagine you are on the couch watching the 1999 film, Blair Witch Project. For much of the movie, your Big Brain is following the storyline, predicting what might happen, trying to decipher the clues and understand the plot. Then you hear the noises in the woods, the fear in the voices of the actors, your vision is limited to the bad camera vision. Your Lizard Brain starts to react.

You feel fear. Your Lizard Brain senses danger and begins to put in motion a series of physiological processes to prepare for action. Get ready for a fight or a flight. You feel tense. Nervous. A shiver passes through your body. You are scared.

There are two important things to note here.

  1. You are viscerally frightened
  2. You are in no real danger

Your Lizard Brain has taken control. Your Big Brain should be rationalising the situation and clearly telling you that, given it is only a movie, you are perfectly safe. But the Lizard Brain holds the trump cards. It might be a smaller, simpler and older part of the brain, but when it fires, many Big Brain systems are turned off. There are only a few ways to reverse this, and one of the most important factors in turning down the Lizard Brain is Trust.

You can happily stand on a footpath, a few metres from buses and trucks travelling at high speeds, without fear. Standing next to a highway is far more dangerous than watching a movie on television, so why are we not scared? It is because, over time, we have built our trust in the ways in which vehicles interact with roads and footpaths. We trust they will stay on the road and won’t veer into us. We trust the system and can turn off the Lizard Brain reaction.

The most recent Federal Election in Australia saw something important about our current levels of trust. Labour tried to paint a wonderful vision for the future of the country. Was it a good one? Was it possible? I’m not going to comment. But what isn’t up for debate is that it was a fairly significant change from where we are today. It was a picture of a different world from the one we are in now. The Liberals, they largely painted the picture of the status quo. Don’t rock the boat too much. Focus on stability and security, nothing crazy, nothing we ‘can’t afford’. Again, I won’t comment on the validity of this perspective. I’m more interested in which part of the brain was in control of the decisions. Labour was about Change, Liberals about staying the Same.

I suspect, for some people, the vision of Change was seductive and so obviously superior to the Same that they couldn’t see how they could lose. Logical, Big Brains might well make this case. The problem for Labour was that these people, the believers, had trust in the politicians. They trusted Labour.

What the result shows is that the majority of Australians did not trust Labour and Bill Shorten.

This is not to say they trust the Liberal government or Scott Morrison. The Liberals didn’t need trust. Their campaign focused not on the beautiful vision that the Big Brain enjoys. Instead, with trust in Australian politics remaining fairly low, they appealed to the Lizard Brain. They were able to trigger enough fear, enough uncertainty and enough visceral reaction in the voters, that they retreated to the safety of the Same.

Congratulations to Scott Morrison and the Liberals, you won an election that many smart commentators saw as unwinnable. Sadly, it highlights three sad conclusions about Australian politics:

  1. Visionary politics that appeals to the Big Brain can only prevail when broad trust in politics is restored
  2. While trust remains low, our Lizard Brains will continue to respond to fearmongering and flee to the safety of the status quo
  3. It is much easier to destroy trust than it is to build it, so easier to keep fighting the dirty fight and languish in a Lizard Brain world


About the author: Daniel Murray

Daniel Murray

After a career in corporate strategy and management consulting within Australia’s largest Financial Services organisations, Daniel Murray now helps businesses and leaders to drive performance through people, culture and empathy. Blending his background in mathematics and strategy, with a deep understanding of emotions, neuroscience and behavioral economics, Daniel has become an expert in building the capabilities, tools and strategies to embed Strategic Empathy.

Daniel works with aspiring professionals and organisations who are looking to grow their revenue and engagement through the process of Empathic Connection. Helping to engage your people by providing the tools to build deep relationships with clients and deliver amazing results.


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