The U K general election, 2015 – Leadership Lessons from Neuroscience by Nick Marson

leaders UK electionOn May 7th David Cameron formed the first Conservative Government since 1992.

David Cameron became the only Prime Minister, other than Margaret Thatcher, to continue in office immediately after a full term with a greater number of seats.

The English voted for a safe pair of hands. A leader they could trust not to risk the relative stability of modest economic progress.

There was more to lose than to gain. Our brains are hard wired to resist change.

We voted with our Limbic System, the emotional centre of our brains, and justified with our Pre Frontal Cortex, our thinking brains.

Sir Mick Jagger knew the Conservatives would win the election weeks before polling day according to Jim Messina the party’s former US advisor and deputy chief of staff under President Barack Obama. He knew Mr Cameron would win because “the average guy thinks Cameron makes tough decisions and things are getting better”.

The voters did not trust Labour because they left that note, “There’s no money in the pot”.

He knew that the English, cautious at the best of times, would choose to play it safe.

So what are the lessons from neuroscience?

The three big lessons are:

  1. Our brains crave certainty

The brain will always choose the safe bet because it is an odds calculating computer.

  1. Free will is an illusion

Science is discovering that we are not really in control. Our subconscious brain is putting an X on the ballot paper. The elephant is in charge of the rider.

  1. We trust leaders of organisations not the organisations they lead.

Trust is personal. The personality of the leader becomes the personality of the organisation.

David Cameron is the Conservative Party.

So when we cast our vote on May 7th we voted for a leader we trusted; a leader we felt safe with. We didn’t vote for a party. David Cameron is more popular than the Conservative Party. The Labour Party is more popular than Ed Miliband.

And we didn’t vote for policies. There was little difference in the centrist policies on the NHS, the economy and immigration.

People voted for people before parties or policies. A leader they could trust and believe in.

The Election Live – TV debate

The leaders of seven UK parties took part in a two-hour live televised election debate, 35 days before polling day.

The parties represented were, Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Green, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru.

It was the only debate of the campaign to feature David Cameron on the same platform as Ed Miliband.

The seeds of the conservative victory were sown in this live exchange.

This was more a Prime Ministerial beauty parade than a mature political debate.

Personality was more important than politics.

The live audience used this debate to pour derision on the publically disliked individuals rather than debate the issues of our times.

Trust was the issue. And trust is personal. Who could they, and we watching at home, trust the most to tell us the whole truth? Who would deliver on their promises?

72% of tweets monitored by the BBC during the live debate were about personalities. Only 22% about politics.

The neuroscience behind the debating performances of the five main party leaders

So how did they perform? And how did our subconscious brains process the performances of David, Ed, Nick, Nigel and Nicola?

As mentioned the brain craves security through certainty and makes what it considers to be SAFE choices based on it being:





So let’s examine how the leader’s personalities registered to our SAFE minded brains.

Our Social brain

We are social through and through. We are all wired into the prevailing collective social mood. We feel safe in our social in-group. A sense of community saves us from the threat of isolation. It is the fear of not fitting in that binds us together with our chosen social group. Identity is very important to the brain. And group identity comes before self-identity. We need to belong. Who we are is defined by who we hang out with. Our brains are programmed to associate with people like ourselves. We are tribal. We survive and are heavily influenced by other people. And as Michael Bond observed we should never under estimate the power of other people – The people we swim with as Michael put it. Our behaviour is influenced far more by others than we’d like to imagine. Like chameleons we imitate automatically. Elections galvanise group identities and emotional contagion sets in.

Dominant opinion, especially concerning personalities spreads like wild fire.

And the British Press and Television perpetuates the stereotypes as the Spitting Image caricature of Ed Miliband testifies. In his case the image painted is of someone who is a geek, socially awkward and dithering. Incompetent. Not fit to lead the country. An unlikely Prime Minister. Not looking the part, not Prime Ministerial. Like the ill-fated Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the “Ginger Welsh windbag”, before him. Image is everything.

There is strong political capital to be gained from our brains’ predisposition towards group identity.

So it is no surprise that we saw a rise of English Nationalism and a spectacular rise in Scottish Nationalism.

Nicola Sturgeon certainly played to nationalist sentiment north of the border.

The Scottish Nationalists landslide victory was more about Scottish identity and social inclusion than North Sea Oil and Austerity.

A massive social mood swing took place in Scotland. Emotional contagion on a grand scale.

From another political perspective David Cameron painted the consequences of voting for Labour to be a weak Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister “dancing to the SNP tune”. This thought put the fear of uncertainty into voters’ minds.

Cameron also used the fear factor of risking an economy “in good shape” to Labour, who in his words “crashed the economy”, by invoking certainty in the safe hands of the conservatives by constant reference to our “long term political plan”.

The Tories economic message drowned out Labour’s rising cost of living argument.

“It’s the economy stupid” as Bill Clinton constantly repeated on the road to the White House.

The fastest rate of growth in the G7 countries and record employment provided credibility.

The focus was on what voters stood to lose not any gains in increased prosperity or a fairer distribution of wealth.

Fear was the key to the “unexpected” win.

Our Autonomous brain

Our brains want autonomy. The freedom to act. To be in control.

Survival depends on certainty and accurate predictions.

And you can’t be certain of anything if others control your destiny.

Nigel Farage, self-styled leader of the “purple people’s army”, prayed on people’s fear of losing control of their country. With laddish charisma he declared “British jobs should be for British boys”. Farage portrayed himself as the working man’s champion.

People of all ages want autonomy. To be allowed to express themselves. To make their own choices.

For adults the right to choose their doctor and which school to send their children to is important.

For teenagers, who in their minds are not allowed to do anything, at least body piercing is autonomy over their body.

And yes Nicola Sturgeon won against the odds by offering the Scottish voters autonomy for Scotland. Freedom from the English political establishment in Westminster.

Her inner confidence, authenticity, spontaneity and enthusiasm energised and captivated the Scottish people and a lot of people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. They trusted her on a personal as well as on a professional level.

We believed in the messenger so we believed in the sincerity of the message.

Our Fair brain

Our brain gets very angry at what it sees to be unfairness. To be treated unfairly in your social group is a threat to your status within the group. Our reputation is all we have. Our wellbeing and very survival depends on it. Threat to our position in the social pecking order or at worst social exclusion is as great a threat to our survival as a physical threat. And the Amygdala or panic button in the Limbic System of our primitive brain is very sensitive to the threat of unfairness.

Ed Miliband made tackling inequality in society a major theme of Labour’s campaign.

The minimum wage, zero hour contracts, cost of living crisis, greedy energy companies, unethical banks were all fundamentally about fairness.

Our fair minded brains love to back the underdog.

When Nick Clegg burst on to the political scene in his first live t v debate he was a political sensation. The new kid on the political block.

In his last live t v appearance in the seven way debate he was the villain. The villain of broken promises on university fees. The junior partner to a popular Prime Minister.

When Nigel Farage burst onto the political scene he was a breadth of fresh air. The “man in the pub” with a disdain for political correctness that allowed him to attack the political establishment – “they don’t like us” he would remind his followers.

He voiced some people’s deepest fears about overrunning immigration and the threat to jobs and social harmony.

But Farage’s appeal to fairness and especially Miliband’s equality message fell on deaf Middle Class ears. They wanted to hear a more upbeat message. They wanted an upbeat tone based on aspiration and enterprise. They wanted to protect economic progress and build on it.

The Emotional brain

Fear repels. Passion persuades.

The instinctive emotional brain repels us against some people and attracts us towards others. And politicians are people who ask for our trust. To believe in them. To vote for them.

The basic towards or away response mechanism in our primitive brains is as powerful today as it was millions of years ago when we were living in caves.

And politicians and their spin doctor strategists know it and play to it.

David Cameron the “smiling assassin” scared us into not voting Labour for fear of a Scottish controlled UK Government.

He scared off the traditional Liberal Democrat voters by ruthlessly targeting their South West heartland under the eyes of his Deputy Prime Minister and coalition partner.

As one political commentator put it, “praying mantis Cameron eats his “male” Clegg”.

“Fear and grievance have won, and liberalism has lost” was Nick Clegg’s take on the SDP election melt down.

The Lessons for Leaders

What can business leaders learn from the neuroscience “dance” played out by the leaders on the political stage?

Few have to face elections, or come under the media scrutiny in a popularity contest that would sap the confidence of all but the bravest. But in observing the political process, we see readily understood extremes in behaviour that all leaders may draw on and learn from.

In pursuit of Certainty

“The sweetest victory of all” was driven by the brain’s search for certainty.

Leaders need to develop a consistent style that produces certainty in the minds of others.

The way they behave under scrutiny in stressful conditions should be congruent with the way they behave when they are being carried by a wave of unbounded popularity.

Their personality and personal values need to be congruent and shine through.

Our Elephant brain

So we have learned from our scientific understanding of how the brain works that we decide about people first with our fast thinking Elephant’s emotional brain and then justify our decision with our slow thinking Rider’s rational brain.

In the televised Leaders Debate we picked up on the micro body language that the leaders leaked. The emotional “tells”. The anxiety that was given away in the tone of their voice. We instinctively knew who was authentic, sincere and honest. We knew that Nicola Sturgeon believed in her message even if we didn’t agree with her. She had the quality of being self-aware and the ability to communicate confidently her ideas with the true emotion that captured hearts.

The ethical appeal of the leader came before the logic of their message.

Many critics of the political process believe that there is too much focus on personalities, and not enough on policies. This appears to be unrealistic. Leaders are best reminded that it is people that turn policy into action.

Personality persuades.

Trust is the issue

A leader’s success is driven by a balance between trust and workable ideas that are delivered consistently. And with no major broken promises. No betrayal. Leaders need followers. And followers need leaders they can believe in and trust to deliver on their promises.

Leaders do not have to be liked, (although that helps), but they do need to be trusted.

Trust is built by consistent behaviour. The voters asked themselves subconsciously who they trusted most to deliver.

The electorate voted for safe change.


“Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe”.

– Winston S Churchill