Awaiting the Amygdala Hijack!

05 Feb,2021


By Avik Chattopadhyay


Two just-released reports are the genesis of this piece. The India Today – Karvy Insights Mood of the Nation [MOTN] Jan 2021 report and the EIU Democracy Index 2020.


How do these two reports have any impact on the world of brands? I shall make an attempt at connecting the dots soon.


The MOTN report is a half-yearly exercise, this one interviewing 12,232 people across 19 states [the North East is not covered]. 67% of the respondents are rural and the rest urban. Each respondent was asked a set of questions ranging from governance to jobs, the economy, Covid, Article 370, quality of opposition etc. between January 3 and 13.


I will stay away from personalities and parties and spend some time on the issues of national interest and individual importance for building my hypothesis. I will also not get into regional variances here to keep it simple for now. Those of you who wish to get into all that can go through the Feb 01 issue of India Today.


The Top 3 single biggest achievements of the government are the Ram Temple at 27%, Article 370 at 20% and Covid-management at 15%. The top 3 single biggest failures are Unemployment at 29%, Inflation at 13% and Domonetisation [even now!] at 10%.


The 5 biggest problems the nation is facing are Unemployment at 23%, Inflation at 9%, Farm distress at 7%, Corruption at 7% and Economic downturn at 6%. Interestingly, Terrorism and Fake news lie at the bottom at 3% each.


76% believe that corruption has increased, with the politicians and police being the most corrupt. 66% have seen incomes dropping and 19% lost their jobs / businesses due to Covid. 43% believe their financial situation has remained the same in spite of the ‘stimulus’ and has become worse for 20%.


While 46% believe Atmanirbhar Bharat is a very good initiative, 39% believe that only big business will be benefitted from the government’s economic policies! 53% believe the economy will remain the same or get worse over the next 6 months.


Issues like Universal Civil Code, ‘Love Jihad’ and Article 370 are important enough for the general population to be bothered about.


Going by the above, an independent observer would feel that the government and the leadership would be on weak footing and vulnerable to be shaken and stirred.


Yet, 66% believe the government has handled the economy well.

55% believe the government had done enough to control inflation.

67% believe the government has managed the Covid economic fallout well.

38% believe the current Prime Minister is the best ever the country had.

And 38% believe he would be the best for another term.


Now to the EIU Democracy Index 2020 report.


This is an annual feature and evaluates 167 countries on 5 parameters of Electoral Process & Pluralism, Functioning of Government, Political Participation, Political Culture and Civil Liberties. India, a “flawed democracy” ranks 53rd. South Africa and Brazil are at 45th and 49th respectively. We are hemmed in by Bulgaria and Tunisia. On the 5 parameters, we score lowest on Political Culture and Civil Liberties! The movement of the overall score is interesting, dropping from 7.92 in 2014 to 6.61 now. It has been gradual drop every year. Guess in 2014, with the overthrow of the Congress, people believed it was a bit of a democratic revolution. Over the years, the collective euphoria has died down and harsh realities are staring us in the face.


This is a paradoxical situation. Where the citizen is aware of the hardships, pitfalls and failures yet wishes to look beyond them and be more enamoured with issues that have no direct correlation with his / her present state of being. Where the rational benefits are outstripped by the emotional ones. Where the human reactions are extreme and out of proportion to the actual stimulus as if triggered from a greater emotional threat!


This is called the “Amygdala Hijack”!


The amygdala, according to Wikipedia, “is one of two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain. Shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memorydecision-making and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression), the amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system. The term amygdala was first introduced by Karl Friedrich Burdach in 1822.”


The neuropsychological study of amygdala activity shows patterns of anxiety, fear, social interaction, sexual behaviour, aggression, bipolar disorder and political orientation.


The amygdala can be “hijacked” by aspects of fear and threat, leading to strong emotional reaction and a sudden onset of intense activity borne by overt aggression and orientation. The stimuli may also be irrationally positive bordering on aspects like sacrifice and protection. If the post-episode realisation of inappropriate behaviour happens late enough, the damage in a relationship or interaction may tend to be irreversible!


So, if doses of threat of being marginalised can be balanced with those of sacrifice needed to restore majoritarianism and given to a population that has been living in a socio-economic vacuum, the results can be dramatic. Today’s deprivation can be justified by a missionary zeal for tomorrow’s hope. Remember the signs put up by the PWD when roads were dug up saying, “Today’s pain, tomorrow’s gain.”! This allows the emotional you to accept mediocrity and sub-par performance today in hope of prosperity and recognition later.


This typically explains the contradictions in the responses in the MOTN report. They are a reflection of “Brand India” today.


And this hijack has been used by many brands to good immediate effect, across the sands of time. “Nationalisation” and “Swadeshi” have been used right from banking to consumer perishables as a positive stimulus. Similarly, “Privatisation” has been used a negative one. We had Campa Cola being a “Swadeshi” aerated beverage when the rational mind would have asked the very logic of needing one in a poor country like ours in 1977 just because Coca-Cola was asked to exit. We have insurance companies and banks proudly boasting being “Indian” and therefore more credible than private players in ensuring your policies and money were protected. Logic of the number of public sector banks folding up and being gobbled up by larger ones would not work.


Then there are brands that have always played the card of “protecting your interest”. This stimulus plays very well in the banking industry explaining brands like ‘North Kannara Goud Saraswat Bank’. This bank, run by a specific group of people, will be able to best protect the interests of that community. And we have more examples like ‘Catholic Syrian Bank’.


Driving fear in areas like health and hygiene has worked in hijacking consumer response. The fear of contamination can be positively used like NDDB did with ‘Dhara’ in 1988. Or it can be a negative stimulus that Patanjali used to draw people away from direct competition like Dabur, Godrej and Unilever.


And then, there is the TINA factor [There Is No Alternative]. Brands in near monopoly situations have used this to the hilt where the hapless customer actually justifies purchase. For years we praised the quality and service levels of a Hindustan Motors and Premier Auto dishing out the Ambassador and Premier. We were saddled with BSNL and MTNL for years, putting up with inefficiency. The nation was ‘happy’ with the Mahindra Bolero and Tata Sumo till the Toyota Qualis and Innova came along. The moment a viable alternative raises its head, the tides are turned, and the alternative becomes the near norm. The TINA factor is a mere illusion. Society and the marketplace always throw up alternatives. And they reinvent the game, set new benchmarks, and improve lives. Till the time they become totalitarian in nature.


That is the time the amygdala waits for another hijack!


Avik Chattopadhyay is a senior brand and business strategy consultant based in Gurugram. He writes on MxMIndia mostly every other Thursday. His views here are personal


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