This article is co-authored by Pak Wei-Han, an expert on political psychology, and Dr. Tsee Leng Choy, neuroscientist and co-founder of Emotivity.
A café that charges exorbitant prices for average food. A politician that bans a famous pop star from performing. These problems are not foreign to us Malaysians, who are no strangers to complaining. However, how many would actually do anything about these perceived injustices? When confronted with injustice or inconvenience, it is a common Malaysian trait to simply shrug and carry on with a stoic “Biasalah”. While this may be a natural defense against frustrating life situations, we will soon be entering a crucial time where we have an instrumental role in deciding the fate of not only our nation, but the future of those we hold dear. With so much at stake, this “Malaysian Stoicism” may be more of a hindrance than help. Deciding on who to vote for is a difficult process, and if not done properly may lead to some truly devastating consequences - for instance, electing a self-absorbed narcissist into a position of power.
When faced with such a heavy responsibility, it is unsurprising that many instead choose to avoid the political scene entirely. This process is known as political alienation, which has 4 main dimensions. The first is powerlessness, where individuals feel that their actions have little to no impact on the political process (e.g. No point doing anything, nothing will change anyway). Next is normlessness, when trust in the supposed norms and conventions governing a just society has eroded (e.g. Why vote when they’ll just make things worse for us?). The third dimension is meaninglessness, where people feel that they lack the knowledge to fully comprehend the political system. They may think to themselves, “These things go over my head, I’ll just focus on the basic everyday stuff instead.” Finally, there is isolation, where an individual is isolated from the norms that the rest of society holds (e.g. I believe in the exact opposite of what everyone around me believes in) . These dimensions are crucial in explaining why people choose to abstain from voting entirely, or in some cases, engage in protest voting.
While the politically alienated may feel estranged from the political scene, many participate in other forms. After all, complaining online about political scandals online is still a juicy pastime for the average keyboard warrior. They may still vote, but often feel a strong sense of disconnect from politics. People who are politically apathetic however, have absolutely no interest in the political scene, and disengage completely from voting and other forms of participation . Political alienation and apathy have far-reaching and often devastating consequences. Should a majority of the population (especially youths) disengage from politics, their needs cannot be addressed, further reinforcing the sense of powerlessness. If politics are left to the ‘elite’, decisions made will naturally serve their best interests, with little regard to remaining parties. This combination of alienation and apathy serves as a potent explanation for those who are unmotivated to get involved in formal political processes, like voting .
Research from Oxford University has demonstrated how apathy encompasses effort and reward evaluation (emotion), weighing benefits and costs (cognitive) and action preparation (motor) . Emotion and cognitive portions make up the motivation to act, while intent transformation to action consists of cognitive and motor aspects. The basal ganglia is heavily involved (particularly emotion & cognitive) and its integration with the medial frontal areas (cingulate cortex for cognitive and motor, supplementary motor area/SMA for motor) is critical. Apathetic individuals show decreased structural integrity between the cingulate and SMA – this compromises overall network efficacy, whereby cost and effort is overestimated. Transformation of intent to action is thus inefficient, leading to apathy. Hence, apathy can also promote political alienation as the cost and effort of actions are misjudged, causing misconceptions and ultimately, inertia. Ignorance and reduced hope is also a common theme, which is interesting as hope is crucial in mobilizing voters .
Fortunately, these problems have solutions. Civic education is instrumental in combating political alienation, as it correlates with increased participation and decreased fear towards other groups . This can be done by allowing for more opportunities for community service, or educating youth on political systems . Reducing voting “costs” (e.g. distance to voting centers, ease of postal voting, streamlining the voting process) can be effective in alleviating apathy . Galvanizing the power of social norms by creating an atmosphere where voting is not only routine, but a responsibility undertaken by the majority, can also promote more voting . In short, while it may be satisfying to shake our fists at seemingly uncontrollable issues, we are better served by arming ourselves with knowledge as a bulwark against political ignorance. It is natural to fear and shun the unknown, and politics can be perceived as such for the uninitiated. By improving political awareness, we can not only participate in the political process, but do so meaningfully.