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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Emotional Governance: Therapeutic or Submerged?

As part of our ongoing series of posts for Psychology Today exploring the contours of the psychological state, we are using this short reflection to consider the relationship between the psychological state and emotional governance. In our previous post (introducing the psychological state) we argued that a renewed concern with the emotional dimensions of human existence is a defining characteristic of the psychological state. While the idea that humans are fundamentally emotional beings may seem intuitively obvious, for a long-time public policy-makers have preferred to see people as primarily rational actors who are rarely swayed by emotional prompts. Within the psychological state, however, the figure of the ever rational, deliberative, self-interested, and calculating figure of homo-economicus is replaced by a more emotional citizen. In their influential book Nudge (2008), Thaler and Sunstein depict this emotional citizen as being more akin to Homo Simpson than homo-economicus! The emotional citizen is thus routinely depicted as being an error-prone and short-term decision-maker who tends to act first and think of justifications later.

For us, governmental concern with the emotional aspects of existence marks out a key moment in the history of the state. This history starts with the military state of Machiavelli’s Prince, moves through the bureaucratic state described by Weber, before entering a period of more economically oriented governance outlined by von Hayek and delivered by Thatcher and Reagan. It is helpful to position more emotional manifestations of the state within this historical context because, in many ways, emotional government is a child of previous governmental regimes. We would argue that emotionally-oriented government is a response to both the dispassionate, uncaring bureaucracies of the modern state, and the self-interested depictions of the human subject that were popularized within neoliberal forms of economic governance.

 While it is now widely acknowledged that government has taken a more emotional turn, relatively little has been said about what this transition may involve. In the remainder of this post we outline some ways in which we might start to think about and question emotional government.

In order to understand emotional government it is important to have some sense of what we mean by the term emotion. While we all have some sense of what expressed emotions such as joy, fear, anxiety, excitement, anger, pleasure, and pain are, explaining emotions is a much more difficult task. Emotions are often associated with felt sensations that are not easily explained in rational terms. Emotional systems of government recognize that emotions are a crucial aspect of humandecision-making, but they also emphasize the varied points of origins from which emotional prompts to action come from. While at one level emotions can be the product of very personal forms of response to situations, they are also the product of the social and environmental contexts within which humans live. Emotions are thus part of the social fabric that constitute forms of inter-personal reciprocity and debt, cultural norms, and peer pressure. Emotions are also intimately tied to the physical environments within which we live our lives (from the fears that may prevent us from walking in a city at night, to the pleasures we derive from contemporary spaces of commercial consumption). On these terms, emotional systems of government are not only interested in the more-than-rational forces (such as fear and joy) that shape human behaviour, but also in the broader socio-cultural contexts within human decisions are made. This is, of course, a far cry from economic systems of government, which view the human subject as an isolated, cold-blooded and self-serving actor.

There are two main ways in which we can interpret emotional government. The first emerges out of James L Nolan’s Therapeutic State thesis (Nolan, 1998). In his account of the rise of a distinctively therapeutic form of fin de siècle government in the US, Nolan describes the emergence of public policy that uses emotional strategies in order to support and emancipate citizens. According to Nolan, the therapeutic state can be seen in the US justice, public education, and welfare systems. At its heart, the therapeutic state understands human behaviours not on moral, but pathological terms. Behaviour change is then not about the use of external moral arguments (from the religious or political elite), but about eliciting enhanced forms of self-understanding (through psychoanalytical techniques).

The second perspective is provided by Suzanne Mettler’s Submerged State thesis (Mettler, 2011). Within Mettler’s account of the contemporary US government, she describes an increasingly hidden form of state, which targets the, often unconscious, emotional drivers of citizens’ behaviour in order to achieve certain public policy goals. What Mettler describes as the submerged state is a broader manifestation of so-called nudge tactics, within which human decisions are primed, framed, and anchored using specific psychological techniques (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).

In essence what the work of Nolan and Mettler illustrates is that emotional government can take two basic forms: 1) governing through emotions (as expressed in the Therapeutic State thesis); and 2) the governing of emotions (as found in the libertarian paternalism of the submerged state). Governing through emotions, involves promoting conscious reflections on the emotional parameters of everyday life. The governing of emotions, on the other hand, involves the subconscious correction of irrational actions.

It is our contention that both of these manifestations of emotional governance wrongly pathologizes emotions as things that need to be corrected and re-aligned, either through conscious therapy or submerged manipulation. We are consequently interested in new systems of psychological governance that can enable people to better understand the role of emotions in their lives in a non-judgmental way. We believe that developing non-judgmental awareness of our emotional lives is vital to the establishment of a more personally empowering psychological state.


Mettler, S. (2011) The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

Nolan, J.L. Jnr (1998) The Therapeutic State: Justifying Government at Century’s End (New York University Press, New York).

Thaler, R. and Sunstein, C. (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness (Yale University Press,New Haven).



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