Mindset of an Elected Legislature
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 9.8
Uncertainty Under Threat
Elections select for individuals who feel more certain about their views on societal problems and their solutions. Doubts or uncertainties on the part of candidates and parties connote “weakness,” and are not a good way for candidates to sell themselves to the electorate. This is also true of radio talk-show hosts, pundits, salesmen, and anyone who wants to be convincing. However, the reality of political decision-making is that there is always imperfect information, or uncertainty, even if the decision-makers have a psychological or partisan electoral reason to hide that reality.
Research is showing that in some situations uncertainty and doubt can enhance open-mindedness, and a willingness to examine alternative solutions to political problems. Political science professors Ingrid Haas and William Cunningham reported that
“In situations where intolerance results from certainty, creating some doubt in the person’s mind might reduce intolerance…Doubt should increase open-mindedness, making people more open to opposing opinions and less likely to minimize the opinions of others.”
However, the researchers also found that in the situation most elected representatives find themselves in, this dynamic gets short-circuited. They found that feeling threatened completely changes this impulse towards openness.
“Uncertainty may be useful for the political process when it results in increased deliberation and willingness to compromise; however, our work suggests that this may only happen when people are not also feeling threatened.”
Unlike a randomly selected jury, elected legislators inherently feel a certain amount of threat — from political opponents eager to seize on any opportunity to embarrass or impugn them in order to gain a partisan advantage in the next election.
Another psychological trait that is exaggerated in groups placed in a competitive environment is the tendency (discussed in the case of individuals in the previous post) to anticipate the worst from the group’s opponents. Group loyalty can inhibit or induce unethical behavior, with competition being the fulcrum. Many experimenters have demonstrated this dynamic when participants are primed to identify with a group (such as students at a particular university), and are asked to play a game with members of a different group. The willingness to cheat is increased due to anticipation of cheating by the other side. These expectations of dishonorable behavior are often confirmed simply because the opponents are also expecting the worst from the first side. This reinforcing feed-back loop on a national scale can lead to war, even when neither side wants it.1 In an electoral framework the decision makers are regularly being psychologically prompted to expect, and thus get, and deliver, the worst. There are exceptions, to be sure, but suspicion is commonly elected politicians’ default setting when dealing with members from an opposing party..
Elections are a zero sum game for politicians – if you win, I lose. Within the confines of the legislative chamber one might hope for a different kind of game (win-win for incumbents at least, with only future challengers losing). However, here political maneuvering often resembles the classic model in game theory called “the prisoners’ dilemma.” In the prisoners’ dilemma (for those unfamiliar with the scenario) two bank robbers are arrested and put in separate interrogation rooms. Each is told that if he testifies against his partner he will get off with a minimal sentence, but if he refuses, and his partner agrees to testify against him, he will go to prison for many years. Both robbers also believe that if they both refuse to testify against each other, that the police have no other evidence, and will both go free. If the two players are isolated, and don’t know their partner’s level of loyalty, they each have a powerful incentive to cut their losses and testify. Thus even though both “players” would benefit from a common plan, the scenario almost inevitably leads to a less desirable outcome (from the perspective of both players) to avoid the worst scenario. Likewise in a legislature, in an electoral context, a compromise that would benefit both players (and perhaps the public generally) is beyond their grasp, because the risk is too great that the other player will not go along, and is instead already planning to use the opportunity to harm the opponent.
Another standard “game” used by experimental psychologists is known as the “dictator game.” One participant (the dictator) is allotted a sum of money, let’s say ten dollars. The dictator then proposes to the other participant a plan for splitting the cash; for example, keeping six dollars and sharing four dollars, or an even split – five dollars each, or keeping it all. However, the other person has the power to accept or reject the proposal. If rejected, neither person gets any money. If the dictator proposes to give only one dollar, a purely rational participant would reason that the alternative (resulting from rejection) is zero, and accept the plan. But human psychology rarely works like that, and most players reject such splits in indignation as a matter of revenge. When participants view each other as competitors, revenge behavior is especially likely. Interestingly, this behavior doesn’t occur when playing against a computer, where no moral “blame” applies, and participants generally accept any amount the computer randomly offers. As with the “prisoners’ dilemma” above, elected legislators are in a competitive mindset and primed for revenge. Competition can foster revenge behavior, in which an individual is willing to “irrationally” reduce their own payment in order to punish an individual who takes, or is merely expected to take, unfair advantage.
Just as voters rely on mental shortcuts, cues or heuristics, in deciding how to vote, so too do legislators within an elected legislative body. First, I should note that members of Congress spend a small minority of their time working on policy and legislation. A study by the Congressional Management Foundation, based on self-reporting by members of Congress, suggests they are workaholics, but that most of their time is spent on media relations, fund-raising, constituency service and other campaign activities aimed at enhancing their re-election prospects, rather than committee work or lawmaking. On average, members of Congress reported spending thirty-five percent of their work time on policy and legislation, though it seems likely they would tend to overestimate rather than underestimate the amount of time devoted to their official tasks. While some members likely are genuine policy wonks who primarily work on policy, many others spend almost no time at all. It should also be noted that of that thirty-five percent, much of it is framed by partisan campaign priorities, which favors listening to special interest lobbyists about policy wants and needs. One of the many benefits of sortition is that the representatives would not have campaign and fund-raising distractions, could devote their full attention to the task at hand, and don't have any incentive to provide favors to special interests, so long as common sense anti-bribery measures are instituted. Indeed, in some situations it might even make sense to sequester a policy jury considering a single bill, to prevent any risk of corruption — a procedure that would be impossible with elected representatives, needing to be free to connect with their constituents.
Setting aside for the moment the tremendous amount of mental energy diverted to public relations, fund-raising and electioneering, even if legislators gave full attention to their nominal job, the sheer number of bills (covering a vast array of topics) confronting legislators means that they can’t learn much about each of them. Inevitably they rely on lobbyists, campaign contributors, partisan staff, or other members of their party who serve on the committee to which each bill was referred, for guidance on how to vote. The fact that most legislators read very few of the bills they vote on (lay people are often surprised by this fact) might not be so disturbing if the guidance they relied upon was policy-focused, balanced or impartial. This is almost never the case. Members of committees, especially conference committees charged with settling the differences between a House and Senate passed version of a bill frequently seize on the opportunities afforded by the fact that few other members will “check their work,” to insert all kinds of special interest favors into bills.
Kahneman's system 1 thinking also shapes the legislative agenda. Psychologists have long known that people tend to evaluate risks based on how readily examples of some danger come to mind (”availability”), rather than any fact-based or statistical analysis of some event’s likelihood. The media act like an echo chamber reverberating the novel danger, while ignoring common everyday dangers, which kill far more people. This has been called an “availability cascade.” Thus a rare shark attack, terrorist bomb, or plane crash trumps concerns about on-going dangers with far greater impact and likelihood. This availability heuristic spills over into demands for government spending. While elected officials have the opportunity to use system 2 thinking to evaluate and rank dangers in a logical priority order, they have a countervailing electoral incentive to dismiss that approach. Elected officials could consult experts and come to understand that some media-fanned public concern is way overblown. But it is politically shrewder to respond to the public’s gut perception of danger than actual danger. Politicians often find it beneficial for their election campaigns to generate or accentuate these unrealistic public fears. Such whipped-up concerns also often have the advantage of having simplistic “solutions,” unlike real problems that typically have exceedingly complex and hard to explain solutions, which is anathema for a politician’s press conference. Kahneman describes it this way:
“An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. …The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. … The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.”
When it comes to making public policy through legislatures selected by competitive elections, we can apply the quote of Brian Klaas in the previous post. “Bad systems make everything worse.”
I am reminded of the scene in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, where Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), leader of the small nation Freedonia, anticipating that the ambassador of Sylvania may not be willing to shake his hand when he arrives, works himself up into a frenzy of indignation and immediately slaps the ambassador when they finally meet. War ensues.