Thinking Fast and Slow
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 8.3
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who, along with Amos Tversky, won the Nobel Prize in economics for their pioneering work on decision making, provides a new lens with which to examine political decision-making by both voters and legislators. His life’s work is summarized in his groundbreaking treatise Thinking, Fast and Slow. He explains how evolution has left us with a mind that uses two distinct systems for making decisions — the unconscious, automatic system that works in the background, and the conscious mind, which requires attention and effort. For ease, he refers to these two brain systems as “system one” and “system two.” Of the many thousands of (mostly trivial) decisions we make through the day, the first system is in charge. We all rely on mental short-cuts or “rules of thumb,” known as heuristics.
From an evolutionary survival stand-point, it is better if our brain and body react instantly and automatically to a rustle in the grass that may be a lion, rather than take time to carefully examine all the evidence. It just isn’t beneficial to devote our limited mental resources by giving time-consuming attention to most decisions. In fact, although our brain blocks awareness of it, many decisions that we believe (in retrospect) we made intentionally, have been conclusively demonstrated to have actually been made through our unconscious “system one” mental process. If challenged, we then justify our unconsciously made decision with reasonable sounding rationalizations. As Kahneman puts it,
“the conclusion comes first and the arguments follow.”
Gut-level reactions or intuition about whether a stranger is a threat or trustworthy, for example, generally occur in a split second, below the conscious level. With effort, we may amend our initial decision by using system two thinking, but we often stick with and rationalize the instantaneous unconscious decisions, telling ourselves a sort of story that makes the decision seem thoughtful and intentional. I will be using Kahneman’s shorthand, referring to system one and system two thinking.
Electoral politics is less about the conscious and rational mind, and more about the unconscious and emotional mind than most people like to admit. The political class is well aware of candidates’ and parties’ need to “frame” issues, and elicit emotional responses from voters, rather than rational cognition. George Lakoff’s books Don’t Think of an Elephant, and The Political Mind brought the importance of such framing front and center. But modern campaigns are taking an even more disturbing turn, learning from neuroscience research.
A raft of recent books and journal articles have presented the research that shows the astonishing role that various cognitive biases and unconscious brain processes play in most decision making.1 The conscious mind spins plausible rationalizations that mask emotionally based decisions. As one trivial, but illustrative example, British researchers found that when a store played stereotypically French music in the background, bottles of a particular French wine out-sold a comparable German wine better than three to one, but on days when German music was played, the German wine outsold the French version three to one. The remarkable part is that when the purchasers were surveyed about how they made their decision, they gave all kinds of reasons, but 86 percent of them insisted, sometimes vehemently, that the music in the store did not influence them at all, though clearly, for many of them, it unconsciously had. We only believe that we understand our own decision making, and believe that it is rational far more often than it actually is. A current theory within the field of evolutionary psychology even suggests that reasoning evolved in humans essentially as a means of formulating persuasive arguments, rather than as a means of truth-finding. We more easily detect evidence, and embrace arguments that can be used to bolster our current beliefs, than those that might challenge our current beliefs.
Drew Westen is a clinical psychologist and political strategist. His book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, gave concrete advice to Democrats on the importance of emotionally compelling stories and how to mold voters’ attitudes towards candidates using what is sometimes called neuro-marketing. Westen’s research team placed partisan voters into functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners to see which neural networks in voters’ brains were activated when exposed to new political information – particularly information that contradicted the voters’ prior beliefs. Their research corroborated what many studies by political scientists and psychologists have suggested, that
“people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments.” [Westen also notes that] “It is true that 80 percent of the time we can predict voters’ judgments about complex issues from passions that bear no logical relation to truth. And it is true that a big chunk of that 80 percent – typically over half of it, and sometimes virtually all of it – is partisan sentiment.”
It is the minds of the remaining 20 percent, who have “changeable minds,” that his book is about shaping. The implications of the psychological techniques he proposes will be discussed further in subsequent chapters, but suffice it to say here that his research shows
“that successful campaigns compete in the marketplace of emotions and not primarily in the marketplace of ideas.”
This shouldn’t be surprising, based on commercial product marketing research. Westen discusses test-marketing political ads, and even
“the use of cutting-edge technology designed to measure unconscious associations, so consultants can test how well an ad, slogan, or political appeal is working in ways people can’t consciously report.”
James Fishkin, a Stanford University Professor of Communication, notes in his book When the People Speak, that there is an important distinction between persuasion and manipulation. Deliberation embraces persuasion based on full disclosure of information and analysis. Manipulation, on the other hand, is a special kind of persuasion that refers to the intentional use of psychological techniques, misinformation, or “strategically incomplete but misleading information” to get people to change their minds as intended by the manipulator. Unlike legitimate persuasion, manipulation is done in ways that the target person would not accept if they rationally considered the issue in light of adequate, balanced information, and if using system two thinking.
Well structured deliberation has the potential to overcome manipulation, and a variety of natural cognitive biases, and to move from mere “public opinion” to a considered “public judgment.” But deliberative persuasion requires a subject who is willing and able to spend the time and effort to absorb and consider the information being presented from alternative perspectives. Manipulative persuasion, on the other hand, can be quick, and carried out without the permission or knowledge of the person being manipulated. Manipulation can, indeed generally does, happen at an unconscious or emotional level. While it is theoretically possible to garner votes through deliberative persuasion, manipulation is far more practical. Manipulation is the bread and butter of electoral politics. With a distracted audience, busy with all of the problems of work, home, and daily life, a deliberative process is simply out of reach in a mass electoral arrangement. Electoral politics is based on manipulation, not because candidates necessarily have sinister intent, but simply because it is the only realistic strategy for winning.
In Westen’s view, prior to the 2008 elections, the Republican Party was way ahead of the Democrats in exploiting the possibilities of emotional manipulation of voters. However, one of the endorsements on the back cover of the 2008 paperback edition of his book is from then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean,2 who states that “This book could easily be titled The Next Step.” And indeed, the Obama 2008 campaign seemed to absorb Westen’s advice with its emotionally appealing, though intentionally vague “hope and change” theme.3 In June 2009 Advertising Age announced that the Obama/Biden campaign was unanimously selected as “marketer of the year” and the winner of the International Grand Prize at the International Advertising Festival, beating out stellar advertising campaigns that year by the likes of Burger King, Warner Bros. and many others. Staying at the cutting edge of modern advertising techniques, in 2012 the Obama re-election campaign conducted a set of massive experiments using a variety of “persuasion” (actually manipulation) scripts on voters and potential donors. In subsequent rounds of canvassing they used only the scripts that proved most successful during the experimental phase.
Unlike elections, citizens’ assemblies can facilitate and encourage participants to use system two thinking and avoid manipulation. This potential will be examined in more detail later on, but in the next few posts I am going to go a bit deeper into political decision-making and manipulation in an electoral environment.
In recent years a number of researchers in the new field of behavioral economics have come under suspicion for cooking their data, and engaging in statistical gaming, known as p-hacking, in order to write up research studies that are interesting enough to get published. While this has tainted the field, I have attempted to focus primarily on research that has been corroborated by subsequent replication studies.
Howard Dean was an extremely pragmatic politician. I had a long involvement with him. I was the campaign manager for his opponent in his very first political campaign in 1982: in my home district in Burlington, Vermont. Dean won, and served as “my representative.” Later he went on to become Lieutenant Governor, and I was elected to the Vermont House filling the seat he had once held. When Governor Richard Snelling died in office, Howard Dean became Governor. Contrary to the public perception common later on, in those days he was seen by his fellow Vermont Democrats as extremely conservative, often called a “Republicrat.” We did not see eye to eye on very much. Indeed, at one point I co-sponsored an impeachment resolution after he ordered the withholding of appropriated money from a variety of programs including the Defender General’s office, Vermont State Colleges and University of Vermont, state employee and teacher retirement funds, Aid to Needy Families with Children, Aid to Aged, Blind and Disabled, and property tax relief under the property tax and renter rebate programs, all without legislative authority.
Westen hoped Obama would use these techniques to advance progressive policies, but was dismayed at how Obama performed once in office. In 2011 he wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama – and by extension the party he leads – believes on virtually any issue.” [http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/08/07-5 ]