We may think we know all about how we make decisions, but when it comes to political choices, they can hinge on a number of factors that we rarely notice. Brooke speaks with political psychologists and scientists to get to the bottom of why we make the choices we do at election time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. And this week we devote the whole hour to our upcoming quadrennial exercise in participatory democracy and the attendant efforts of political practitioners at mind control. It’s three weeks before the election. Do you know where your judgment is?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because political manipulation is a gavotte that requires two willing partners. You may not be altogether aware that you are, in fact, dancing but more and more researchers are able to peer into parts of you otherwise invisible and inaccessible, to show that you are performing the steps in perfect time. For instance, you may believe yourself to be independent.
PROF. BRIAN NOSEK: Are independents really as independent as they say they are or that they think they are?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: University of Virginia Psychology Professor Brian Nosek is one of the founders of Project Implicit, a test designed to reveal how we really feel. Researchers found that among self-described independents two-thirds identified implicitly as either Republican or Democratic.
PROF. BRIAN NOSEK: But the real interest is does that predict their behavior. And so, we had these independents judge some policy proposals, and we randomly assigned the different policies to be proposed by Democrats or Republicans. In one case, we had people evaluate two welfare policy proposals. One welfare plan was relatively generous and the other welfare plan was relatively stringent. Those are ordinarily associated with Democrats and Republicans, respectively. But we randomly assigned, for each participant, which one was proposed by the Democrat and which one was proposed by the Republican, and what we found was that even among independents, there was a reliable tendency to prefer the one that they implicitly identified with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a certain amount of irony there. Those who say I am independent, I use the facts, are the ones who are actually more deluded about what their real state is.
PROF. BRIAN NOSEK: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I guess that’s a negative way to understand it. But a positive framing would be that the conscious stance of “I am independent,” even when implicitly I am not, may be a way to strive for independence. We don’t have to define our identities in terms of what we really are. We can define our identities in terms of what we would like to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aspirational identification!
PROF. BRIAN NOSEK: Right. Those aspirational identities are ways for us to try to shape our own behavior because the only way to actually become independent is to desire it. That’s an essential first step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Truth be told, we make most of our choices pretty much mindlessly, by using our instincts, senses, muscle memory, mental shortcuts known as heuristics. An outfielder, for instance, can’t actually calculate the trajectory of an incoming ball, so he uses mental shortcuts to judge speed and distance and position himself for the catch. We use heuristics for driving and we use them for political decisions too.
PROF. MICHAEL SPEZIO: - voters, particularly, when they’re forced to make decisions under what we call “thin slice conditions.” That means you have a thin slice of time and you have very thin slice information or almost no information at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scripps College Psychology Professor Michael Spezio studies political heuristics.
PROF. MICHAEL SPEZIO: Any voter who says they’re undecided at this point is pretty much working off of these heuristics and probably not all that tuned in to information. “Saturday Night Live” had an interesting sketch about these folks a couple of weeks ago. The sketch depicted the undecided voter as pretty much informationally clueless –
- about almost everything.
FEMALE UNDECIDED VOTER: What are the names of the two people running? And be specific.
MALE UNDECIDED VOTER: How long is the President’s term of office - one year, two years, three years, or life?
PROF. MICHAEL SPEZIO: The less informed a voter is, they will be most dependent on heuristic processing. They will not be able to engage in analytic processing. They may be thinking that they are, but it’s actually an illusion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Spezio was the lead author of a study in which volunteers were asked to choose a candidate, candidates unknown to them, after viewing their pictures, sometimes for less than a tenth of a second. Then their choices were compared to how those candidates actually fared in real world elections. The volunteers were much better at predicting the losers than the winners.
PROF. MICHAEL SPEZIO: We saw this effect most strongly when people were asked which candidate is more threatening. We didn’t mean which candidate is more fiscally threatening or which candidate is going to run the government more into the ground. What we said essentially is which candidate looks more likely to physically attack you.
And people actually pick out the loser more often when they decide which candidate of the pair looks more physically ready to attack you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we’re more likely to vote against than to vote for a candidate, and we’re motivated mostly by fear, not just of incompetence or the fleeting sense that a candidate might punch us. We’re also terrified by anything that threatens our convictions.
Emory University Professor Drew Westen is the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” In a 2006 FMRI study, he used brain scans to see what happens inside a voter’s head when confronted with candidates’ statements that showed lying or pandering. The volunteers in the study had no trouble reasoning when dealing with the incriminating statements of the opposing candidate. But when they confronted hypocrisy from their own candidate, they were lost in space.
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PROF. DREW WESTEN: The first thing that is activated were a series of negative emotion circuits that were basically - for any of your listeners who can remember “Lost in Space,” it was “Will Robinson, danger, danger.” They saw danger. They saw a threat, and you could see it all over their brain. Then what you saw was activation in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. It monitors and deals with conflict.
So you could see that they were in conflict; they were trying to figure out a way out of that conflict. And then you saw, after they had come to their conclusion that there was really no problem for their guy, what you saw was activation in parts of the brain that are very rich in the neurotransmitters that are involved in reward. These are the circuits in the brain that get activated when junkies get their fix.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean once they figured out how best to lie to themselves, they got a blast of oxytocin or something?
PROF. DREW WESTEN: [LAUGHS] Very, very close, that’s right. So they got this huge blast of dopamine, which is involved in reward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, the same thing you get when you take coke.
PROF. DREW WESTEN: That’s exactly right. There was no reasoning at all going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It gets worse. I’m going to assume that most of you listening to the show are, if not news junkies, pretty well informed. So does that protect you? No, it does not.
LARRY M. BARTELS: We looked at how well informed they were generally about politics, based on answers to quiz questions about political figures and which party controls Congress and the like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Larry M. Bartels is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. He found that the more you know, the better you are at self-deception. Take the fact that the budget deficit declined by roughly 90% over Bill Clinton’s first term.
LARRY M. BARTELS: Most informed Republicans were unlikely to recognize that things had changed for the better, even though they had over that period.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You found a similar effect in a previous survey in which well-informed Democrats were asked whether inflation had gone down during Reagan’s presidency.
LARRY M. BARTELS: Inflation went from 13-1/2% when Reagan took office to about 4% at the end of his two terms. And, again, most Democrats thought that inflation had actually increased or remained unchanged during Reagan’s presidency. One of the things that comes with information is a better understanding of what arguments are or are not acceptable, based on their predispositions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bartels tabulated how the US economy fared when Democrats were in the White House and when Republicans were in the White House.
LARRY M. BARTELS: The average level of real income growth for middle income families has been about three times as great under Democratic presidents as it has been under Republican presidents, and the average rate of real income growth for working poor families has been about ten times as large under Democratic presidents as it has been under Republican presidents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, Republicans win more elections, partly because of the widespread belief that they’ve been better guardians of the economy.
LARRY M. BARTELS: It’s been very well established that the incumbent party, whichever party it is, is likely to do well when the economy is flourishing and is likely to get thrown out of office when the economy is in bad shape. Democratic presidents tend to stimulate the economy when they first come into office, and that stimulation isn’t likely to persist over the entire four-year term.
And so, things are cooling down by the time the presidential election comes around, whereas Republican presidents often come in and tap or slam on the brakes and we have a recession or a period of slow grown in the beginning part of the administration and then begin to grow out of that when the next election comes around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bartels has written that, quote, “Voters cannot manage the task of competent retrospection. They forget all about most previous experience with the incumbents and vote solely on how they feel about the most recent months.” So, now combine short-term memory loss with irrational responses to the “are you better off now” question, and it’s no longer surprising that democracy is such a blooming mess.
LARRY M. BARTELS: I’ve done a study looking at the responses of voters on the Jersey shore to shark attacks in 1916, and it turns out that in the places where the economy was bad in the summer of 1916 because of well-publicized shark attacks, voters took it out on Woodrow Wilson when he ran for reelection.
We’ve also looked over the course of the entire 20th century at voters’ responses to draughts and floods and, again, it seems as though there’s a pretty systematic tendency for them to blame the incumbent party, whoever’s in charge, when things are too wet or too dry at the time of the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, using all the parts of your brain that you can muster, you can see that candidates playing on our human vulnerabilities are certainly to blame. And the media, manipulative and manipulated, and craven, to boot, are also to blame. And then there’s me, and you. And we’re just – you know, we’re – we are –
[“LOST IN SPACE” CLIP]:
DICK TUFELD/VOICE OF ROBOT: Danger, Will Robinson, danger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, the hell with it. I blame the media.
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