Voting, take 2

Yesterday’s post was a bit abstract. Now that the dust has settled (and the major national races have largely turned out as statistical models predicted), I’m thinking a bit more about the electoral process.

I wrote:

Obviously the real world is not as simple as this mathematical model – we have passionate factions on multiple sides of an election, the perceived costs/benefits of a good choice can vary, etc. But, having worked through the numbers, I’m struck at how little it takes to reliably tip the balance of an election in a particular direction.

How little it takes to tip the balance… I’m impressed with how well the art and science of persuasion has been developed in political advertising. In his book The Assault on Reason, Al Gore tells a story of one of his Senate campaigns. A strategist has suggested that in response to an opponent’s claim, Al should respond a particular way, and that would drive his favorable ratings up by a certain amount. To his surprise, when he followed the suggestion his poll ratings improved exactly as expected. This wasn’t necessarily due to the superior reasoning in his position – it was a message crafted by campaign staff, presumably focus group tested and run through statistical prediction models.

The history of social psychology in the 20th century is full of stories of how easily people – both individuals and groups – can be persuaded to alter opinions. Some experiments have shown how to persuade otherwise compassionate people ignore someone in distress, as well as how to encourage otherwise apathetic individuals to contribute/volunteer more than they might normally be willing. To a degree, people can be manipulated by messages. If you’re one who thinks “it could never happen to me,” decades of research suggest that there can be situations where you’re flat wrong, and you won’t necessarily recognize it when it’s happening.

So we’re all susceptible to manipulation. Let’s start with that as a given. Let’s also assume that nobody likes to be taken for a fool, or fall prey to this manipulation. What to do about it? I’ve made one personal choice, and that is to not have a television set in my home. I say this not as a point of pride or to climb up on a soap box, but to just state a fact: I dumped my TV in part because I respect the power of advertising (political and commercial) to shape my thinking. A dated but otherwise relevant book entitled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television makes this case well; even in the early days of neuroscience, we recognized that stimulating images taken in through our visual perception systems can implant ideas in our minds without our conscious awareness. Everything I have learned in psychology courses since only reinforces this belief.

Here’s another idea for inoculating against manipulation – engage in dialog over issues that encourages deliberative, thoughtful responses. What passes for “political debate” on television is essentially a set of dueling infomercials. It’s fast paced, with viewers on the edge of their seats trying to catch a “gotcha” moment. It’s harder to be manipulated when you take a deep pause to reflect on what you’ve just heard, and engage in a patient conversation with an equally patient partner. The coffee house and bar have functioned as such venues for centuries.

I was asked today what got me into the study of learning and education, and the election reminded me: my desire to see more people engaging in thoughtful inquiry around affairs that matter to them. This takes both a disposition and a set of skills, both of which can be acquired. (I note in passing that neither the disposition nor skills of intellectual inquiry are easily measured with multiple choice tests – fodder for future writing). The interests behind political advertising are trying to bypass our critical faculties, inducing us to take positions and vote (or not vote) without having actually thought deeply about our motivations.


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