Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How we decide: our brains and our elections

Here we go again. The Republican Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck has a habit of telling people what he thinks they want to hear. A front page story at DailyKos documents that he talks out of both sides of his mouth.

Ken "not an extremist" Buck, who was courting the teabaggers before he called them "dumbasses" and who agreed with Tom Tancredo that "the greatest threat to the country that was put together by the founding fathers, is the guy that's in the White House today" until he decided he didn't, and who wanted to repeal the 17th amendment until he decided he didn't, has been caught in another complete lie.

Via Colorado Pols here's the latest. In an interview with NY Times' John Harwood, Ken Buck says quite clearly, "Well, I am not a FAIR tax proponent." And last December, he told teabaggers (the "dumbasses" he was trying to court) "I don't think the income tax is a good idea. I think a national sales tax, a consumption tax, a FAIR tax is a better idea."

Why am I sure that this exercise in revelatory political detective work is unlikely to change any votes? Because this sort of thing is inaudible to Buck partisans, much as it fires up Democratic supporters. Except in very limited circumstances that I'll get back to later, we don't care when politicians contradict themselves.

Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide is a readable, easy to understand explanation, of what is known about how the neurons and chemistry of the brain push us in various directions as we are constantly buffeted by instincts, emotional storms, and rational brakes. It's a wonderful story. It's also a practical guide to how to get the most out of our brain's processes.

Lehrer is out to reinvigorate respect for the intelligence of instinct and emotion that modern civilization has usually ignored. He starts with examples: how does the great Patriots quarterback Tom Brady make all the instantaneous decisions required of him for football success? Brady applies his bodily athletic gifts to allowing the chemical squabbles between emotion and reason that rage in all our brains to flow through to almost instantaneous conclusions and trusts himself to apply those insights. All of us do this in most of life, though we don't recognize that is what we are doing. The brain is a constant wrangle with itself that turns out to be pretty smart about life's necessities.

"...conclusions are actually reached only after series of sharp internal disagreements. While the cortex struggles to make a decision, rival bits of tissue are contradicting one another. Different brain areas think different things for different reasons. Sometimes this fierce argument is largely emotional, and the distinct parts of the limbic system debate one another. Although people can't always rationally justify their feelings, ...these feelings still manage to powerfully affect behavior. Other arguments unfold largely between the emotional and rational systems of the brain as the prefrontal cortex tries to resist the impulses coming from below. ...Even the most mundane choices emerge from a vigorous cortical debate."

So what does this mean for our political preferences? Mostly it means we make our political choices based on very simple cues and then use our intellectual faculties to make up rational explanations for our instinctive conclusions. To some extent, we really do all pick our own facts. More from Lehrer:

Voters with strong partisan affiliations are a case study in how not to form opinions: their brains are stubborn and impermeable, since they already know what they believe. No amount of persuasion or new information is going to change the outcome of their mental debates...

... During the first term of Clinton's presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What's interesting about this data is that so-called high-information voters -- these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news, and can identify their representatives in Congress -- weren't better informed than low-information voters. ...the reason knowing more about politics doesn't erase partisan bias is that voters tend to assimilate only those facts that confirm what they already believe. ...Once you identify with a political party, the world is edited to fit with your ideology.

At such moments, rationality actually becomes a liability, since it allows us to justify practically any belief. The prefrontal cortex is turned into an information filter, a way to block out, disagreeable points of view.

This accords with a famous study from the early 1990s which found that the more TV coverage people had watched of Papa Bush's Gulf War, the more certain they were they understood its value and the less they knew about underlying issues in the region.

I believe we are all subject to the blinkering lens of our politics, though being a partisan progressive, I know for a fact that Republicans are worse offenders when it comes to choosing "facts" to fit their prejudices. /snark off.

So under what circumstances can a campaign use evidence of a candidates's contradictions as ammunition to turn votes toward an opponent? There seem to be two prerequisites for making hay out of the often abundant material.
  1. The campaign telling the tale of the contradictions needs to have enough money to repeat the charge over and over again, preferably with enough grace not to turn the attack back on the candidate making it. This takes a little finesse, though not over much.
  2. The charge of being self-contradictory needs to reinforce a deeper emotional narrative about its subject's faults. For example, Karl Rove could succeed in labeling John Kerry a "flip-flopper" in 2004 because the shape of the charge accorded with the deeper narrative that the New England patrician war hero was actually an effete wimp. That worked, just well enough for Rove's cowboy creation.
So do I think the charges will stick against Buck? Will Coloradans care that Buck says things that are directly contradictory? They might; it seems as if Democrat Michael Bennet will have the funds to hammer the points. But I am not sure that putting Buck's statements into the frame that "he is a wild-eyed extremist" will make them audible to a majority of Coloradans in this angry year. Maybe they want an extremist to turn (something) around? If so, their partisan brains will reframe the statements as evidence of their candidate's suitability for the challenges of office.

Really -- our brains work that way.

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