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January 20, 2012

Democracy and the Disengaged Voter

As hesitant as the editorial staff are to encourage the "everyone who doesn't agree with me is an ignoramus" crowd, we found this interesting:

Why are democracies so vibrant even when composed of uninformed citizens? According to a new study led by the ecologist Iain Couzin at Princeton, this collective ignorance is an essential feature of democratic governments, not a bug. His research suggests that voters with weak political preferences help to prevent clusters of extremists from dominating the political process. Their apathy keeps us safe.

To show this, Dr. Couzin experimented on a rather unlikely set of subjects: fish. Many different species, such as schooling fish and flocking birds, survive by forming a consensus, making collective decisions without splintering apart. To do so, these creatures are constantly forced to conduct their own improvised elections.

The scientists trained a large group of golden shiners, a small freshwater fish used as bait, to associate the arrival of food with a blue target. They then trained a smaller group to associate food with a yellow target, a color naturally preferred by the fish. Not surprisingly, when all the trained golden shiners were put in one aquarium, most of them swam toward the yellow dot; the stronger desires of the minority, fueled by the shiners' natural preference, persuaded the majority to follow along.

But when scientists introduced a group of fish without any color training, yellow suddenly lost its appeal. All of a sudden, the fish began following the preferences of the majority, swimming toward the blue target. "A strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice," the scientists concluded. "But the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously inhibits this process, returning control to the numerical majority."

Of course, many political scientists have criticized this extrapolation from golden shiners to democratic government, noting that not all independent voters are ignorant—some are simply moderate—and that a minority doesn't always represent an extreme view.

Nevertheless, this research helps to explain the importance of indifference in a partisan age. If every voter was well-informed and highly opinionated, then the most passionate minority would dominate decision-making. There would be no democratic consensus—just clusters of stubborn fanatics, attempting to out-shout the other side.

I wonder how media bias or selective coverage of news stories plays into this scenario? If voters are truly disengaged or ignorant, it suggests that media spin is less important in determining the outcome of elections than we might think. But if the disengaged voter skims the news rather than reading in depth, one would expect media bias to have more of an effect given that headlines are often more extreme (or even unsupported by) the articles they introduce.

Finally, I can't help but wonder what role bias plays in voter behavior.

I'm re-reading Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis. In the opening chapters he reviews several studies of perception and bias. One that caught my eye was a simple experiment that suggests that verbal cues affect subsequent behavior. In this study, participants were asked to unscramble five words and form a sentence with four of them. Once they were done, they were instructed to get up and find the experimenter.

They found the experimenter in a hallway engaged in a conversation with someone else and refusing to make eye contact with (acknowledge) the waiting study participant. Here's the interesting part: the willingness of test takers to interrupt the conversation was correlated to the words used in the test they'd just taken. If their version of the test contained words related to rudeness, aggression, or bothering others, they were more likely to interrupt. If their test vocabulary was seeded with terms like respect or politeness, they were more likely to wait to be acknowledged.

A related study suggests that we respond to visual as well as verbal cueing:

On election day, where do you vote? If it's in a church, you might be inclined to vote more conservatively than if you cast your ballot at a school or government building.

... And the effect seems to hold, whether you’re Christian, Muslim or agnostic, progressive, independent or conservative.

The study found that when random people were surveyed in front of a church, they gave more socially and politically conservative responses than people surveyed while standing in front of a government building.

The shift in people's attitudes, the researchers suggest, was likely a result of visual priming—meaning that people who could see the religious building were, consciously or not, getting cues that influenced their response.

A third study (which I can't find right now) had people watch a video of a protest. They were then asked to rate how violent it was. The study found that our perceptions of how violent an assembly is were highly correlated with whether or not people agreed with the position advocated by the protesters. Study participants looking at the exact same films saw more violence in protests where they disagreed with the protesters than they did in protests where they sympathized with the protesters.

Over and over again during the primaries I've asked myself how a group of people who mostly agree with each other can see the candidates so very differently. I suspect our values, by which I mean the degree to which various shared beliefs are important to us are an important factor. But I also suspect we're reacting to the candidates on a more fundamental, gut level. Looking at the issues alone, I don't see all that much daylight between the candidates. When you stop to consider that none of them would have a free hand once in office, the differences become even slighter.

All of which leads me back to trust. We instinctively trust people who are like us and distrust those who differ from us. The real question is, on what do we base the decision of who to trust?

Posted by Cassandra at January 20, 2012 06:20 AM

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Comments

Nevertheless, I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

On the other hand, Obama never passes up a chance to remind us of how ignorant we all are: we just don't understand his message. Plainly, we're well placed to restore the country to its natural predilections.

On election day, where do you vote? If it's in a church, you might be inclined to vote more conservatively than if you cast your ballot at a school or government building.

and ...asked to rate how violent [a video of a protest] was. The study found that our perceptions of how violent an assembly is were highly correlated with whether or not people agreed with the position advocated by the protesters. Study participants looking at the exact same films saw more violence in protests where they disagreed....

I guess I'm just wholly, obliviously insensitive. I've voted conservatively my whole life--whether I was in a school, a library, in an environment like college surrounded by flaming liberals, wherever. And I've never seen the OWS protests--or the cops--as particularly violent.

Maybe I'm one of those ugly extremists. But I'm not a disengaged voter--maybe it's that which makes me an extremist.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at January 20, 2012 11:06 AM

In what sense does anyone "trust" a politician?

We kind of do, but not in the usual sense of the term. I trust my wife; I trust a few friends. In that sense of the term, I don't trust any of these clowns, and I'm right not to trust them.

But we can say that we "trust" a politician in two other senses without sounding foolish.

1) We can say that we have reason to believe that, when they say something, it's what they really think -- not just some poll-tested, focus-group'd commentary.

2) Or, entirely separate from the above, we can think we understand their decision-making process well enough to determine that it's fairly reliable.

Neither of these sense requires that the politician be "like" you, except that they have to share a general order of reason with you in order for you to understand their decision-making process. But that is very general indeed: we can understand the decision-making process of a horse or a dog just as well.

Of course, if a politician seems to speak only in focus-group-tested phrases, it will undermine 1; and if his decision-making process tends to lead to bad decisions, it will undermine 2. However, there's another way to undermine 2: to have a decision-making process that is very hard to fathom. If we just don't understand the character at all, so that we can't really be sure why he's doing what he's doing, we are likely not to trust him. We'll have the sense that there is something missing, something we can't account for or explain. How wisely do we hand power to someone we don't understand?

Posted by: Grim at January 20, 2012 10:38 PM

Neither of these sense requires that the politician be "like" you, except that they have to share a general order of reason with you in order for you to understand their decision-making process.

And that was the very sense in which I meant it, Grim. Trust isn't monolithic or binary. We trust family more than strangers, spouses more than co-workers. It adjusts to the circumstances.

To continue our previous conversation, you don't trust Romney because you don't understand his thought process. To me it seems very clear because it aligns with the way I see the world.

You don't have to trust him (or me, for that matter :p).

To turn this on its face, I don't understand the thought process of a man who marries twice, violates his vows twice, and expects not to have his character called into question.

Nor do I understand the thought process of a man who gives money to a young woman he's not married to for years, hides this from his wife, then runs for President thinking (apparently) that he's immune from scrutiny. Had he not concealed his behavior from his wife, there would be no story here. Lack of judgment, lack of foresight, lack of consideration for one's family - I don't understand any of these things.

Personally, I do not trust either kind of man. However, I can see that for some people other considerations might outweigh such issues and I can accept that not everyone believes that refusal to play by the rules in one's personal life means that that person won't play by the rules in public office. I don't agree with this, but I can see the argument.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 21, 2012 09:15 AM

Watch out. Now we'll see lawsuits to prevent placing the polls in churches, on the ground that it disenfranchises liberal voters.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 23, 2012 11:46 AM

To continue our previous conversation, you don't trust Romney because you don't understand his thought process.

I apologize if it appears I may have been ignoring you; I've been driven offline by the torrential rains, which took down my internet and phone access for a couple of days.

You have, twice now, asserted that you believe that Romney sees the world the same way that you do -- that you recognize his thought process in your own. Obviously I have no access to your thought process beyond what you tell me about it, no more than either of us has to Romney's; so please don't take what I am about to say as a denial of that claim, which I have no grounds to deny.

What I can say, though, is that -- as a third-party observer -- you don't show any external signs of going through the same process. The reason Romney has the reputation of being a hollow man without conviction is that he appears to say whatever his polls and advisers tell him that voters want to hear. His communications are always on message, and the message is determined by some immediate practical advantage he hopes to achieve by the communication.

That's not at all what I observe from you. It may be that it's different only because you are running a blog, and Romney is running an election campaign. I doubt it, though. I imagine you would do very badly in politics for the same reason I would: you couldn't stand up and say something that wasn't what you really believed, to millions of people, simply because focus-group testing suggested to you that they wanted to hear you say it.

My high regard for you arises in large part because you never tell me what you think I want to hear -- you tell me what you really think. What you really think is almost never what I really think. That's why I love you: you help me see a part of the world to which I would otherwise be blind.

If Romney was motivated by the same internal reasoning process as you, I would expect him to do the same thing. And if he did -- if he always told me the truth of his own reason -- I could trust him, even if I never agreed with him. I could trust him in the sense that we trust a rope: we know just how much weight can be put to it, that much and no more. It is reliable, dependable, so long as you make other provisions when you are outside its range.

That's the sense in which I don't trust Romney, and it's a sense in which I can trust you entirely.

Posted by: Grim at January 23, 2012 12:03 PM

What I can say, though, is that -- as a third-party observer -- you don't show any external signs of going through the same process.

Nor would I. There are lots of subjects I no longer write about (but about which I have VERY strong convictions).

To mistake my refusal to write about these subjects for a weakening of my position or a lack of conviction is about as dead wrong as it's possible to be. Nor (do I think) choosing not to write about them is cowardly. I have no duty to fight every battle on the earth with equal fervor. My willingness to say what I think is inextricably linked to my assessment of whether there's any possibility of honest communication and being able to convey what I think.

The reason Romney has the reputation of being a hollow man without conviction is that he appears to say whatever his polls and advisers tell him that voters want to hear.

To you. Not to me. I would submit that you already think this, so you interpret everything in this light, including statements that don't seem to me to be contradictions at all, but which you interpret as contradictions because that fits what you already think. To my way of thinking, you are dismissing anything that doesn't "fit" and focusing only on what does fit your opinion of him.

But you don't have a window into his mind, and I distrust - deeply - the claim that any of us know what someone else's motives are. We don't, and things are rarely as simple as we want them to be.

His communications are always on message, and the message is determined by some immediate practical advantage he hopes to achieve by the communication.

Hmmm. You mean like not backing down about Romney care? Or maybe changing his outward manner to be more acceptable to the public?

Riiiiiiiiiiiight :p Romney's manner is right out of a focus group.

/sarcasm

That's not at all what I observe from you. It may be that it's different only because you are running a blog, and Romney is running an election campaign. I doubt it, though.

You would be wrong to doubt that. People's decisions are informed by the consequences of their actions. Different goals, different consequences, different decisions.

I imagine you would do very badly in politics for the same reason I would: you couldn't stand up and say something that wasn't what you really believed, to millions of people, simply because focus-group testing suggested to you that they wanted to hear you say it.

You're right. I couldn't. And you have zero evidence (your opinion is not evidence) that this is what Romney has done.

I don't see many things in black and white, Grim. I've explained many times that one can fervently believe in a principle, and yet not believe there are no limits on its implementation in a democracy where people hold a wide range of beliefs. If that's a contradiction or evidence of phoniness then all those things are true of me as well.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 23, 2012 12:56 PM

"...all those things are true of me as well."

Let me gently state that I don't see these things the same way that you do. My rejection of Romney is not a rejection of you. What strikes me as phony about him is nothing like the principle you cite in defending him; and certainly there is nothing about you that is phony that I have observed.

"(your opinion is not evidence)"

No, but it isn't just my opinion: it is the common opinion.

Since we are, as you note, operating in a place where actual evidence is impossible -- knowing the inner state of his heart, as to why he says and does the things he says and does -- what we have left is our reading of his actions. In such matters, common sense is very important. It isn't decisive, but if we find that a wide group of people with different views and approaches to life see the same thing, it's highly likely to be the case. Not certain! But highly likely.

So, Allahpundit, who is quite moderate, asks whether the 'quote' in the Steyn piece T99 cited is legitimate. I assume it was not, and does he, but:

The fact that we’re even debating whether it’s genuine only proves his point, though. That “quote” sits right on the line between giggly Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense and the sort of vacuous poll-tested buzzwords about America that Romney uses to mask his ideological problems with the base.

Steyn's piece itself is another example. T99 just said the same thing in a comment a few posts up.

Charlotte Hays, who is a Romney supporter, says:

The moment Mitt lost South Carolina came during the first South Carolina debate, when he made the biggest gaffe of all: Standing there, looking as if he believed that all he had to do to be the nominee was stand there and not make a gaffe.... Mitt, call Peggy Noonan and beg her to take a leave of absence from her day job to give you the words. She’s helped your type before! Convince people you can beat Obama by beating Newt. Fight dirty if you need to. Newt will.

The assumption here is that Romney is relying on others to tell him what to say, because he can't or won't speak from the heart. She just wants him to get someone better to do that job for him.

It's not just me. Maybe I'm wrong, but if I am, the easiest thing in the world would be for him to just start speaking from his heart. Santorum does this; and if he loses, as he probably will, it will simply be because people don't agree with where his heart is.

That's a fair way to lose. It's the best way to lose. It may sometimes even be better than winning.

Posted by: Grim at January 23, 2012 06:37 PM

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