I studied public policy at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the things I had to accept early on in my studies was that humans are not as rational as we like to believe. We tell ourselves that we are making objective and unbiased judgments about the world to reach the conclusions we find. We tell ourselves that we are listening to smart people who truly understand the issues, policies, and technicalities of policies and science, but studies of voting, of policy preference, and of individual knowledge show that this is not the case.
We are nearing November and in the United States we will be voting for president and other elected officials. Few of us will spend much time investigating the candidates on the ballot in a thorough and rigorous way. Few of us will seek out in-depth and nuanced information about the policies our political leaders support or about referendum questions on the ballot. But many of us, perhaps the vast majority of us, will have strong views on policies ranging from tech company monopolies, to tariffs, and to public health measures. We will reach unshakable conclusions and find a few snippets of facts to support our views. But this doesn’t mean that we will truly understand any of the issues in a deep and complex manner.
Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow helps us understand what is happening with our voting, and reveals what I didn’t want to believe, but what I was confronted with over and over through academic studies. He writes, “The dominance of conclusions over arguments is most pronounced where emotions are involved. The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an affect heuristic in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world.”
Very few of us have a deep understating of economics, international relations, or public health, but we are good at recognizing what is in our immediate self-interest and who represents the identities that are core to who we are. We know that having someone who reflects our identities and praises those identities will help improve the social standing of our group, and ultimately improve our own social status. By recognizing who our leader is and what is in our individual self-interest to support, we can learn which policy beliefs we should adopt. We look to our leaders, learn what they believe and support, and follow their lead. We memorize a few basic facts, and use that as justification for the beliefs we hold, rather than admit that our beliefs simply follow our emotional desire to align with a leader that we believe will boost our social standing.
It is this affect heuristic that drives much of our political decision making. It helps explain how we can support some policies which don’t seem to immediately benefit us, by looking at the larger group we want to be a part of and trying to increase the social standing of that group, even at a personal cost. The affect heuristic shows that we want a conclusion to be true, because we would benefit from it, and we use motivated reasoning to adopt beliefs that conveniently support our self-interest. There doesn’t need to be any truth to the beliefs, they just need to satisfy our emotional valance and give us a shortcut to making decisions on complex topics.