Affect Heuristics

Affect Heuristics

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.

Aware of Your Feelings of Superiority

In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.

 

“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.

 

Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.

 

The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.

Political Monopolies

Throughout his book Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, Jonathan Rauch argues that our government needs a little less sunlight and transparency to allow for good governance. His ideas are that too many rules and restrictions, too many provisions for transparency and clearness, and too many changes to make our system more democratic have led to a point where necessary parts of politics cannot take place, and as a result, our government cannot function effectively. Politics (thinking about human behavior dating back to our first human ancestors) is about coalition building, creating alliances, and cooperating for safety, growth, and group survival. When a government’s political activities have to be entirely out in the open these types of activities are hindered, and as a result, we get showmanship and political battles as acts of public coalition building. Real governance, compromise, and negotiation become impossible.

While Rauch thinks that we need more of a cover in our system for these political behaviors, he does understand how we got to this point and he does examine some of the shortcomings of our old political system which compelled people to impose such restrictions on modern day politics. When looking at political machines specifically, Rauch highlights some of the negative aspects of organized political coalitions. He writes,

“Machines seek monopolies. In order to preserve power, they will seek to manipulate rules and rule-making (redistricting, voting rules, and the like) to shape the political battlefield in their favor—often with the goal of raising barriers to entry for would-be political competitors. They also will try to get their hands on as many formal levers of power as they can, using each to reinforce the others.”

This description of political machines reminds me of modern day corporations. Rather than simply looking to out-compete and out-innovate their sector and competitors, many firms today seem to prefer gaming the system and industry to limit competition. Often corporations will argue for increased regulation and requirements because it makes it harder for new firms to enter the market and disrupt current markets. Firms also look to build monopolies and diversify across different sectors to capture markets and establish a status quo that favors their bottom line rather than the interests of society or the furthering of new products and technology. Rauch argues that the danger of our old political system of machine politics mirrors the danger of modern markets. The political landscape in one sense becomes an economic landscape, with different political coalitions competing for greater market-share (vote share) and influence.

What I find interesting and revelatory about this point of view is that ideology and beliefs take a back seat to group dominance and interests. When we operate in machines, what we favor is the preservation of our coalition, not necessarily any specific ideology. Just like in a market we may prefer a specific brand and gravitate continuously toward that brand even if competitor brands introduce better products. Often we will stick with our familiar brand and highlight the good things about the brand we like while downplaying the shortcomings. Rauch’s demonstration of machine politics reveals that we do this in our political alliances as well, favoring rules and power grabs that help our side while remaining critical and opposed to any actions taken by our competitors.

What Rauch highlights here is part of why we have implemented rules that make politics more transparent and clear. The political actions of machines are not about issues but rather power, and we are uncomfortable with that. Unfortunately however, we humans operate in this tribal manner, and without these political power games, we don’t seem to be able to coalesce around issues to foster good governance. Somewhere in the middle of where we are now and the machine politics of the past is where good governance can live and thrive, addressing our political issues while engaging the public and building teams to move government policy forward.