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.
Crowds Change Who We Are

Crowds Change Who We Are

When writing about being in crowds, Seneca states, “I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.” He is writing about the ways that crowds change us. They change our behavior, they can stir-up emotions we work to keep at bay, and they can drive us to think in new ways. Crowds change who we are in a way that seems to be beyond our control.

 

“Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” 

 

I remember first seriously thinking about crowds and our reactions to them during a psychology class in my undergraduate degree. We talked about people who don’t call the police when they see an act of violence, illegal activity, or someone in an emergency medical situation when they are in a crowd. When we are not clearly the person responsible for calling first responders, we seem to think that someone else will. If you do rush in to help, one of the best things you can do is point directly at another person and say, “you, call 9-1-1.”

 

In addition to this form of paralysis, crowds also change who we are by inciting great energy and action within us. Certainly on our own most of us would not throw something at a statue, even if the statue commemorated a deplorable figure from the past. We might see the statue and loath what it represents, but on our own, we are not likely to do anything about it. In a large crowd, however, our anger and energy seems to be released more easily, and whether it is chanting something we wouldn’t say on our own or tearing down a statue, we seem to be capable of things we normally couldn’t bring ourselves to do.

 

There are a lot of directions to go with the reality that we are not ourselves (or maybe more accurately the same version of ourselves) when we are within crowds. What I would like to consider is how this knowledge should shape the way we think about ourselves. Introspection and self-awareness is important, and part of that is an awareness that we are not exactly the people we tell ourselves we are. We can come to understand ourselves as being someone or some type of person in most of the settings in which we find ourselves, but crowds and unique circumstances can reveal that we are also other people. We are not a static entity that is consistent across space and time. We change in response to other people, in response to activities, and in response to success or threat. Strive to be the best version of who you can be, but remember, who you think you are is a myth, and the fact that crowds change who we are reveals that we don’t have the control over ourselves and our stories in the way that we like to believe we do. We can turn this recognition onto others as well, and see them as not a single static entity, but someone who can be influenced by forces beyond their control, and who can change for better or worse depending on the circumstances we (or society or life) put them in.

Problem Solving Locally

“As politics has become nationalized, problem solving has become localized,” write Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz in The New Localism. National politics is all about identity. It is all about the question of whether people like me are favored and socially rewarded on a nationwide scale. People like me might be men, intellectuals, Ford truck drivers, snowboarders, retail workers, stockbrokers, veterans, or evangelicals (note: I am not all of these things). We constantly have debates and shift our discussion of what identities are valuable and best reflect the America we desire to be, and at a national level, there is no real answer to these questions. Political decisions and policies become tied up in these identity questions, and it is hard to avoid having an opinion or becoming consumed with the values questions that these identity debates spark.

 

Meanwhile, daily life continues and human societies rely on systems and structures to guide our interactions and facilitate a peaceful flourishing for all individuals (ideally but maybe not what we always see). We rely on government to avoid tragedies of our commons, to ensure the products we use and depend on for our ways of life are safe, and to protect our individual and group rights from being infringed by others.

 

Problems will always exist in the organization and interaction of human beings, and when our national government is subsumed by questions of identity and debates that can never be fully settled, solving the daily challenges of human existence moves downward toward the locality where life is actually lived. Our states, our metropolitan areas, and especially our individual communities are the places where we can make changes and improve our situation.

 

These localities are innovating and connecting with new groups in unique ways. The interactions between private businesses, charitable foundations, and public agencies are being reinvented based on local situations and opportunities to drive forward new solutions to wicked problems. Challenges that cannot be introduced on a national level, where issues of identity fracture alliances and coordinated effort, are evaded at the local level where we all have a stake and a greater voice in addressing the challenges we face. Communities can produce a groundswell of support for innovative approaches to challenges new and old, and can dynamically adapt by creating new connections and structures between the stakeholders and organizations with the power to enact change. This is one way which governance can adapt in the future, and one way that we can overcome division to continue to make the world a more cohesive and better place.

Praising Effort

In the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, the author looks into the role that motivation and positive reinforcement play on children and their development. One area that Wiseman focuses on is academic performance and praise.  He reviews the work by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck and sums up their findings with the following quote, “The results clearly showed that being praised for effort was very different from being praised for ability. …children praised for effort were encouraged to try regardless of the consequences, therefore sidestepping any fear of failure.” Mueller and Dweck studied over 400 children and their performance on tests and puzzles. The researchers administered tests to all of their participants, and collected and scored the results.  Half of the students were told they did very well and must be very intelligent, while the other half had their tests collected without being told anything.  After tests had been collected and graded the students were given similar tests with similar problems and the students who had been praised actually performed worse than the students met with silence.

I think about this study frequently, both with how I would approach young kids (I don’t have children and don’t interact with kids too often) and with how I approach myself. What Wiseman suggested from the research is that children who were told they were smart ended up being afraid to truly apply themselves. If they put in a full effort and failed, they would risk losing the praise of being smart. The identity label we attached to them would fizzle away and they would lose the praise they received.

On the other hand, children praised for being hard-working, for studying hard, and for working well with others have a reason to continue to apply themselves. Being hard working is not the same as just being talented or naturally smart. It is a mindset and a disposition that can be cultivated over time and developed, even if we don’t seem to have some natural special something to make us smart, creative, or exceptionally insightful.

The way I think about this research in my own life is in thinking about praising effort over praising identity. In myself, when I think about what I want to do, what I could do moving forward, and about the things I should be proud of myself for doing, I try to think about the habits, focus, learning, and hard work that I put forward. I don’t judge my blog by the number of viewers, I don’t just myself by my bank account, and I don’t judge my fitness by how many people I beat in a half marathon. Instead, I ask if I truly worked hard, if I was consistent and applied myself to the best of my ability, and if I am using my resources in a responsible way to help others. We should all try to avoid judging ourselves and others based on fleeting identity cues, and instead we should judge ourselves and praise ourselves and others based on the level of hard work, engagement with others and the community, and the efforts we put forward to make the world a great place.

Governance Forgotten

I am currently studying for a masters in public administration at the University of Nevada, Reno. Last semester I took public policy class which included a comprehensive exam. The comp rounded out to just over 50 pages total, and one of the prompts for the exam looked at the question, “is the bulk of public policy really just a question of policy implementation?”

 

I have thought deeply about the actual implementation of policy and what it looks like to design and create policy with implementation in mind. Focusing on implementation is important if one actually wants to achieve the stated objectives that form the base of a policy. We have to consider the goals, objectives, limitations, support, and objections of policy actors big and small, central and in the periphery, and those who are vocal or those who have their voices generally ignored. Good public policy is policy that can actually be implemented, and understanding the implementation challenges is central to designing policy that is actually capable of addressing the problems and issues that we face.

 

Implementation is active governance. A quick Google search defines governance simply as the action or manner of governing, and implementation is the most clear demonstration of governance. Good implementation should be a moderating force in politics. Good governance is capable of addressing issues and putting programs in place to address real problems and issues that impact people’s real lives.

 

Our country, unfortunately, has abandoned governance in favor of self-interest and tribal power. We have turned away from traditional political structures in favor of outsider organizations and groups. We are less likely to compromise on issues that most people only vaguely understand and have become more entrenched in ideologies that do not truly describe our beliefs, but do clearly signal our support for a specific political team. Jonathan Rauch is critical of this trend in American politics in his book Political Realism and writes about the organizations that have arisen to fuel our ideological battles at the expense of governance. He writes, “They are distinctly amateur (or activist) in the important … sense that their interest is in issues and purity, not in the messy and compromising work of governing.” Pure adherence to an ideology and our trend toward the rejection of traditional power structures is emotionally powerful, but it is an abandonment of governance.

 

Adherence to ideology ignores implementation and realistic constraints on public policy. What we really do when we support such activists is signal our tribal adherence in a political fashion and we simplify real issues in a way that puts us in the moral high ground from which we can use outrage to prop ourselves up. Good governance is flexible and does not adhere to strict ideological constraints. Policy implementation requires compromise and views other actors as legitimate, even if their beliefs and opinions differ from our own. Political activists view their opponents as enemies with illegitimate opinions. Traditional political forces make use of compromise and seek good governance where political amateurs adhere to political ideologies to demonstrate their support and alignment with a specific identity or tribe. As we have moved away from traditional structures in favor of outsiders and amateurs, we have forgotten governance and abandoned real issues and real public policy that could actually be implemented to address issues in American life.

Machines Versus Partisianship

Political parties seem to have a problem today. Voters dislike being part of a political party and have choosen to register or refer to themselves as non-partisan in greater numbers today than in the past. Political parties have also lost control of their candidate nominations, and when a party makes a big push toward their preferred candidate, cries of corruption and system rigging erupt from the public.

However, at the same time, voters more consistently vote for a single party today than they did in the past. When we look at voters who register non-partisan and ask if they lean toward a particular party, we see that they overwhelmingly vote for members of that party in each election. Non-partisan voters who lean toward a party often end up voting along party lines at the same or higher rates as voters who are registered with a party. So while our parties seem to be loosing steam, partisanship seems to be growing.

Jonathan Rauch looks at this phenomenon from another perspective in his book Political Realism. He specifically looks at votes within congress and how congressional members seem to align within parties. Rauch writes,

“It’s often said that parties are stronger than ever because votes on Capitol Hill are so consistently partisan. But that can be (and usually is) because the majority party is allowing votes only when its factions agree, whereas machines facilitate decision-making when fellow partisans don’t agree. Ideological solidarity is a brittle glue, and reliance on it for intra-party cohesion is a sign of a weak party machine, not a strong one.”

What Rauch argues is that our parties need to find ways to create cohesion beyond ideology. Rather than relying on individual voter or policy maker issue stances to align, parties need to be able to bring different groups together within the political process. Parties which are only able to attract loosely committed voters fail to create a community of thoughtful and considerate political participants. The perspectives, views, and alternatives available to the party shrink, and in the public we see a fixation on a single issue from a single point of view, while in legislative bodies we see a limited number of votes on a limited number of partisan issues. This does not strengthen democracy, and easily breaks down, leading to the cynicism, criticism, and frustration that we see surrounding the American political system today.

I also think there is another phenomenon surrounding the abandonment of political parties and the staunch partisan voting pattern in the United States. Political identity is a powerful signal, indicating which group you are a part of and often influenced by both overt and hidden factors. In The Elephant and the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at our hidden agendas and our group signaling in politics. We often don’t want to admin when we align with a party out of self interest or out of group identification. We hide behind a veil claiming that it is specific issues that drive our political alignment, but studies frequently show that almost no one has a real grasp of any given issue or any given legislator’s stance on an issue. What we are really displaying today, at least in part, is an institutional distrust driving us away from the parties that we complain about, but an identity stronghold in the claimed political philosophy that we back. Simler and Hanson may better explain why we see this pattern and if Rauch is right, then we must hope that machines can be built to activate local public action before dangerous demagogues use this identity and signaling undercurrent to divide rather than unite local communities.

Realists

In 2015, Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute wrote a book about how politics should to operate in order to actually get anything done. His book, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, cuts against our traditional thoughts about the ways in which we can improve our society and country. Rauch looks at movements that have great moral purposes, but that seem to make general duties within government more difficult and challenging. Particularly in legislative bodies today, government seems to be operating poorly and in a way that stokes the flames of partisan anger and opposition. Very few people have a positive view of any governmental agency, and if there is one thing all American’s seem to have in common today, it is a distrust of political parties and a sense of disgust toward national political bodies.

However, our government did not always have such a negative public view and did not always struggle to act on even basic legislation. Rauch begins his book by discussing some of the tools that government has used to clear a path for basic legislation and functioning. Of generations past in the United States he writes, “not being fools or crooks, they understood that much of what politicians do to bring order from chaos, like buying support with post offices and bridges, looks unappealing in isolation and up close, but they saw that the alternatives were worse. In other words, they were realists.” Previous generations understood the negative perception of the shady things that seemed to take place in government. They recognized the danger of fraud and corruption, and they acknowledged the need to hide under the table business. Nevertheless, these were tools that helped the country move forward. Rauch argues that today, operating with a government that cannot move anything forward, what we need is a little more of this old-school politics, and a little less of today’s sunshine disinfectant.

Where this all stems from is the most basic flaw of human societies. We can only be rational about  the ways in which we get to our ends, we cannot be rational about the ends themselves. This is to say that the goals and the desired outcomes we want to see in society are inevitably and unavoidably political. How we choose what society wants, what society should do, who we should help, who gets to be part of our group, and what will be excluded from society is not a scientific question but rather a question of identity and self-interest. These questions are simply political with no possible answer satisfying everyone.

Human rationality can only be applied once an end has been selected. Once we have agreed on an outcome, or once a majority voice has selected the desired end state, we can rationally work out the best way to get there. It is like a group of 10 couples who all must decide when and where they want to take a vacation as a big group. There is no perfect destination to satisfy everyone’s desires of seeing family, visiting big tourist items, and finding off the grid treasures. But once a decision has been made, the group can identify the most efficient route to take that maximizes the time spent viewing what most everyone wants. If the group primarily wants to spend time at a beach in southern Spain, then the most efficient travel option is a flight directly to Southern Spain, and the travel rout that flies into Bilbao in northern Spain then uses public transportation southward across the country is not considered. However, if visiting art museums and seeing a wide swath of Spanish culture is the main goal of the trip, flying to and staying in coastal southern towns is not a rational option to meet the goals, but flying into Bilbao and traveling across the country by bus is an ideal plan. The end goals must be selected before a rational decision can be made to meet that decision, but seeing art and culture is not inherently better than relaxing on a Mediterranean beach.

Government will always be hampered by this question, no matter how rational or how similar we become and no matter how good our artificial intelligence one day becomes. Government therefore, needs a way to move things forward that deescalates the tension of identity and self-interest. This is the argument that Rauch puts forward. He does not argue for the backrooms filled with cigar smoke and fat cats driving the show. After all, generations before did give us painfully slow desegregation and a political period rife with presidential assassinations and violent racial protests. What we can plausibly see however, is a system where discussions and deliberations can be secret, because what may be good for the nation could be toxic for an individual based on their constituency’s identity and self-interest.

What ultimately needs to be remembered is that government cannot rationally chose and advance a goal. Government can do its best to reach its desired end state, but selecting an end that hurts some and leaves representatives vulnerable creates a system where some members must oppose all action by that government as a signal to their compassion, concern, and identification with their constituents. A government with hidden deliberations and gear greasing allows for compromise and realistic legislation. Some discussions must be allowed to take place in ways that shield legislative members from direct criticism so that they cannot later be attacked and vilified for decisions that hurt some but move the majority in the right direction. Government needs a way to be a little bit wasteful and a way to put up with a little bit of abuse in order to move society forward. Constantly patrolling for abuse and waste is expensive and ultimately makes people less likely to take action and try to make things better.

Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.

Creating Racial Resentment

Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow argues that racial caste systems have been maintained in the United States by stoking up racial attitudes to create a racial hierarchy that distracts us from economic hierarchies. She suggests that white people who have benefitted from racial caste systems in our country are less likely to take action to reverse the situation because of the social benefits of not being black or brown and not living in our country’s lowest social class. She focuses on how political support for African American’s in our country has been diminished to prevent low socioeconomic status (SES) black and white people from joining together and creating a coalition.

Early in her book she writes, “Time and again the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole.”

I have come across this theory in other books, podcasts, and mediums and I believe that it is accurate. We support policies in this country that appear to be race neutral at face value,  but have disparate impacts on African American and Latino populations in the Untied States. Policies that have been suggested to reduce these disparate impacts will often times improve the SES of not just black and brown people, but of low SES white people as well. However, these measures often don’t find much political support from white members of groups that would benefit from them. Alexander argues that this is a reflection of the fact that white people will lose status relative to black people if we achieve more racial parity, and to prevent this loss of status white people will vote against legislation and will not support policies that reduce inequality and improve their economic outlook.

The main reason I think Alexander’s claim is an accurate description of our politics is because I see identity, as opposed to economics or ideology, as the main driver of political behaviors. During his campaign and throughout his time in office President Trump capitalized on his ability to represent a certain American identity that is distinctly non-black or brown. He does not have any consistent ideologies or economic policy preferences,  but he does express a consistent white identity and has enjoyed overwhelming support from white demographics across the board including low SES white groups as well as higher SES white groups. Low SES white people would have likely seen greater benefits from a candidate who expressed more equitable political and economic ideologies, but such policies would not have appealed to their identity and would have diminished the small but real status advantage that white people have over black people at all SES levels in America.

I think my position is supported and can be demonstrated by the reality that most American’s don’t have consistent and intelligible policy ideologies, even those who are well informed. By policy ideologies I do not mean liberal or conservative, but rather policy ideologies formed by specific policy evaluations. Few people truly understand what any given policy does and fewer understand the research and data behind a policy and the specifics of a given policy’s implementation plan. What we do understand, are the signals provided when leaders and officials discuss policy. When looking at such policy discussions abandoning the pretense that we are actually discussing policy specifics, one can see that we are more often signaling to each other what groups and what identities should support a policy. We are voting based on identity, but telling ourselves that we are voting based on ideology. Political game theory and identity are better predictors at this point of human voting preference and behavior than self reported ideology or what we have come to describe as liberal and conservative.

Creating Our Own Realities

“An August 2009 poll by The Economist/YouGov, for example, revealed that 37 percent of whites and 65 percent of Republicans thought Obama’s policies favored blacks over whites. That is a three-fold increase in from responses to similarly worded questions in October 2008 by both CBS/New York Times and NBC/The Wall Street Journal.”

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which President Obama lead to greater polarization in our country simply by being black and being perceived as helping black people more than white people. The idea I shared yesterday is backed up by more research done my Michael Tesler and David Sears in their book Obama’s Race. The quote above shows how views of many white people and many individuals within the Republican party in particular, shifted over the first year of President Obama’s first term. The authors continue to write,

“These results seem to be more consistent with Moskowitz and Stoh’s (1994) finding that many whites effectively “alter reality” in order to rendered a black candidate’s message consistent with their prior expectations and racial beliefs than with the unbiased information processing in Hinjal’s model. Despite not broaching any race-specific policies during his first year in office, the majority of Republicans thought Obama favored African American’s.”

Many American’s allowed biases to shape their opinion of President Obama and his actions. I believe this was spurred on by conservative media and a republican party that made great use of identity politics during President Obama’s time in office. Policy truly did not matter, and ideology (liberal or conservative) did not actually matter in the opinions that people formed. What mattered is who President Obama represented. As a black man with a multicultural background, having grown up and spent a lot of time outside the United States, President Obama did not embody a tradition of white identity. This allowed latent biases about identity, race, and Americanism to shape people’s perception of who President Obama was, what he stood for, and what direction people felt the nation was headed.

Last year I did a lot of research about medical marijuana and opioids and one of the interesting things that I found, which should not have been as surprising as I found it, is that people do not judge policy based on a cost benefit analysis or in terms of how many lives a policy will improve. Instead, as Gollust, Lantz and Ubel write, “Public policy opinions are shaped by people’s attitudes toward the targets of policies, particularly whether the targets are perceived to be deserving of help.” President Obama was not perceived as being a mainstream American, and his identity as a black man meant that his policies and opinions were understood to be representative of only black people’s interests. As a result, white people, particularly within the Republican party which overtly used identity politics to drum up support, began to interpret his policies as helping only black people and minorities, who were seen as less deserving of help. Identity politics and racial predispositions were brought to the front of people’s perceptions of the Federal Government, and President Obama was not judged by his policies or political actions, but by his lack of whiteness and perceived status as an outsider.