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The Rationalizing Voter

- January 20, 2008

David Brooks opines on “How Voters Think.” The essential thrust of his piece is this:

bq. The truth is that many of the theories we come up with [to explain voters] are bogus. They are based on the assumption that voters make cold, rational decisions about who to vote for and can tell us why they decided as they did. This is false. In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness.

Brooks deserves kudos for bringing this fact, and some associated academic literature, to the fore. Lee and I each wrote earlier on the empirical failings of theories that assume voters connect their issue positions to their candidate preferences. (Brooks quotes Daniel Kahneman making this same point.) But, as Brooks describes, any portrait of the rationalizing voter goes well beyond that.

Some thoughts:

1) A Moment of Defensiveness. Brooks writes:

bq. Nobody really knows how voters think, especially during primary seasons when the policy differences are minute, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the cognitive chain went something like this…

“Nobody”? So there has been no relevant study of voter behavior during primaries? David Brooks, tell the Times to get you a subscription to JSTOR.

And moreover:

bq. But if there is one lesson from this wacky primary season, it is that we analysts should be careful about imposing a false order on voter decision-making. We can do our best to discern how certain politicians are making connections with certain voters, but in that process we have as much to learn from William James as from political scientists and pollsters.

I’ve got nothing again William James. But most everything Brooks discusses in this article is the subject of political science research. He cites such influences as traits, contagion processes, social tribes, and Rush Limbaugh. Political scientists have studied trait perceptions for 25 years or more. The idea that voters will gravitate to candidates after an early victory — i.e., the contagion — is a mainstay of political science research on primaries. The idea that voters respond to cues from social groups or from opinion leaders such as Limbaugh goes back to the studies of Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and co-authors back in the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, there is important political science research looking at precisely these kinds of automatic, intuitive, affect-laden processes (see below).

2) At times, Brooks seems to shift away from quick-and-dirty “thin-slicing” to describe more effortful modes of decision-making and information-processing.

bq. It is no accident that the major candidates in the Republican field are a pastor, a businessman and a war hero. These are the three most evocative Republican leadership models. Nor is it an accident that the Democratic race is a clash between a daughter of the feminist movement, a beneficiary of the civil rights movement and a self-styled proletarian. These are powerful Democratic categories.

bq. …At the same time, voters embark on an emotional journey with candidates. Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux have shown that emotion isn’t the opposite of reason. We use emotion to assign value to things, thus making decision-making possible. As the campaign drags on, voters see candidates at different events. Maybe at one event Mitt Romney smiled without dipping the outer edge of his eyebrows. This is a cue that the smile is fake, and produces distrust. On the other hand, maybe he vowed to bring all the manufacturing jobs back to Michigan. A voter might have known this was impossible, but appreciated the concern nonetheless.

bq. …As the months go on, emotions oscillate and voter preferences do, too. Voters listen to policy proposals and infer character traits.

My problem with these passages is that voters now appear quite diligent and hard-working. They know facts about the Republican candidates’ pasts. They link the Democratic candidates to historical moments. They watch the candidates repeatedly (“see candidates at different events”). They evaluate the candidates’ policy proposals. Brooks describes these behaviors alongside seemingly superficial reactions to Romney’s eyebrows as if he’s discussing the same thing. To me, there seems to be a lot of apples-and-oranges here. Interestingly, Richard Posner identified this same fault when he reviewed Malcom Gladwell’s Blink: “…a variety of interestingly different mental operations are being crammed unhelpfully into the “rapid cognition” pigeonhole.” Brooks does some similar cramming.

3) One inevitable consequence of Brooks’ medium, the op-ed, is that he can only briefly alight on disparate academic literatures — on heuristics (Kahneman and Tversky), on emotion (Damasio), etc. For a more thoroughgoing discussion of these literatures as they apply to political behavior, I heartily recommend this working paper by Milton Lodge and Charles Taber, from which the title of this post is taken.

Lodge and Taber also speak to some important findings that Brooks does not mention:

– The extent to which automatic processes govern impression formation depends on two key factors. The first is how much attitudes toward an object are crystallized. They write:

bq. The associative strength between an object (e.g., politician) and its evaluation is conceived as varying along a continuum from nil—an object with little or no affective association—to a “crystallized attitude,” that is, an object with a strong, chronically-accessible, evaluation. Whereas weak or non-attitudes require effortful, piecemeal, bottom-up construction, the stronger the association between an object in memory and its affective evaluation the less time and effort needed to bring the attitude to mind, with objects carrying strong affective links activated spontaneously on their mere exposure, without the observer necessarily being aware of having perceived the triggering event.

In other words, people who already have developed an opinion about Mitt Romney probably won’t see their opinion change, no matter how his eyebrows move. To say that decision-making is emotional or intuitive is not to suggest that opinions are ephemeral. Quite the opposite, in fact (see below).

– Automatic processing related to political objects manifests itself most readily in those that pay habitual attention to politics. In other words, it is the best-informed, most “sophisticated” citizens that act this way, in part because it’s harder for automatic linkages to take place in your mind when you have relatively few political notions to be linked.

– Automatic processing leads to bias. This point is missed by Brooks, Gladwell, and other apostles of thin-slicing. Brooks writes:

bq. My own intuition is that this unconscious cognition is pretty effective. People are skilled at judging character. And through reading, thinking and close observation, they can educate their unconscious to make smarter and finer distinctions.

Lodge and Taber write:

bq. …we expect that most citizens most of the time will be biased reasoners who find it near impossible to evaluate new, attitude-relevant information in an evenhanded way. When exposed to challenging, attitudinally-incongruent information people routinely rationalize the facts, figures, and arguments that they cannot effortlessly discount, depreciate, denigrate, or deny.

Lodge and Taber’s point is important, since it is difficult to evaluate whether a political decision is “smart.” How do we know whether political decisions are correct or accurate? It is not always easy to tell. In the absence of an absolute standard, perhaps all we can ask for is a relative standard: opinions get revised (“smarter”) in light of new and relevant information. But that doesn’t happen, particularly among the politically sophisticated, as Lodge and Taber note.

Ultimately, Brooks is right to emphasize unconscious modes of information-processing and decision-making. Any reporter who wants to impute a logic to election outcomes — Candidate X won because voters believed Y — needs to take note. But the normative implications are hardly rosy: the “rationalizing voter” is far from a rational voter.