A Future for Cooperative Politics?

New York Times story on candidates’ psychology is overly optimistic

Thankfully, the days of “neuropunditry,” which sought to decipher voters’ thoughts with brain imaging and which blighted coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, have not been reprised this election season. Unfortunately, lame attempts to somehow gauge the direction of the current race using science have still popped up here and there.

The most conspicuous was perhaps an article that graced the cover of The New York Times’s weekly Science Times section on Election Day. Headlined, “Cede Political Turf? Never! Well, Maybe,” is a Pollyannaish piece of work, which reported that “recent research suggests that several strong but subtle psychological factors will be pushing Democrats and Republicans in an unexpected direction — toward engagement instead of name-calling and nastiness.” The evidence offered in support of that hypothesis is pretty weak, however.

The first person the article quotes is Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’ve done a good job of documenting how harshly humans treat their enemies throughout evolution,” he said. “But we also have evidence of an early shift in human evolution to hypersociality - a default orientation toward trust, toward sharing resources, toward forgiveness.”

So all Keltner is saying, basically, is that human beings have the capacity to fight or cooperate depending on the situation. Well, stop the presses! Finally, we can begin to understand how politicians work! Or not.

In order to support Keltner’s statement and bend the discussion toward current events, the Times declares a few paragraphs later that “A series of recent studies demonstrates how quickly large differences can be put aside, under some circumstances.”

It’s never explained which studies pertain to this “series,” where they were published, who conducted them, or whether or not they were robust. One of them, however, involved psychologists having a group of patriotic college students read a report that argued that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were partly a response to American policy in the Middle East. The students “judged the report harshly” unless they had first described a memory that made them feel proud or courageous. The takeaway message, according to the Times, is that:

Confronting an opposing political view is a threat to identity, but “if you remind people of what they value in some other domain of their life, it lessens the pain,” said the lead author, Geoffrey L. Cohen, a social psychologist at Stanford. “It opens them up to information that they might not otherwise consider.”

Well, okay. Perhaps that’s so. The Times backs up the research with an anecdote about the 1978 Camp David accords, where President Jimmy Carter apparently stopped Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin from walking out on the negotiations by showing him pictures of his grandchildren. But how in the world does that research or that anecdote support the article’s assertion that “several strong, but subtle psychological factors will be pushing Democrats and Republicans … toward engagement instead of name-calling and nastiness”?

Do we, for some reason, expect members of Congress to begin recalling their “treasured memories” or rifling through family photo albums before important committee hearings, floor debates, and votes? Surely not. Surely the Times had some other reason to be so optimistic about bi-partisan cooperation. And, of course, it did—but that reason is even more laughable than first. After laying out the memories hypothesis, the article ventures that:

One reason sworn enemies may soften after the campaigning is over and they’re seated face to face is that conversation subconsciously synchronizes people physically … new research suggests that conversation partners quickly and subconsciously begin to speak alike — even when they don’t care for one another.

Seriously!? While there’s probably nothing wrong with this research, is our hope for the future of American politics really pinned on the expectation that Northeastern Democrats will begin to pick up a Texas drawl, or that Great Plains Republicans will suddenly adopt a California twang? Clearly, the Times is bending evidence to suit an argument rather than forming an argument that matches the evidence.

Granted, the Science Times article begins by stating matter-of-factly that “this is not a moment of harmonic convergence” in politics and includes hedges against its prophecy of political cooperation. Still, a much more meaningful and interesting connection between science and electoral politics was to be found in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday. The relatively short feature, headlined, “Nudge the Vote,” focused on an organization called the Analyst Institute and recent attempts to pinpoint the best strategies for encouraging turnout. According to the article:

An increasingly influential cadre of Democratic strategists is finding new ideas in … behavioral-science experiments that treat campaigns as their laboratories and voters as unwitting guinea pigs. The growing use of experimental methods — Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, calls them “prescription drug trials for democracy” — is convulsing a profession where hunches and instinct have long ruled. Already, experimental findings have upended a lot of folk wisdom about how votes are won. The most effective direct mail might not be the most eye-catching in the mailbox but the least conspicuous. It is better to have an anonymous, chatty volunteer remind voters it’s Election Day than a recorded message from Bill Clinton or Jay-Z. The most winnable voters may be soft supporters of the opposition, not the voters who polls say are undecided. (“Undecided” may just be another word for “unlikely to vote.”)

Another intriguing finding presented in the article is that “peer-pressure” messages, which convey a certain “we’re-keeping-an-eye-on-you” tone, are much more effective motivational tools than more traditional reminders to “please vote.” But, as the article points out, “while political experiments have proved successful at isolating what gets people to vote, they have been less useful at finding out how voters decide among candidates.”

That is why, during every election from here to eternity, the media will continue to churn out stories about voter psychology, such as one from Newsweek in early October headlined “I’m Mad as Hell … and I’m Going to Vote! The Psychology of an Angry Electorate.”

Such attempts to peer into the minds of voters and candidates are, of course, worth pursuing. But, as CJR argued in 2008, there is a limit to what science can tell us about electoral and political behavior, and reporters must be careful not to bend research to suit the desired narrative. Instead, the narrative should be based on only the most robust and germane research.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.