This free Information Age Education Newsletter
is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education
project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
Selecting a President and Vice President
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
Our brain’s functional organization biases it towards individual
preferences and decisions that enhance our survival and the quality of
our life. These biases can become especially evident during election
campaigns, and they often help to determine our vote.
According to the experts who study political leanings, liberals and conservatives do not just see things differently. They are different—in their personalities and even their unconscious reactions to the world around them (Laber-Warren, September, 2012).
Several underlying cultural and cognitive biases seem especially significant in voting.
We’re a social species, and this gives us an important advantage
over species in which mating is the only collaborative activity. Our
individual capability on any given task is limited, but since others
may have superior capabilities on selected survival tasks, the combined
survival potential of a collaborative group will be greater than that
of any individual within it. Since we function within a complex system
of informal and formal collaborations from friendships to governments,
we tend to appreciate virtuosos and leaders whose capabilities exceed
our own, and so expand our survival possibilities.
The recent Olympics and upcoming U.S. Presidential and Congressional
elections are examples of this search for virtuosity and political
leadership. We identify with Olympic individuals and teams who win
medals as being representative of our national capabilities. We
similarly identify with political parties that convince us that their
leadership will provide what we think our nation needs. In both cases,
disappointment among the inevitable losers frequently follows.
In many Olympic events such as track and field, an individual or team
can prove superiority because performance can be carefully measured. In
other events such as gymnastics and diving, the winner is selected by
the combined votes of competent judges.
Athletic events provide detailed records of the athletes’ past
performances. These records can be used to make relatively good
forecasts of future performances. In addition, we have developed
sophisticated tests to detect the misuse of performance-enhancing drugs.
Moving beyond the Olympics, Lance Armstrong’s seven victories in the
Tour de France were rescinded several years after he was awarded the
medals. Athletes’ medals or a team’s victories may thus be rescinded
for various types of violations years after the victories were won.
Similarly, historians make retrospective judgments of political
leadership, but are less willing to become visionaries of future
Politics and political leadership are thus far more complex for voters
to predict than athletic performance. We are witnessing some of these
difficulties in the current political contests. For example,
advertising and a candidate’s speeches can and do distort the truth.
Political candidates tend to draw heavily on their prior successes in
the areas related to the election. Their opponents attempt to diminish
such success while, at the same time, touting their own superiority. A
“science” of political advertising has been developed, and huge amounts
of money are being spent to influence potential voters.
Upwards of 150 million voters select U.S. presidents, and they
certainly aren’t all of one mind about their criteria for selection. In
the end though, our basic two-party system means that, like an Olympic
event, the presidential election will provide us with a winner and at
least one loser.
It seems a hopeless task, but we’ve been electing presidents,
legislators, and other political leaders with reasonable success for
over 200 years. Our collective collaborative brain is thus up to such a
daunting task. The losers get another chance down the political road.
Voters typically want the campaign to focus on the challenges that the
next administration will confront—and for the candidates to provide
clear strategies for confronting them. The problem is that the U.S. is
huge, the issues are complex, and our individual and collective
attention spans tend to be short. These realities of U.S. campaigns
tend to reduce complex issues and proposed solutions to short bits of
often-deceptive information—phrases, images, sound-bites, and
narratives that the candidates hope will get into voters’ minds and
influence their voting decisions.
A previous IAE Newsletter
article focused on Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s superb analysis
of the thought processes people use to determine how they will respond
to predictive events, such as an election or the variability of the
stock market. See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-89.html. His analysis is helpful in understanding the cognitive properties we seek in voters and politicians.
Our brain is essentially quite lazy. This is practical because our
brain consumes a lot of energy. It’s only 2% of our body’s weight but
it uses 20% of our body’s energy. If we stopped and thought about every
little challenge, we'd collapse from exhaustion—both from the thinking
and from all the eating we would be doing to support such effort.
So, our brain has evolved to deflect most of our thought with a shield
of intuition that more often than not determines our decisions. These
seemingly automatic responses to daily events are accumulated from
previous actions that proved more or less successful. We thus develop a
sense of probability in weighing most reactions to normal challenges,
and this snap judgment is what drives much of our day-to-day activity
This intuitive thinking gradually becomes effortlessly automatic and
therefore consumes very little cognitive energy. Unfortunately, this
subconscious thought can often be wrong when it is stretched too far in
adapting to an unusual circumstance that should require additional
reflective thought. Nevertheless, since our brain is mostly lazy, these
intuitive reactions occur even when we should know enough to stop and
think about the realities of the novel challenge.
Kahneman labels intuitive reflexive responses as System 1. System 1 is
what responds to the problem 1 + 1, but it typically doesn’t work with
23 x 456. It might estimate the answer, but that often doesn’t provide
an accurate enough solution. When the challenge is thus complex and
important we should always rouse the reflective System 2 from its
slumber to think it through.
System 2 uses the executive strength of our powerful cortex to take
many things into consideration and reason out a better reflective
answer, one that may well end up serving as a future response for
System 1. System 2 obviously doesn't think quickly. It may consciously
stop us in our tracks from all other activity, so we try not to venture
here if we don't have to (especially if we are in the middle of
something else). Even intelligent people who should know better will
opt to not disturb their System 2 because they convince themselves that
their intuitive System 1 answer or decision is good enough.
Kahneman’s new research on judgment and decision-making casts an
intriguing light on the understanding of our personal predispositions,
which used to be explained with the now discredited belief of left-brain and right-brain thinking. For example, creative people were conventionally regarded as right-brain people predisposed to holistic thought while more logical people were the left-brain practitioners of analytic thought.
As Kahneman convincingly argues, however, we all use our entire brain in a similar fashion, but our intuitions
could be tuned differently. We perhaps spark differing brain regions in
accordance with our uniquely prescribed snap judgments. Many creative
people, such as performing artists, seem to intuitively respond to
challenges with solutions that tend toward emotional needs—how to make
things look, sound, or feel better. Contrast this with creative
engineers, who seem more logically attuned with how things
might be made more efficient or effective. Two differently structured
brains do not mean that one brain (or one person) is better than the
other, but rather that we think along the pathways we have each
reinforced with the decisions we’ve made, beginning when we were young
and impressionable and yearning for success in our day-to-day
activities. We’re not born with one inclination or the other, but we
program ourselves as we grow and make decisions.
People with strong family-oriented religious, cultural, and/or
political views may grow up indoctrinated by the strength of their
family’s beliefs, and simply accept them without carefully evaluating
these beliefs for themselves. They thus become programmed with System 1
responses that are dogmatically and politically consistent. No
additional thought is required. When a cognitive quandary arises,
System 2 isn't roused to think it through, but rather System 1 is
trusted to already have a jerrybuilt answer. If done often enough, such
practice will have a tendency to train their brain to a certain line of
We all trust our System 1 in this way with many things, thinking we have
the correct answers. But, of course, in many situations we don't have the
correct answers. We're merely trying to save ourselves the effort of
thinking it through, and it’s interesting that a legitimate cognitive
bias can support our often-erroneous behavior.
We recommend that before the elections, you read Kahneman’s much acclaimed book, Thinking, Fast and Slow,
and also Emily Laber-Warren’s research report on how personality
preferences affect voting. They may or may not change your votes, but
at least you’ll know why you made the decisions you made.
Tom Junod’s intriguing online article in the Esquire Political Blog
(Junod, September 8, 2012) provides yet another important perspective
on issues to consider when voting. Although the article leans Democratic, the points he makes are decidedly democratic.
Peter Sylwester works as
a software engineer in Seattle, Washington, and teaches adult education
courses in programming languages and graphic arts production.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. See http://brainconnection.posit
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in. If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help
Readers may also send comments via email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog
and the free newsletter you are now reading.
For a free subscription to this twice a month newsletter and to see
back issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
You can change your address or cancel your subscription by clicking on
“Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this message.