Information Age Education
   Issue Number 97
September, 2012   

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

Peter Sylwester
Software Engineer
Seattle, Washington

Robert Sylwester
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.

Cultural Biases

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 performance.

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.

Cognitive Biases

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 (Gladwell, 2005).

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 thought.

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.


References

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company. For a review, see http://brainconnection.positscience.com/
content/215_1
.

Junod, T. (September 8, 2012). The water-park scandal and two Americas in the raw: Are we a nation of line-cutters or are we the line? Esquire Political Blog. Retrieved 9/10/2012 from http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/whitewater-flash-pass-
12403562
.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. For a review see http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-89.html.

Laber-Warren, E. (September, 2012). Calling a truce in the political wars: Psychological insights might tone down the bitter feuding between Democrats and Republicans. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved 9/10/2012 from http://www.scientific
american.com/article.cfm?id=calling-truce-political-wars&WT.mc_id=SA_
CAT_MB_20120905
.


Authors

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
science.com/library/?main=talkhome/columnists
.


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