Been Manipulated Lately?

As a social scientist, I always find it fascinating to see how much a change in the way an issue is framed affects people’s attitudes toward it.  A report by NPR’s Shankar Vedantam this week reported on research that seems to indicate that when American political leaders appeal to “the common good” it often undermines support for the policy.  On the other hand, when they frame the same issue in terms of individual benefits and, especially, individual freedoms, we are much more likely to be in favor of it.

We the PeopleAmerican culture has long been conflicted in our attitudes toward collectivism and individualism as I’ve noted before.  But there is no question we have a very strong independent streak.  A British friend of mine likes to talk about Americans’ “hyper-individualism.”  Interesting since Britain isn’t exactly a hotbed of collectivist attitudes… except when compared to us!

This matters because President Obama has framed many issues recently in more collectivist terms.  For example, in his latest inaugural address, he said:

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune…

[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

In fact, examine most any Obama speech and you’ll see some version of “We’re all in this together.”

I happen to agree with the President’s sentiment, but maybe it’s time to recognize that if we really care about getting certain policies enacted, we need to let people know what’s in it for them.  I hate to think we’re such a selfish people, but the reality is that we DO have a culture that reveres individuality and independence.  (It’s our collective attitude, you might say…).

Pollsters have long known that the way in which a question is asked can strongly influence the response.  This is why reputable surveys often ask what seems to be the same question two or three times.  In fact, it IS the same question – but they’re trying to phrase it differently to ensure they can account for the “framing effect.”

I discovered this interesting psychological fact for myself several years ago.  Early in my teaching career, I began using two alternative grading methods in each of my classes.  I told the students upfront that I would calculate their grades using both methods and assign each student’s final grade based on whichever method yielded the highest grade for that student.  (The details of the methods and why I used them aren’t really important here.  In most cases, it didn’t actually make much difference in final grades.)  On the syllabus, I indicated one method as the “Default Method” and the other as the “Alternative”.

Default Alternative SwitchHere’s the interesting thing: In the beginning, I had MANY students appeal their grades or ask for an exception to the grading policies.  After a few years, I decided to make a very minor change: I switched the order in which the methods were presented.  The “Default” now became the “Alternative” and vice-versa.  This is the ONLY change I made.  And, remember, I calculated the grade for every student using BOTH methods and gave them the highest of the two.  So, in reality, my grading system was EXACTLY THE SAME AS BEFORE.  What do you think happened?  No change, right?  Wrong – the number of complaints and appeals plummeted to near zero!

Having lived in the U.S. all my life, I’m not immune to the appeal of individuality, of course.  I definitely lean strongly libertarian in some ways – especially when it comes to civil liberties.  I’m especially passionate about freedom of speech, which is definitely a right that supports independence.

But I worry about how my own views, as well as everyone else’s, can often be swayed by a simple change in language or spin.  The popular book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is a fascinating exploration of this idea (among others).  He discusses research that shows that we have two types of thinking – a fast, snap-judgment type (“System 1”) and a slower, more deliberate type (“System 2”).  The two types influence each other but if we aren’t careful, the System 1 tends to dominate because we’re inherently a little lazy.  It’s a lot easier to rely on System 1 than on System 2.

It’s disconcerting to think we can be so easily manipulated – so what can be done?

One of the main remedies is simply being aware of this vulnerability.  If we continually ask ourselves if our attitude about something would change if it were presented differently, we’ll be less susceptible to the framing effect.

What’s that you say?  Why, yes, this DOES sound a lot like saying we should all engage in more CRITICAL THINKING.  (Hear that politicians??) Who would have thought that the solution to political manipulation would boil down to that popular mantra from the 60s: QUESTION AUTHORITY!


Thinking Fast and Slow cover

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