We've had a bumper crop of recent electoral events where I live, and given that I write a good deal about language and persuasion, at regular intervals I get asked to advise on political campaigns. I always decline.
I have no trouble advocating publicly and with feeling for my own political beliefs. I also have no trouble accepting money from commercial entities (well, not usually, anyway) who want to hire me to consult on the technical aspects of their persuasion strategies. But I do get squeamish when it comes to drawing on my knowledge of language and psychology in order to tinker directly with the machinery of political messaging. It basically comes down to the fact that, in order to do so effectively, I would inevitably have to recommend—at least some of the time—the use of techniques that I would ultimately prefer not to play a prominent role in our political discourse. If you read much about political psychology and persuasion, it's hard to miss the growing pile of studies that reveal the various levers and buttons that reside in the less deliberative rooms of our minds and that can set in motion behaviors and choices all while leaving the persuadee convinced that it's his rational, thoughtful self that's been at the control panel all along. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that the wholesale exploitation of shallow cognitive processes for political ends accomplishes no good thing for the overall health of civic life, and that thoughtful deliberation and evaluation of candidates and their ideas should drive our democratic impulses.
No doubt I have an overly sentimental and earnest view of democracy. Possibly, this is due to the historical accident of having been born the granddaughter of a Czech dissident who spent years in a Soviet prison, and the daughter of parents who left their lives and livelihoods behind the iron curtain in order to enjoy certain Western freedoms. It tends to leave you wanting democracy to actually be worth all of that adversity. And certainly, some would call me old-fashioned—for instance, among his political writings, George Lakoff has published a book titled The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain. In it he argues that the view of voters as rational deliberators is hopelessly outdated, and that it's not just misguided but irresponsible, if you hold sincere political beliefs, not to advocate for them using techniques that appeal to the less rational thought processes of the electorate. He may well be right. Nevertheless, my personal policy has allowed me to avoid certain scratchy internal discomforts up to this point.
But since I've been approached again this month to advise on a (highly worthwhile) political campaign, it's been on my mind. What I've been wrestling with lately is the sharp line I've drawn in my own thinking between using certain techniques for political ends, and discovering or writing about them, the latter of which I've always felt to be beyond reproach. But the distinction between the discovery and the use of questionable techniques has the potential to smudge occasionally under the exigencies of doing good science.
For example: suppose you want to study the impact of, say, false rumors or subliminal messaging on attitudes about a candidate. A standard approach might be to invent fictional candidates, apply the experimental variables, and then measure attitudes about the candidates. Fine, suppose you find an effect. (People have.) It's very hard to know if the effect would scale up to the real world.
Take, for instance, the kerfuffle that arose during the 2000 U.S. presidential election in which the Bush campaign ran a TV ad criticizing the Democrats' health care policies while the word RATS flashed on the screen for a couple of video frames, too quickly to be consciously registered by most viewers. Bush dismissed accusations of sneaky subliminal messaging as "bizarre conspiracy theories." Of course, it was wildly implausible that the image was not deliberately inserted. And there were, as far as I was concerned, reasons to believe that at least in theory, the subliminal word might affect people's attitudes. But could it in fact do so in a real flesh-and-blood election where that subtle association might easily be swamped by mounds of knowledge and information that voters have about each of the candidates?
To find out, you'd need to actually expose people to the messages during a real political campaign, which is exactly what political psychologists Joel Weinberger and Drew Westen did in a 2008 study. (Westen, incidentally, happens not to share my discomfort with blending scientific expertise and political advocacy, and regularly serves as an advisor to the Democratic Party). To make a somewhat subtle story mercifully brief, their study found that flashing subliminal images—in an experiment administered over the internet, no less—had a measurable effect on people's attitudes towards Gray Davis, who was at the time governor of California and the subject of a recall referendum. (You can read the entire study here.)
Weinberger and Westen measured attitudes, leading to an admittedly less impactful finding than direct evidence of an effect on voting behavior. But an Israeli study published in 2007 by Ran Hassin and colleagues did find that voting decisions (as self-reported in any case) were shaped in part by exposure to subliminal stimuli. The finding was that subjects who'd been exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag ended up voting for more moderate candidates than those who'd "seen" a fleeting non-symbolic image instead. The authors' interpretation of the study was that the symbol of the flag had activated for subjects a sense of collective national unity that aligned with mainstream, centrist attitudes. (I'm not sure I'd want to hazard a guess, though, as to whether exposure to an American flag would lead to more, or less moderate political opinions). Apparently, this was no transient effect, lasting long enough to tilt voting behavior away from more extremist positions. Along similar lines, David Beaver recently posted here about a study in which voter turnout was dramatically increased simply by tweaking the wording of a question on a survey that had been administered the previous day.
Obviously, we're entitled to draw more muscular conclusions from these latter studies than we are from experiments that use fictional candidates dressed up in stiff, made-to-order biographies. But these experiments also open an ethical can of worms: to what extent is it justifiable, in the name of research, to put people through a study that might well skew their political choices, especially when the study involves exposing them to information about which they can't possibly deliberate? The studies were clearly small enough so as to have at best a negligible effect on the outcome of the election (and the Weinberger and Westen study did provide a debriefing note immediately after the assessment measures, explaining the details of the experiment before subjects actually went to the polls). But to my mind, at least, it's not crazy to question whether studies such as these impinge on one's individual rights to make a fully-aware choice as to who should be permitted to govern you (or, for that matter, whether to vote).
It occurs to me that these concerns only arise if you strongly value the importance of individuals making an informed, reasoned choice about their governance, if you see that as an important individual right. But perhaps what studies like these tell us is that this is a misplaced value, that no such right has been violated for the simple reason that the average voter is unlikely to ever be in a position of making an informed, reasoned choice—that voters' opinions are too easily buffeted by simple heuristics, associations, or whatever. In which case, my insistence on preserving the opportunities for a reasoned choice, and my reluctance to deploy a well-equipped arsenal of persuasive tools to further the causes that I care about are entirely misplaced, and Westen and Lakoff are right, after all.
But I don't think the science has led us there, just yet. We're seeing clear evidence of limits to our deliberative powers and this is perhaps leaving some of us a bit shaken. But so far, the evidence has not yet banished reason and clear-headed evaluation entirely from the stage. And the data pointing to less conscious or rational processes in our choice-making might in the end lead us in the opposite direction; it's possible that a sober consideration of these limits might even enhance the extent to which reason tempers our decision-making—perhaps not just individually, but institutionally as well, if we can be moved by that knowledge to put in place structures that encourage deliberation rather than discourage it. I suppose so long as I see this as a possible goal, and a good one at that, perhaps even a better one than the championing of any particular political cause, I'll continue to spend my energies in studying and writing about persuasion rather than prescribing its use for specific political ends.