Braving the New World of Political Psychology

I’ve been remiss in commenting on a great article by Michael Turk over at the American Spectator. He has a lot of great material, so I’m just going to weave my comments in throughout the best sections . . .

Obama did not win on Internet technology. Obama won on something much larger, much more sophisticated, and much more frightening. . . Data, and the ability to catch up on data, is not at issue. Significant investment in database technology, consumer data, and polling can reverse that trend. . . When the party makes data and technology a priority, and spends appropriately, it can and will catch up. . . More important than the open platform, however, is the second, and the much more daunting challenge the GOP faces. . .

In the case of Obama, the frightening advantage the left has is in a less touted entity known as the Analyst Institute (AI) and a consortium of behavioral scientists or COBS. The combination should be truly terrifying for anyone on the right.

To sum it up briefly, the AI and COBS combine to create an academic approach to data that the right truly doesn’t have and may well have difficulty matching. The AI works with many left-leaning groups on an institutional level to test messaging components to see what moves people. 

This has been my pitch to conservatives and Republicans for quite a while, but most are only now beginning to grasp the point . . . the digital divide is just the beginning of our problems.

In many ways it is a matter of simple multivariate testing to identify messages that move people — present a number of different versions to subsets of your list and see which performs best. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Where the AI becomes terrifying is when you mix it with COBS. COBS, for its part, is a collective of behavioral scientists from across academia who specialize in a much more advanced form of microtargeting. These are people concerned not only with your characteristics and voting behavior, but how they can manipulate that behavior. They’ve united to form a behavioral brain trust for the left.

It’s one thing to know that someone is a likely voter and test messages to see what moves them. That would represent the intersection of the AI and traditional microtargeting. You’re just trying to trigger the characteristic that would cause them to act on a latent behavior to which they are already inclined.

When behavioral psychologists, behavioral economists, and behavioral political theorists unite to identify ways of shaping behavior, you start to see possibilities the best propaganda machines in history could not have imagined. . .

Now consider the possibility of doing the same level of experimentation with triggered emotional response but you have data telling you what music the audience consumes, the movies they watch, the TV shows they sit still for, and even the food and drinks they buy. 

I think it’s important to clarify a few things here . . . the Analyst Institute was founded by and is run by behavioral scientists. It’s founding director was Todd Rogers, who is now at Harvard in the government/political science department. Basically, he does political psychology and behavior. The “consortium of behavioral scientists” is just an academic advisory council in the same vein (at Evolving Strategies, we also work with an academic advisory council). But the same kinds of people (sometimes the same actual people) compose both and they do the same kinds of things; political psychology experiments.

For the academics part, it’s the perfect situation. The Stanford Prisoner Experiment requires disclosure of testing parameters to subjects of experimentation. Political communication has no such restriction. If you want to get field knowledge of how to bend, fold, and twist voter behavior — without having to tell voters they’re being manipulated — who wouldn’t sign up?

That simple, frightening fact is why I, a dedicated technologist, have no fear about the GOP’s deficiency in technology, but instead stay awake at night terrified by our lack of access to the academics studying these fields.

Again, Evolving Strategies is composed of, and works with the same kinds of academic social scientists. It is true, we have to work harder to find people on our side. But they are out there, and we’re always looking for and cultivating more of them, so get in touch if you are a serious social scientist and lean right!

Our challenge is not in data or technologists. Our challenge is competing in the realm of academic investigation and the brainpower represented by professors with tenure who do nothing but come up with ideas to explore. Now they have access to a free, unrestricted laboratory to test their theories, and a party willing to foot the bill. It is a perfect storm from which the GOP may truly be unable to escape.

We can’t escape it . . . we have to use what resources we have, and do better with less.

  1. Eeyore

    Frank Luntz, dinosaur in a world of microtargeting asteroids.

  2. Sumomitch

    Of course, it helps if the messages the behavioralists are massaging are themselves targeted at the short-term selfish consumerist aspect of the human brain. What self-respecting scientist would be interested in exploring a message of self-denial in the name of future generations? Talk about a dead-end for future research grants. As the materialistic view of human existence triumphs, all aspects of human cultural inheritance collapse into the present-oriented maximization of pleasure. 

  3. TeamAmerica

    Good article. It’s actually worse than this, since the WSJ notes that Obama

    behaves as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse, whose strategy was to

    de-legitimize and thereby annihilate your opposition, an approach

    to controlling speech and dissent that now dominates our universities.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323701904578274131077220930.html?mod=WSJ_article_RecentColumns_WonderLand

  4. Keith

    ES sounds like a group AEI, ISI, and Dennis Prager should host a conference with, to help them fine-tune their messages about the morality of free-markets and American Exceptionalism.

  5. dittoheadadt

    The incumbent Obambi garnered what, 6 million fewer votes than the first time (unprecedentedly), and barely beat a challenger who almost completely refused to fight back, and his bare win was with a nearly-wholly compliant media, academe, and culture.

    And we think we need to be worried about data??

    No, we need to be worried about our inability to bypass the media, and our refusal to even contemplate how to do it.

  6. Keith Preston

    Dr. Mengele, please pick up the white courtesy phone…

  7. Schrodinger
    Keith Preston: Dr. Mengele, please pick up the white courtesy phone… · 1 minute ago

    Joseph Goebbels is calling ….

  8. Gordon Savage

    They have the technocrats of desire, but we have Rene Girard (cf. Peter Robinson’s interview), whose theory of Mimetic Desire and Scapegoating exposes their techniques as morally bankrupt.  Sometimes the Dems expose this bankruptcy on their own: Occupy Wall Street was only the Democrat appeal to envy and resentment without discipline.  Their signs about “the Jews” and lynched effigies repulsed the same people who later whispered to their co-workers about Romney “just not being one of us.”  Rather than playing their game, we need to expose it, and further examine ourselves and repent of those ways in which we also use convergence on a class of scapegoats for political power.

  9. MJBubba

    Adam Schaeffer, I hope you keep bringing this subject up in new posts.  I saw your previous post gathered some skeptics here at Ricochet:

    http://ricochet.com/main-feed/The-Digital-Divide-is-the-Least-of-Our-Problems-.-.-.-Which-is-Saying-Something

    But I think you are exactly right, and we need to explore this topic and wave a flag until we get some attention. 

    If anyone doubts that the field of political psychology is an advantage for the left, check this out:  http://swampland.time.com/2012/11/07/inside-the-secret-world-of-quants-and-data-crunchers-who-helped-obama-win/

  10. MJBubba

    Adam Schaeffer, please see this Ricochet post by PsychLynne:

    http://ricochet.com/member-feed/Missed-Opportunities-The-Right-and-Behavioral-Science

    I will repeat the offer I made there:  if you can identify a conservative that is a tenured professor at one of the top 50 programs in psychology, I will pay for a year of Ricochet for him.  We need someone with some inside connection to that field to help guide the baby steps that are needed to catch up.

  11. MJBubba

    Well, after poking around at your Evolving Strategies site, I see you have a psych professor on your team who is working anonymously.  I suppose that is a requirement for his involvement.  I bet he is the token conservative in his department and is probably pretty isolated professionally.

  12. Super Nurse

    If we could just not do DAMAGE with our messaging, we’d be in better shape. Why on earth did we focus on reducing the welfare state when we should have been focusing on the plan to reduce the need for the welfare state through economic growth? You don’t need to be a social scientist to see the potential for political harm in that!

    That said, bravo- wish I was a social scientist and could offer my assistance. I do behavioral research, but it is in-hospital, safety-related, not what you’d need.

  13. ThePullmanns

    Adam, can you explain more about what exactly you mean by this? Do you mean the Left is essentially combining data about how people work with data about what individual Americans do and think to foster political manipulation of the populace that benefits them? 

    That’s what it sounds like, but that’s such a big charge I wanted to check. 

  14. SPare

    This thread exposes something that I think is important yet overlooked: the Obama victory was much thinner than it would appear at first glance.  Evidence of this claim comes in the increasing success of republicans the further down ballot that you go.

    The techniques highlighted here can work when applied to the particular race at which they are aimed, but have a lesser and lesser effect the farther away you get from that core target. The result is a big, but fragile effect.  That’s how you can see

    One of the problems that you are left with is a president with a large victory, but not really much of a mandate.  The conventional wisdom sees the mandate, because they’re looking at the voting percentages through a standard world view, and discounting the effects of these below the water line techniques.

    The lack of mandate comes to light through the policy support that Obama is getting now in polling.  I suspect that hubris is going to hit hard.  but who knows, I thought Romney would win.

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