A Psychology Experiment Is Exactly What Democracy Is
Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard has been disturbed by the rise of what we might call applied political psychology. More specifically, he's concerned about some of the political experiments described in the fascinating new book by Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab: The Science of Winning Campaigns, and a recent Obama campaign tactic that asks supporters to write down why they want to vote for Obama and then make a pledge to do so:
So if you're politically attuned and on Twitter, you've probably seen these disturbing photos of Obama supporters pledging allegiance to the president of the United States. . .
The [Obama] campaign is running a psychological experiment on its supporters to forge some sort of emotional commitment to the president, and to create an artificial sense of obligation to vote for him. . .
I find the grand experiments in behavioral manipulation insidious and just plain creepy. . .
. . . I find it actually disdainful of the autonomy and dignity that every American is supposed to feel when entering the voting booth. Democracy is important. It should not be viewed as an experiment in psychological manipulation . . .
There’s a lot bound up in all of this, so let’s unpack it a bit . . . First, the “pledge” tactic is a pledge to vote, not a pledge to Obama. Second, in what sense is it creating “an artificial sense of obligation to vote” if someone writes down the reasons voting is important to them and makes a public commitment to vote? Third, this tactic encourages greater thought and considered commitment to things one already believes. The result of that thought and public commitment is a greater sense of duty to do one’s part as a citizen. Now, these Obama voters are committed to things with which I vehemently disagree, but I fail to see how these actions and outcomes are negatives things per se.
Some of the experimentally-vetted mailers are creepy and push the bounds of ethics or at least propriety and good taste. Those will likely backfire with more widespread use, which is exactly why progressives have been running experiments to soften the “social threat” aspect of the social pressure campaigns.
But Democracy has always been a psychology experiment, just a large, uncontrolled, and messy one . . . it’s a system of governance wherein citizens with equal rights and equal votes attempt to persuade, cajole, bully and yes, manipulate each other to take up certain views and actions.
What's different now is that people are actually taking this process of persuasion and mobilization seriously. Some practitioners are using experimental science to build up a real and solid base of knowledge about how Democracy works, and how voters are persuaded to vote -- and vote for one’s side -- in an election.
At base, these experiments discover which means of contact and what kinds of content are more or less effective ways of communicating with citizens. Is that "insidious?" Is it “disdainful of the autonomy and dignity” of Americans to study how best to persuade or motivate them?
Democracy is exceedingly important, and the gravity of the issues we face today demands that we take the process of persuasion and mobilization just as seriously as the progressive groups that have outpaced us so tremendously in the science of communication recently.
Peer pressure is also an exceedingly useful thing to force people to conform to a preordained conclusion, which is why the Obama campaign has an app that allows you to see which of your neighbors are Democrats. Nothing disturbing about that at all, no siree.
Of course, it's not just Obama. Many high level campaigns in both parties are trying to employ behavioral psychology--in particular, they're sending a lot of seemingly odd and manipulative messages via direct mail these days.
Yes, peer pressure is often a very effective means of getting people to do things. But I wouldn’t say an email encouraging supporters to pledge to vote in November or even a list of their neighbor’s voting record will “force people to conform to a preordained conclusion.” In fact, I might call that notion itself “disdainful of the autonomy and dignity that every American is supposed to feel.”
But what should really disturb Hemingway and anyone else who cares about the future of our country is that the progressives are far, far beyond our side in this effort to understand how to communicate with and mobilize voters.
The Left has already institutionalized GOTV field experiments, and they have an army of academics working with unions and other grassroots organizations to carry them out. They have learned from hundreds of experiments over 4-5 election cycles. We are very much behind in this game. They have a huge advantage in institutional knowledge and best-practices that will give them a large edge in GOTV effectiveness this fall. But we can do this better and more efficiently if we recognize its value and move on it.
Field experiments are often cumbersome, messy and expensive. You need an election or referendum. It is difficult to identify heterogeneous effects conditional on the political/psych/demographic characteristics of treated voters. On their own, field experiments are inefficient.
An integrated testing protocol that begins online, with less expensive, more controlled and fine-grained PocketTrial makes field experiments more focused and efficient.
The election is simply the first step . . . afterward comes the more difficult task of navigating through health care, entitlement and other reforms mined with electoral hazards to achieve good policy with positive electoral results.
Understanding the political psychology of voters will be vital for winning these debates and elections, and a rigorous experimental approach is the means by which we can begin to achieve that understanding.