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.