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Barack Obama is screwed | So is John McCain | But mostly the human mind

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Disclaimer: I don’t intend to proclaim or disseminate my political views in public. Instead, I vote in private. I believe that both Barack Obama and John McCain are worthy candidates of the Presidency. John McCain is a national hero; the outcome of the election won’t change that.

I am recording my rambling thoughts on the psychological effects on the election. Your constructive feedback, as always, is welcome. No flames, please.

I started reading Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind yesterday. While Gary Marcus was going through the lists of cognitive errors to which the human mind is prone, I couldn’t help thinking of the election. It seemed at first that pretty much every error would go in John McCain’s favor. Namely:

  1. Memory Priming: There have been some pre-election associations with the name “Barack Obama” and the characterizations “Muslim” and “terrorist”.
  2. Attachment to the familiar: “If it’s in place, it must be working.” Evolution seems to have preferred sticking with the status quo rather than accepting change. This is especially true in stressful times (think credit crisis). Curiously, McCain’s attempt to disassociate himself with Bush might not be the best strategy. Obama seems to be trying to leverage this association, but it might not be in his best interest. Indeed, I think most people associate Bush with a present national crisis, but there is a irrational human tendency to stick with precedence (regardless of its flaws).
  3. Minority effect: voters tend to vote for candidates in the “majority” demographic rather than “minorities”. This prejudice includes voters in the minority.

The one thing that might curb all these effects is that I think the Barack Obama campaign understands these phenomena. They’re not relying on a seemingly large lead in the polls to materialize on election day.

Further inspection reveals that McCain is also susceptible to similar errors:

  1. Memory Priming: By associating McCain with Bush (and therefore a sad state of national affairs), the Obama campaign is priming the voters’ memories. One could make the case that this association is valid. However, it is not necessary to correlate McCain’s and Bush’s votes to prove a correlation between the economic or political state of the country and McCain’s past votes.
  2. Minority effect: McCain’s age gets very little discussion as a minority segment. However, there is an association here that McCain will under-perform as a president due to his age. Note that I believe the actuarial risk that Palin might become a president to be a valid risk; whether Palin will be a good president is separate issue than whether McCain will be a good president.

There’s another problem that plagues supporters of either party (Conservative/Republican | Liberal/Democrat)–especially the most passionate: motivated reasoning. It is far easier to prove an idea that you already believe in, rather than to search for all the available material out there to disprove any idea. This consideration brings back memories of the 2000 election, when the votes were in dispute. I remember seeing pictures of Republicans and Democrats screaming at each other. Each side had convinced itself very passionately that it was right–no doubt by invoking some amount of motivated reasoning. It’s clear that each side thought if the other’s candidate won, the nation would immediately plummet into disrepair. Of course, that didn’t happen.

Instead, it took 8 years. Ha!

My point is that we should each beware of the heavy marketing that we are being fed as voters. We should each try to see the other points in any argument. Keep an open mind. Each of us should remember that we are all American…

Except Joe Biden: He’s a puppy-killing Communist, and Joe is not even his real first name.

By the way, the book is not particularly generous to George Bush.

Written by PoojanWagh

October 27th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

One Response to 'Barack Obama is screwed | So is John McCain | But mostly the human mind'

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  1. I love the post – thanks. I think what’s going on is deep and old. I’ve read the “neo cons” have learned how powerful framing is. Lakoff sums it up nicely:

    George Lakoff: The Palin Choice and the Reality of the Political Mind
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/the-palin-choice-and-the_b_123012.html

    Matthew Cornell

    27 Oct 08 at 10:38 pm

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