Are Humans Too Fallible For Democracy?

November 6, 2012 1:30 pm

With the American elections imminent, and the UK choosing Police Commissioners on November 15, it’s worth investigating the gaping chasms behind the theories underpinning democracy, and the reality of human interaction.

Western-style democracy is typically defended according to two principles – either (i) the electorate are best positioned to choose the best leader, or (ii) the electorate are best positioned to avoid the worst leaders.  This thinking fatally overstates the power of our ability to act rationally, to engage with political discussion, and to consider our futures. In fact, we’re the mental equivalent of putty.

The problems aren’t new – they emerged in Antiquity. Plato’s Republic lambasts Athens’ populace and government, claiming that voters (who he kindly called blind and compared to a vicious beast) were so swayed by entertaining rhetoric that they failed to consider the good of the state. He saw Athens as being run by ‘sophists’ who simply conformed to the majority’s short-term passions and flattered the majority in speeches. The Romans, too, appreciated the artificial elements of politics, with both Cicero and Tacitus musing over the nature of persuasion.

To snap back to the present, we see these threats in the flesh. A tiny percentage of Obama and Romney’s audience have the training to spot logical fallacies, irrelevant divergences or skewed data. Fewer still actively read non-partisan fact-checkers or consider candidates’ manifestos. The presidential debates were essentially an exercise in ‘He said, she said’, with pundits calling the ‘winner’ on who looked the most confident, spoke most fluently, looked into the camera more sincerely.

Such conscious malpractice as mis-deploying a slippery slope is the tip of an awkward iceberg. The human mind is a fragile, easily-influenced customer, as demonstrated particularly by ‘Pick Up Artists’ (exposed in The Game), by magicians such as Derren Brown, and by political consultants like Frank Luntz. They, for example, exploit the power of linguistic ‘framing’, with Luntz using emotional-reaction polls to advise the Republicans to call ‘inheritance tax’ a ‘death tax’, to call ‘global warming’ merely ‘climate change’, and to name ‘illegal invasion’ the more palatable ‘regime change’. This harks back to Orwell’s hatred of euphemisms such as ‘population transfer’, yet no-one stops the spread. Speeches are engineered in extreme detail – considering for example how “x and y” emphasises ‘x’, whereas “x but y” favours ‘y’ (automaticity).

Set yourself free from prejudices.

If the voter sees through such machinations, they remain limited by what Foucault calls our ‘episteme’ and Nietzsche, our ‘prejudices’.  Both terms refer to our cultural/linguistic inheritance, the sum of all our experiences of culture, media and society, which constrains our possible thoughts and predisposes us towards ‘mainstream’ views. These extend beyond the typical impression of a ‘consummate politician’ – MRI scans by New Atheist Sam Harris show that we are (initially) automatically hostile towards anyone of different ethnicity. Similar biases against ‘Others’ exist over class, education, dress and accent.  Comments about Barack Obama ‘essentially being white’ are revealing in this regard.

The subject of one’s appearance suggests yet more difficulty – our cognitive biases. Specifically, the ‘Halo Error’ means humans typically overestimate the intellectual, personal and agreeable qualities of someone attractive, and underestimate those of someone unattractive (the ‘Devil Effect’). Gender matters; the Western episteme, shaped by millennia of patriarchy, makes us favour male leaders. There are almost innumerable cognitive biases, which Kahneman’s research suggests makes us imperfect at both remembering, and at thinking. We recall data that supports our position and ignore other evidence – we even interpret neutral evidence as supporting our position!

Striking experiments reveal the erroneous creativity of our minds. In one, over a third of subjects ‘created’ memories of having met Bugs Bunny at Disneyworld – but he’s a WarnerBros character. Expert manipulators use these natural failings to produce extraordinary phenomena – for example, spiritualists/mediums deploying ambiguous language to describe the emotions most people feel to suggest they’re reading minds (Cold Reading), or using body-language, mirroring and pseudo-sincerity to establish rapport. Whilst this is obvious on the theatre stage or the sleazy nightclub, it’s important to remember that we’re just as vulnerable at home in our living rooms. Human interaction uses them to some extent, conscious or not. For coached politicians, I know which I’d guess.

Are audiences being brainwashed?

Favoured techniques include suggestion, a subtle form of hypnotism. The speaker ‘anchors’ his sentence by using an initial clause which is generally true (“You’re sitting here listening to me”, “We’ve all been struggling in this economy…”) which forces your poor brain to accept the next clause (“…so tax cuts for all!”) more than we would otherwise.

Big-money politics cares about mood, too. After Bauermeister’s experiment showed that Israeli parole judges were 30% more lenient after a satisfying lunch, and Bargh’s demonstrated that a boss was far more likely to hire interviewees if he’d been given a coffee beforehand, politics was the logical next step. Conventions are filled with bright lights, food, upbeat music, even warm-up comedians. These are themselves backed up by the barrage of emotive adverts and slogans. With these factors, all theoretically-extraneous from a sober evaluation of a speaker’s argument, it becomes obvious that political funding is genuinely vital – and if Romney wins, Goldman Sachs really will rule the world.

I hope that this brief article has at least suggested to you how easily the human mind is manipulated, and urge you to follow the links where I seem unconvincing.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is widely quoted as saying, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” We tend to ‘frame’ this as an unwilling compromise, a concession, an acceptance of defeat.

As psychology and cultural understanding race on at unprecedented pace, and the rule of our countries stagnates and collapses, perhaps we should instead see it as a challenge.

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