Why Voters Play Follow-the-Leader

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, February 4, 2008

What do you think is more dangerous? Terrorists getting their hands on a biological weapon that can be smuggled into the country or another hurricane like Katrina? Which is the smarter way to keep Social Security solvent? Raise the retirement age or raise taxes? How can the current economic crisis be averted? Give Americans cash to spend or slash mortgage interest rates to restart the housing market?

As millions of Americans gather to vote for presidential candidates in tomorrow's Democratic and Republican primaries, what they are really being asked to do is make a number of policy choices.

The problem is that most people do not fully understand the implications of these choices. Everyone agrees a biological attack is to be avoided and a hurricane should be properly managed, but unless you know how large these risks are relative to each other, you do not know how to allocate resources.

How do we form preferences when we do not fully understand complex issues? We fall back on heuristics, or mental shortcuts. New research suggests the most powerful of these is to find leaders with whom we feel cultural kinship -- and then follow whatever they recommend.

"It is much easier to look at someone and say, 'What are those person's values -- are they like mine or not? If they are like mine, I can trust this person to come up with policies that are in my interest because they share my values,' " said Donald Braman, an anthropologist at George Washington University Law School. "This is what happens in a lot of politics."

In an intriguing set of experiments, Braman, Yale University law professor Dan Kahan and others show that people reduce complex policy matters to a question of personal values. This simplifies decisions, but it places our conclusions -- and even our perception of facts -- at the mercy of traits that are ultimately arbitrary.

When people with a strong individualist streak, for example, were given evidence about global climate change in the context of the need for more aggressive pollution controls, Kahan found they were less likely to believe the facts, because the idea of regulations clashed with their beliefs that individuals and markets are best left unfettered. When the facts were framed in the context of needing more nuclear power, however, individualists believed the same information about global warming.

In another experiment conducted with the Washington-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Kahan found that when volunteers heard about the risks of nanotechnology from different experts, they gravitated toward the views of experts who seemed to share their personal values -- individualists followed the lead of experts who appeared to be individualists, while people who believed in hierarchy were most likely to be influenced by experts who espoused similar views. Once volunteers decided which experts were most like them, it did not make a difference whether the experts said nanotechnology was risky or safe -- either way, the volunteers agreed with them.

Kahan and Braman found that people did not realize how their views were shaped by personal values. One implication of the research is that when people clash on hot-button issues, their disagreements may have more to do with clashing values than facts. One person may conclude nanotechnology is dangerous while another person concludes it is safe, but neither realizes their conclusions are being driven by underlying values that have nothing to do with nanotechnology. The researchers examined two values: the extent to which people see themselves as individualists, and the extent to which they subscribe to hierarchical or egalitarian philosophies. Other values might have similar effects.

"One of the problems cultural cognition creates is it leads people to have divergent views of the facts, so when they debate one another it seems like they are talking past one another," Braman said. People think their opponents "are either 'completely ignorant and deluded of the facts that are obvious to me,' or they know the facts but are ignoring them and selecting the facts in a biased and untrustworthy way. That leads to deep distrust."

Two presidential candidates have explicitly tried to step away from this kind of thinking: When Barack Obama says it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, or John McCain emphasizes that his political opponents have things to say that are of value, these politicians are encouraging voters to avoid turning policy debates into proxy wars about values.

"If you can generate conditions in which people are not engaged in cultural battles, they are much more likely to be relaxed and receptive to information," Braman concluded. "Once people are on the defensive, they are very good at screening out facts that are contrary to their cultural commitments. It is a form of cognitive self-defense."

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