Hoisted by our own Petard? A behavioral scientist's lament

                                 by Erik Helzer

                                      Fast food, politics, behavioral science, and bombs.

We all know that fast food is bad for us, but many of us eat it anyway. There is something about that balanced concoction of fat, salt, and sugar that appeals to our most basic metabolic cravings – cravings that can take over when we least expect it. Fast food companies know this and they engineer the food so as to achieve a product so optimally rich in what’s bad, but irresistible, for us that we return again and again, hopefully bringing our kids and their friends.

According to many, this year’s presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is just as bad for us. Leaving aside what one thinks of the candidates themselves (a big aside for many), the “debate” that is supposed to feed our political decision-making is clogging our discursive arteries with rhetorical lipids: character assassination, accusations of criminal behavior, baseless untruths repeated time and again, and outright name calling. We, the People, bemoan this negativity in politics, but we return day-in and day-out for lunch: Reading blogs and news sites, tuning in to debates and interviews, discussing it with our friends and family members again and again. By all available metrics, the service counter at this year’s presidential election is packed to the brim. We know it’s bad for us; we know it’s ultimately bad for our democracy; we know we should eat better than this. But we can’t resist. And so we eat, and between bites we ponder what has become of our political waistline.

Like the Big Mac, our political fast food nation is the result of brilliant engineering. But this engineering has traded salt and fat for psychological biases. The engineers on both sides of the political aisle know a few things that behavioral scientists like me know: people’s brains attend to bad over good; they respond to emotional appeals over rational ones; they easily fit the world into absolutes (especially heroes and villains); they take small rewards now instead of larger rewards later; and they can’t resist basking in the moral failings of those they deem other. These days, behavioral science is a big chapter in the playbook of political campaigns and strategy teams, and often this is for the good. But I can’t help wondering if the new way politics is done in our country – what passes for political dialogue and “talking about the issues” but is really just crap served between two Sesame buns – is the Frankenstein outgrowth of our increasing knowledge of how people work (and how they fall short).

Ironically, the very scientists who have helped us understand the contours and tipping points of the human mind are some of the loudest critics of a lack of intellectualism in our political discourse. But what should we, as a field, expect? We’ve written the book on how to persuade people to believe anything and we’ve fought to have our recommendations listened to by those who have no interest in reading a scientific journal. And listen they have, much to what is quickly becoming my chagrin.

The old expression “hoisted by your own petard” literally means to be blown up by your own bomb. The many explosions that we face –climate change, national security threats, worsening income inequality – will require intellect, unity, generosity, and patience to address. Such capacities are beyond us if we continue to engage in a politics whose primary engine is the exploitation of psychological biases. We need (to borrow from Daniel Kahneman’s phrase book) a “slow thought” movement in the political arena – a return to healthier ingredients served up in delicious ways to palates that become more refined with each bite. We need to urge one another to eat better; we need to be reminded of the damage this kind of political food is doing to us and those who look up to us. And yes, if we’re good, we can have a side of fries once in a while, but we simply cannot sustain ourselves on this junk any longer.

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