Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Persuasive Factors in Politics

In my previous posts, I was describing some of Cialdini's factors which affect decision-making and persuasion.

It is interesting to look at some of these factors playing out in current news events:

Why do people adhere to a particular political choice?

Many people insist that they support a particular political candidate, simply because that candidate has the best policies, or has the best leadership skills.  Or they support an ideological position, or a whole system of values, because they believe, and feel, that they are the best.

But are there other factors at play?  Let's look at some of Cialdini's persuasion factors to consider how they affect candidate or political choice:

1) Consistency & Commitment.  If a person has already supported a candidate, a political party, or a position, then that person is more likely to maintain their choice, even if circumstances change.  We form loyal attachments to our previous choices, even if the attachment is shown to be irrational or harmful.   It may seem humiliating, embarrassing, or weak, to bail out on a previous choice.   It might feel similar to abandoning a marriage, a job, or a responsibility, just because things are going through a rough patch.

This consistency factor is especially strong if the person has grown up in a culture where consistency or commitments are considered strong points of honour.   This culture of honour is to be respected.  Loyalty is to be respected!  But unfortunately, this loyalty can cause people to keep supporting, for too long,  something that is harmful...it can cause people to overlook negatives in their position, and to go along with things that they would never have rationally supported were it not for their previous commitment.

A related cognitive bias is the "sunk cost fallacy":  if you have already invested a lot of time, energy, or money into something, you are more likely to continue pursuing it, even if it is irrational to do so, and even if the project is failing disastrously.   It may feel humiliating or shameful to change your mind, even if changing your mind could save you from bankruptcy!  It can take courage to let a previous commitment go!

Commitment and consistency are bolstered by community and family factors:  if most people among your cultural group, family, or coworkers have all been supporting a particular group, idea, or candidate, then it could seem intensely disloyal to disavow your own support or commitment.  You might even fear that your peers or family could reject you if you changed your mind.

So, commitment and consistency are powerful, noble forces in decision-making, and in life, but we must not be enslaved by these factors...it is a sign of a much greater character strength to sometimes over-ride this, and to make a deeply moral choice to let go of a previously held commitment.  

There are many tragic stories in history, where massive segments of the population of great societies follow disastrous ideas and leaders, partly due to the persuasive force of consistency.

2) Social pressure.  If many people continue to support a particular thing, then it is easier to keep supporting it yourself, even when this is irrational.  We all have a tendency to follow a trend...sometimes we follow these trends, along with an excited, passionate crowd, even when the crowd is rushing towards the edge of a cliff!  Beware of  "GroupThink!"

3) Liking & Authority.  We form positive emotional connections with candidates or positions we support, and we may also respect their authority...trust and admiration grows with any ongoing relationship, and we may continue to make decisions influenced by this.  If we "like" a political candidate, we may support that person long after it makes rational sense to do so.  Conversely, it may be difficult to support a candidate we do not personally "like," even if this candidate may offer the best leadership.   Some of these factors can be incredibly irrational, such as supporting a person whom we find better-looking or more entertaining!

When these factors have been at play, and we support something, we are likely to invest our time, attention, energy, and money...we may even suffer and struggle for these causes.  Our struggles and suffering usually intensify our attachment, and make us even more resistant to letting it go when it is morally right to do so.   If you have fought for something, you are much more likely to keep fighting for it, even if your cause is proven to be unjust.

It is our duty as citizens, or as participants in any community,  to make wise choices, and to be willing to change our minds after thinking carefully.  You need a great strength of character to take an honest, balanced look at both sides of every major issue or position.   You are not just born with character strength--you must work at it, and develop it as an essential life skill!  In politics, it is important to give sincere attention to multiple sources of information, and not to rely only on a single news source which happens to support your pre-existing point of view.

I am very alarmed about situations--which we see across the world today--in which there is restricted freedom of speech and expression.   Many news sources are overtly supporting only one position.  In some countries, the government is restricting free debate in the media.  Even closer to home, individual news sources are focusing on telling only one side of many stories...  We must protect our freedom of expression!  It is not only a matter of taking care of our freedoms, it is also a matter of making wise, unbiased decisions!  Wise decision-making is impossible unless we fairly attend to multiple points of view, and unless we are willing to challenge our own individual biases.

Cialdini tells an interesting story about the decline of tobacco use in the U.S., associated with a policy called the "Fairness Doctrine" which required equal time to be given to opposing viewpoints.  If tobacco ads were always followed by other ads trying to show the harms of smoking, it led the viewer to make a more balanced decision (which, in this case, led to a decline in smoking).  Ironically, once tobacco advertising disappeared entirely, smoking rates did not decline as much.  Part of an explanation is that tobacco advertising could then occur in more covert forms, perhaps marketed more exclusively to existing smokers, without equal time given to opposing viewpoints.  The best decision-making occurs not when issues are suppressed, but when powerful counter-arguments can be presented in a free society, by a free press, where opposing positions can always be clearly shown, side by side.  

It takes a great strength of character to be willing to change our minds,  and to make an intelligent, morally-guided choice, in the face of powerful persuasive factors such as consistency, social pressure, liking, and authority.  We can all improve this character strength, if we are willing to challenge ourselves, and if we are willing to work hard!

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