Why Do People Act Against Their Own Interests

By Dov Michaeli

First published 4/7/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

This morning I heard something that made me sit up and pay attention. On CNBC, the business channel, hardly a socialist redoubt, the anchor, Mark Haynes said that he was always wondering why people voted for Bush II, when he told them quite openly that he is going to cut taxes primarily for the wealthy with a few crumbs thrown at them. Indeed, why?

The Easy Answer

An observation that is by now has become a cliché is that people are easily duped. We don’t educate our young generation in general, but specifically they are totally hapless when it comes to critical analysis, quantitative thinking,, and historical understanding. That’s why repeating the mantra “tax cuts” won the day –who wouldn’t like to have his taxes cut? What was missing was the next questions: how will the tax cut be distributed among the different income levels? And how will that humongous cut affect the budget deficit? And what is the evidence that tax cuts “pay for themselves” in  increased economic activity, leading to increased government revenue?. Actually, these questions were asked, and analysis was made –by the some Democrats. Did they make a dent in public opinion? The election results speak for themselves.

Life is not that Simple.

Liberals take great pleasure in pointing out that “the people” are simply uncritical, gullible, easily conned, or plain dumb. It makes them feel vindicated, even superior –which is a good feeling…but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, and does not offer any constructive solution.

One of the leading investigators in the field of morality and emotions, and how they change across different cultures, is Jonathan Haidt, professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. In a blog (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html) titled “What makes people vote Republican” he explores the root causes for people being liberal or conservative. Without getting into the anthropological/sociological/psychological analysis (which is compelling, and is highly recommended) let me quote a couple of salient paragraphs:

First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill’s vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama’s calls for “unity”) to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.”

“But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other’s selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.” A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups.”

Stripped of jargon, Haidt observes that a liberal society can be seen as based on the individual, on caring and fairness to your fellow man and rejection of societal interference in personal freedoms, like abortion or unfettered free expression. Conservative society is based on fealty to the group and to its sanctified values, like religion, patriotism, “my country right or wrong” and rejection of any action that threatens its cohesiveness. Liberalism’s  roots are in 18th century enlightenment, whereas Conservatism is rooted in “innate” impulses developed through eons of human evolution.

Not to be overly simplistic about it, I think Haidt uncovered the intellectual basis for liberals’ frustration in getting their message across. How is it that the masses don’t get it? Can’t they see that  the conservatives don’t have their interests at heart?

The liberal message is based on reason. Its origins are in the intellectual flowering of the enlightenment, its lingo is unabashedly analytical. The conservative message is God, Country, Honor, and its language is addressed to the heart, not to the frontal cortex.

Sad to say, in the contest between these two views, the amygdala (emotions) vs. the frontal cortex (reason) –the amygdala win. We pride ourselves at being a rational species, but in truth this is a gross oversimplification. Even the most rational analysis is done in the context of our emotions. Today’sScience magazine (April 8, 2011) has a fascinating report  (Coping with Chaos: How disordered contexts promote stereotyping and discrimination).The Dutch cleaning crew of the Utrecht train station went on strike. This station is a hub for many lines in Holland, and it quickly became filthy. The Dutch investigators jumped at the opportunity to conduct an interesting field study. They found that in a dirty train station people stereotype more and would choose to sit further away from an outgroup (such as blacks) than in a (relatively) clean train station. The investigators conducted extensive interviews with the travelers and had them fill out questionnaires that tested their tendency for stereotyping and rejection of the outgroup. Here is a quote from their conclusion:

Our studies show that disorder increases the need for structure and, thus, the goal to create order. The study also shows that stereotyping is an effective mental way to reach this goal; that is, to satisfy the desire for structure that is activated by physical disorder. Stereotyping is a mental cleaning device that helps people to cope with physical chaos”.

So there we are: even the famously rational and liberal Dutch had this “innate” need for structure, for order. Which is a demonstration that liberal values are grafted upon an “innate” conservative instinct, and when our need for an orderly society, or safe streets, or a stable economy, is threatened –conservative values assert themselves.

Why can’t liberals reach the masses? because they don’t speak the masses’ language. In a recent interview on Diane Rehm’s show on NPR, she asked Anita Dunn, President Obama former communication director, and Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist (and father of “death tax”, among other rhetorical zingers) how would they explain to the public the need for government support for NPR. Dunn gave an argument you’d expect from a Democrat, that public broadcasting is worthy of some tax-payer funding. A legitimate debate could be had, however, on whether it should receive public funding, she said. What a compelling argument. I can see the people rushing to  the barricades in defense of NPR.

And here is Luntz:

“There are five different types of people for you to reach out to. Rejecters, Disagreeables, Neutrals, Accepters and Embracers. Each one of those terms means something. You need to forget the Rejecters because there’s nothing you can do to influence them.

“The truth is the Disagreeables won’t help you. Your job, the most important role for someone who supports public broadcasting is to take the Embracers and energize them to speak up and do something and move the Accepters to become Embracers. And in terms of the best possible language, it is possible to communicate across politics and across ideology.

“Number one, you provide listeners with content that they can’t get any other place. Number two, you take emails, you take Twitter, you take phone calls. That means there’s a greater degree of interactivity which is what listeners want. Number three, is that there’s a geographic component. We believe that whether you live in the most rural area of Georgia or the most urban area of New York City you should have the right to quality programming. And number four, if not this, where? Ending with that question. If not us, who? If we lose NPR, where are you going to get this kind of content? Those four steps and that targeting delivers you greater support if that’s what you are trying to do.”

Enough said.

Dov Michaeli MD PhD is a researcher who writes at the Doctor Weighs In.

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