Friday, May 21, 2010

Brand Obama: The Drunkard's Search

"Neither does the ignorant love wisdom or desire to become wise, for this is the harshest thing about ignorance, that those who are neither good nor beautiful nor sensible think that they are good enough, and do not desire that which they do not think they are lacking." -Plato, Symposium

On November 4, 2008, America changed. On that day, an inexperienced candidate with a scant resume and views that contrasted with the majority of the population was elected to the most powerful office in the world, the Presidency of the United States of America. Brand Obama is an ongoing series that chronicles the powerful psychological techniques used in this improbable campaign.

Other Brand Obama posts inlcude:
The Spider and the Fly
Inoculation and the Art of Persuation
Mesmerizing Voters with Hypnotic Speech Techniques
New Math and the Rise of the Unwed Mother

The study of what we think we know and how do we come to know it. It turns out that a lot of what we think we know is based on shortcuts in logic.


One of the most important ways that we overcome information overload is through the use of heuristics--mental shortcuts, or strategies, that allow fast and usually correct processing of information.

For a stunning example of the type of mental shortcuts we use, read this:

In politics, there are several mental shortcuts that a skilled political operative can use to manipulate voters:

Short Cut One
The Drunkard's Search

Conducting a  drunkard's search  is to look in the place that's easiest, rather than in the place most likely to yield results. Taken from an old joke about a drunkard who loses his car keys while unlocking his car and is found looking under a streetlamp down the road because the light is better, it has been an object of consideration in the social sciences since at least 1964.

Candidate images in presidential elections By Kenneth L. Hacker

Short Cut Two
Gresham's Law

Gresham's Law is commonly stated: "Bad money drives out good."

The reasoning voter: communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns By Samuel L. Popkin

Short Cut Three
Psuedocertainty Effect

The pseudocertainty effect is a concept from prospect theory. It refers to people's tendency to make risk-averse choices if the expected outcome is positive, but make risk-seeking choices to avoid negative outcomes. Their choices can be affected by simply reframing the descriptions of the outcomes without changing the actual utility.

In more simplistic terms, people will place much more confidence on calculation based on a consistent message whether negative or positive over any kind of mixed message.

The reasoning voter: communication and persuasiĆ³n in presidential campaigns By Samuel L. Popkin

The average voter does not even weight this information by quantity. A small amount of consistent data for one candidate carries equal weight over a candidate with a lengthy history.

Explorations in political psychology By Shanto Iyengar, William James McGuire

Where's the Beef?

In short, many people are either too lazy, busy or overwhelmed by mass media to take the time to properly vet candidates. When making political decisions similar to choosing which brand of toilet paper to buy, people take mental short cuts. A skilled marketer or political campaign can take advantage of these mental shortcuts to bypass critical faculties and create an overly confident positive image of the product or candidate based on scant information. If one is not paying close attention, the drunkard's search, Gresham's law and the pseudocertainty effect coalesce to create a hole large enough to drive a garbage truck past your rational mind straight into your subconscious.

One of the most effective vehicles for hauling this garbage into your subconsious is the personal narrative:

All you have to do is come up with a compelling personal story and load it with a few cues that generate a positive image and the voter supplies the rest:

*They take that data and generate a profile for you and use it to compare you against other candidates.
*They do a poor job of weighing that information against other data. For example, a candidate with a lengthy history of positive accomplishments requiring great political skill that contains a few inconsistencies often will rank poorly against a newcomer with a short but consistent personal narrative whether true or not.
*Since most voters are incapable of processing actual political positions that require a complex analysis of multiple factors, they will often make a choice based on a single personal characteristic gleaned from a narrative.

Fortunately for Americans, these types of candidates often fall apart fairly quickly as the newcomer stumbles and starts revealing inconsistencies in their narrative or a clever counter is deployed that is able to break the spell. For example, Walter Mondale was able to pop Gary Hart's, a candidate who had skillfully employed these techniques, bubble with his carefully rehearsed "Where's the Beef?:, retort:

(It also did not hurt the Gary Hart became embroiled in a sex scandal.)

Unfortunately for some, they did not have the skills to successfully counter this technique as this clip of Hillary shows:

(Yes, Hillary in all her screeching glory like nails on a chalkboard. Big bad Hillary who could not even carry the female vote against Obama.)



John F Kennedy's father, Joe, who managed his son's election, managed to employ the personal narrative to vault his son into the presidency. His main problem was his product, John Kennedy. John was known as a playboy with little record of accomplishment who lacked the intellectual capacity for the job. Rectifying this was a simple problem for someone as resourceful as Joe.

One of his first acts as campaign manager was to get him awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a book that he did not write, Profiles in Courage.

The Straight Dope: Did John F. Kennedy really write "Profiles in Courage?":

The book was published on January 1, 1956, to lavish praise. It became a best seller and in 1957 was awarded the Pulitzer prize for biography. It established Kennedy, till then considered promising but lacking in gravitas, as one of the Democratic Party's leading lights, setting the stage for his presidential nomination in 1960.

But doubts about the book's authorship surfaced early. In December 1957 syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, interviewed on TV by Mike Wallace, said, "Jack Kennedy is … the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer prize on a book which was ghostwritten for him." Outraged, Kennedy hired lawyer Clark Clifford, who collected the senator's handwritten notes and rounded up statements from people who said they'd seen him working on the book, then persuaded Wallace's bosses at ABC to read a retraction on the air.

The most thorough analysis of who did what has come from historian Herbert Parmet in Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980). Parmet interviewed the participants and reviewed a crateful of papers in the Kennedy Library. He found that Kennedy contributed some notes, mostly on John Quincy Adams, but little that made it into the finished product.

 I am sure glad presidents no longer get awards for things they did not do or praise for books they did not write

Swift Boating

Writing about courage also touched on another problem issue for Kennedy, a questionable war record:

"Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940 and enlisted in the Navy in September 1941. After a brief stint at the Office of Naval Intelligence, he was transferred to the Pacific Theater and given command of the PT-109: one of the “fast patrol” boats designed for maneuverability and quickness. On the evening of August 1, 1943, Kennedy’s craft was one of fifteen that set off from Rendova Island to attack a convoy of four Japanese destroyers. Kennedy’s PT-boat remained some distance away from any direct combat with the enemy and, although accounts differ regarding what, exactly, occurred during his patrol, negligence seems to have played a primary role in inadvertently leading the tiny craft into the direct path of an immense Japanese destroyer. Kennedy and crew were caught completely off guard (some accounts have them party­ing below board) as their boat was sliced in half by the unwavering enemy ship, the Amaqiri.

According to biographer Thomas C. Reeves, although Kennedy was probably dere­lict in his duties when the Japanese destroyer wrecked the PT-109, it is generally acknowledged that he displayed “heroism” in rescuing a fellow crew member.2 Clinging to floating debris, Kennedy endured a four-hour swim across Blackett Strait and safely landed on Plum Pudding Island (now known as Kennedy Island; part of the Solomon Islands). After being rescued by coastal watchers on Gomu Island, Kennedy became the butt of jokes within the Navy and the subject of serious talk of a court-mar­tial. How the most maneuverable craft in naval history was unable to avoid the broad swath of a cumbersome destroyer was a difficult question to answer.
Only the considerable wealth and political power of “patriarch” Joseph Kennedy enabled the Kennedys to turn the PT-109 fiasco into a “brilliant public relations success”. As a result of the elder Kennedy’s own deft maneuvering, J.F.K. was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for “gal­lantry”, and an altered version of the PT-109 incident was described in vivid detail for thousands of subscribers to Reader’s Digest magazine. The saga of wartime “valor and bravery” (Sun) would become an essential element in the Kennedy legend that would propel him into the Senate and, later on, into the White House. Yet, John F. Kennedy remained quite sober regarding his own assessment of the incident. When privately quizzed about it while he was president, he somberly replied that the PT adventure was “more fucked up” than the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco." 

A little issue with a questionable military record was no problem to a fixer like Joe Kennedy. A few phone calls to his friends in the FDR administration to arrange for a medal and a few more to Hollywood and presto - Hollywood war hero magic.

If anything, the Democrat's like to stick to a winning personal narrative script:

Of course it helped when the fact the vast majority of officers that you served with considered you unfit for command could be hidden:

and the internet could be not be used to circumvent the media and broadcast this fact:

(Man from) Hope and (Peanut Farmer for) Change

If the script works, why change it:


Hope and Change

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