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2012 Election: Where Psychology Will Meet Politics

As it sheds the notion that people are rational pursuers of their own self-interest, society is slowly but surely reconfiguring itself. The changes usually fall below the radar of daily news. But the 2012 election may provide an exception: Already, campaigns are in a raging argument about whether and why people need government help, and how much. Which means those campaigns are focussed on the central questions of what I call post-rational research: how informed, self-aware, logical and autonomous is the average person? Republicans who answer “a lot” are defending the Rational Economic Man model of the mind. Democrats who say “not so much” are pitting research facts against this ideology. A once-academic debate is going to be political this time around.

Industry marketing is, as usual, ahead of the political kind. Already, “it’s not the cupcake’s fault” is a line used often at the Center for Consumer Freedom, which shills for agribusiness and the makers of processed foods. Why should a rational decider need protection from advertising that touts cupcakes? It’s a short jump from that implication to an explicit claim that what social science has learned about human nature is actually some sort of left-wing plot against freedom and dignity.

The other day an “industry group expert” who “declined to be named” used this story in The Fiscal Times to make just that leap. The occasion was a diss against the Massachusetts Senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Full disclosure: I recently sent the Warren campaign $12, which is $12 more than I’ve given any other 2012 campaign.) “Warren adheres to behavioral economics theory where basically consumers are misinformed, irrational, and can’t really make decisions in a clear-eyed way,” said this “expert,” so in Warren’s supposed view, “the only way to really protect the consumers is to make sure the government is in there rationing credit cards that are available to them.”

It’s an effective line, because what we know about human irrationality indicates that people aren’t the way they think they are. That can be weird, if not annoying, to hear. More importantly, by telling citizens they have less autonomy, awareness and control than they think, researchers can be caricatured as condescending or power-mad—as if they were thinking, “you can’t control yourself, so let us.”

Last year, I wrote about the work of Jennifer Harris, whose studies have found that food ads aimed at children cause them to eat a huge amount more than they otherwise would have. Even when that sort of evidence spurs adults to want protections for kids, she told me some time ago, they think they themselves need no such safeguards. “Most adults,” Harris told me, “think they have much more control over their responses to ads than they actually do.”

So the problem for those who want defend this research against ideological mythmaking is that when they say, for example, that a 23-year-old adult facing billions of dollars’ worth of clever marketing (supported by billions more in testing and research) is not really playing on an even field, they will sound like they are saying the premises of our institutions are false. Which they kind of are, actually. But that’s really not a good line for a bumper sticker. What to do?

Obviously, it’s a bad idea for social scientists and their policy allies to rest on the argument that they have the evidence. If that doesn’t help persuade the other side about evolution or climate change, it sure won’t work to sell the less-respected findings of social science. Nor do I think it’s a winning strategy to claim that the sad, downtrodden masses need help. Voters don’t like to see themselves as sad, downtrodden masses.

Instead, I think, the political defense of “behavioral economics” should focus on the fact that even as corporations want you to reject this research, those same companies are paying for it and using it. In other words, they want you to scoff, but they’re believers. They study irrationality with keen interest, and so it’s no surprise that many experiments on this theme are published in journals devoted to economics, business or marketing.

So behavioral insights aren’t a form of fake knowledge that voters should reject—they’re real knowledge that corporations are already using to get people to take on more debt, buy more stuff, and eat more processed foods. Shouldn’t the average person know, understand and debate the same information that corporations already have at their disposal?

When the research shows that you aren’t as free as you thought, the greatest threat to your freedom comes from refusing to listen. Who could be more easy to manipulate than a person who is sure he cannot be manipulated? When behavioral research is attacked as an assault on freedom and dignity, the right response, then, is to point out that this research actually enhances people’s freedom by helping them understand where they are vulnerable to powerful interests. Behavioral research isn’t poison aimed at people’s freedom; it’s a Red Pill they can use to understand the world better. And that’s what its defenders need to make clear.

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