November 22nd, 2016

So, about two years ago Oliver Burkeman wrote in This column will change your life: false reasons for The Guardian, about how people convince us to elect them to public office. That column now, in retrospect, seems a template for the past 15 months.

Everyone knows politics is a cynical game: to last a week in office, you need to compromise, tell half-truths, bribe voters and have a friends-with-benefits relationship to your principles. (People who deny this tend to end up offering further evidence for it: “I reject the cynical view that politics is inevitably or even usually a dirty business,” said—well, it was Richard Nixon.) So there was palpable surprise among political scientists the other day when two of them, David Broockman and Daniel Butler, published a heartening study: one good way for politicians to win converts, it concluded, is for them to state their beliefs honestly. And this was no artificial lab-based experiment. It involved real American voters and politicians. First, voters were surveyed by phone; then they got a letter from an elected official, supporting a policy the voter disagreed with. The result wasn’t a hardening of views. Instead, voters grew a bit more likely to hold that view themselves, and their overall opinion of the politician didn’t change for the worse.

It’s the sort of finding to restore your faith in humanity: just be honest, don’t pander, and you’ll get a fair hearing. Democracy works!

Or not. We don’t know yet. Why did Trump voters vote for him and not Hillary? That’s easy: in the privacy of the voting booth they liked him more than her. The reasons for those likes are myriad and there is no one answer, but from where I’m standing, the perception that Trump was a straight shooter and Clinton was not, had to have played a major role.

Then Burkeman drops the other shoe:

There’s a more jaded way to read the results. Voters actually received one of two different letters: one made a detailed argument for a politician’s stance; the other, a glib and vague one. (The policy was good because “it would have a positive impact”. Right, thanks.) In a rational world, you’d expect the detailed argument to carry more force. But no: the vague non-argument proved just as effective. You can persuade voters a policy’s good, apparently, by “explaining” that it’s good because it’s good.

Which has to be the political version your parents’: Because I said so. I kept reading and then the fireworks went off when I read:

The lesson often drawn here is that we’re mindless automata: Robert Cialdini, the leading psychologist of persuasion, compares humans to female turkeys, who’ll bestow affection on stuffed polecats, if they’ve been wired to make the “cheep-cheep” noises of chicks.

No, this has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. What lit the fuse for me was the name Robert Cialdini. See, I’ve been reading a lot about Cialdini lately because Scott Adams has referred to him as Godzilla, the man who transformed—too late we now know—the Clinton campaign.

Anyone who wants to understand the next four years, and how we got here, should start with a reading list of Cialdini’s books. Once you’re through those tombs, you might consider Adams’ wider reading list on the topic of persuasion.

We are royally fucked only if we allow our own prejudices to blind us.


  1. Persuasion Versus Populism:

    Keep in mind that most voters are handcuffed to their party’s candidate. That guarantees that most elections will be close, no matter who runs. The winner is the candidate who can move perhaps 5% of voters from column A to B. And the Master Persuader had a year-long election cycle and total media exposure to get that minor task accomplished. This is why I predicted Trump’s win a year before it happened.

    I don’t believe reality is something the human brain can understand. We didn’t evolve with the ability to see reality for what it is. Evolution only cares if we survive and procreate. In this case, people who think Trump is a populist can have babies, and so can the people who think we elected Hitler, and so can the people who think Trump is a well-meaning Master Persuader. That’s three different movies. Evolution doesn’t care which worldview is right, if any. It only cares that we can make more babies. And we can.

    Still, it might matter who has the most “useful” movie among us. The Master Persuader movie did a good job in predicting Trump’s success. It also predicts Trump moving to the middle, persuading Pence to be more LGBTQ-friendly, and good relations with other countries. That’s the movie plot I see coming.

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