Thursday, January 28, 2010

The American Voter, Part I: Group Dynamics

As any classroom teacher can tell you, every group of people quickly develops attitudes and a personality all its own. Virtually the minute a crowd comes together (a “crowd” being three or more people), leaders and shared values emerge. People often change as they move through their lives from one group to another, almost instantly taking up and shedding characteristics that naturally emerge in different situations. If someone stumbles and falls, one group will laugh while another will rush to help. What one individual might do or say when alone may be very different than what the same person might do or say in the context of one group or another.

I’ve often been in parent-teacher conferences in which parents and teachers seem to be talking about entirely different kids. A kid who’s defiant and obnoxious at home may be unfailingly respectful at school—or vice versa. A kid who’s inattentive in one class may be completely focused in another. In working with adolescents, I’ve often seen them magically transform from silly, fun-loving children at school to serious, mature adults at work in the community.

As the only child of a single, working mother, I was a community of one. I became fascinated by my friends’ families and how they worked. I was intrigued by how a person could act one way at school, another way at home, and yet another way when hanging out with friends.

Years later, as a teacher, I developed an approach to classroom management that often involved seating people in different parts of the room to influence their behavior. You’d be amazed at how differently, for example, a person may look at the world from the back of the room as opposed to the front. In working with students who had attention problems, I seated them with those who were paying attention—a technique I called “castling” and learned to use to good effect. Even working with adults in college classes, I tended to use group dynamics as a tool for influencing the behavior of my students.

For most of my career, I’ve been both a teacher and counselor, usually working full time at one job and part time at the other. As a counselor, I found myself specializing in a systems approach to family therapy: when working with a family, I don’t focus on who’s at fault. I don’t buy into a family’s beliefs about who’s the villain, who’s the victim, and who’s the rescuer in a family’s game of choice. Rather, I focus on what’s working and what’s not working. From that standpoint, family issues become problems to solve together rather than opportunities to punish and blame one another. Put another way, I encourage families to focus on “win-win” rather than “win-lose” strategies (which inevitably devolve into “lose-lose” situations).

In recent years—especially in the last decade—new imaging techniques have allowed scientists to actually see the workings of the human brain. We now know through scientific studies, not just anecdotal evidence, that people’s “minds” literally change from one context to another. The “emotional brain” (primarily the limbic system located deep in the middle) is entirely different from the “rational brain” (primarily the frontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to fully develop). People can “think” with either part of the brain—the emotional part or the rational part—but generally not both at the same time.

It takes time for new knowledge to seep out to the general public. Most people don’t know much about how their computers or cell phones work. We leave it to the experts to gather detailed information about complex subjects; in a society with free and open communication, some of that knowledge eventually becomes generally known and part of the cultural heritage.

In general, American voters don’t know much about the logistics of human behavior or how their brains work. I don’t blame them for that. Most know a lot about other stuff. When I have a chance to get into deep conversations with people, I’m often stunned at how much they know—often on arcane subjects—regardless of their background or education. (On one memorable occasion, for example, a young rancher brought a bovine eyeball to school to illustrate how cows see differently than people do—a topic that had never previously come to my attention!) I don’t expect everyone to know or care a great deal about sociology or the workings of the human mind.

But I’ll tell you who does know about these things: advertisers and political strategists. They know countless ways to get people to “think” with the emotional rather than the rational parts of their brain. (How else would you get practical people to pay three times more for a name-brand product than for an identical generic product sitting right there on the same shelf?) They know that negative emotions, such as fear and anger, are not only powerful motivators of human behavior but also highly contagious. They know how to use attitude, innuendo, and fragmentary information (or mis-information) to shape public opinion and behavior. Those who stand to profit from shifting the public mood one way or another may not always care much about the fine distinctions between persuasion and propaganda.

In America, as we found out in the election of 2000, even a single vote can be hugely important. As America goes, so goes the world. Do we focus on drilling for oil or investing in renewable energy? Do we send our troops to fight and die in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or neither? What attitudes do we adopt toward our allies and our enemies? These things are of immeasurable importance. I submit that an American citizen has more responsibility in casting his or her vote than does the citizen of any other nation in the world.

I have profound respect for the individual. I’m suspicious and skeptical of powerful and rich organizations with virtually unlimited resources for influencing public opinion. Never in human history have there been so many of those organizations with so much power to shape the world—to virtually determine the future of the planet and the human race. The odds have never been higher for being able to discern the difference between truth and propaganda.

Knowledge is power. Large corporations and other special interest groups have tremendous resources for buying and wielding knowledge about human behavior—resources no small group or individual can begin to match. That’s one reason why we need government to monitor how and to what ends those groups employ their resources. That’s why it’s a matter of so much urgency that the Supreme Court has given powerful special interest groups of every kind carte blanche to use their resources to manipulate the sentiments of the American people.

I don’t blame people for not knowing when they’re being manipulated. But now more than ever, I think it’s important for Americans to develop a healthy skepticism about what they see or hear in the media—to ask whether their fear or their anger has a basis in reality or is the result of someone trying to stimulate that reaction to further their own ends.

Now more than ever, and here in America more than anywhere, it’s critical that we begin to think with the part of our brains designed for problem solving. More and more, reason rather than emotion should be the basis of the public discourse.


Six said...

Why is it that you think we should have a 'healthy skeptisim' to media, but you are so critical of those who have a healthy skeptisim to government and the president? I can turn off the media, I cannot turn off the government.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Six,

Generally speaking, both business and government can communicate with us only through the media. Apart from the occasional live or televised speech, we get virtually all our information about what's going on in the world through the media--much of it from ads and programs bought and paid for by special interests. That means someone selects the bits of information to convey and the context in which they will be presented. Those who control the filter control the message.

Occasionally populist sentiments can shape decisions made by the media--as happened recently, when Lou Dobbs was forced to leave CNN (and warmly welcomed into the embrace of Fox News) because of his blatant racism. More often, people don't necessarily realize when they're being manipulated or subjected to biased information. That's why it's important to check sources, get information from a variety of sources--and maintain that attitude of healthy skepticism.

Idna said...

Dear Jane,

I totally agree with you when you say "advertisers and political strategists ... know countless ways to get people to “think” with the emotional rather than the rational parts of their brain." The most perfect example was the election of 2008.

Obama's handlers were able to drive people to emotional frenzy ... chanting YES WE CAN, YES WE CAN. Most had no idea what the CHANGE was that they were so worked up about. When questioned on Obama's policies, many had no clue. In fact they thought that McCain's policies were Obama's.

Obama's people put into practice to great success all the stuff you say about crowds and the group think that occurs. No wonder giant stadiums were rented out for many of Barack's speeches. This made him look larger than life and gave him a rock-star image. His settings and speeches were grand in scale and heavy on hype & emotion, not so much on specific policy.

I think many books will be written on the 2008 election as a manual for future campaigns. How to enflame the populous to open their wallets (3/4 of a $billion!) and to grab that "emotional brain" that you talk about. Then, put like-minded, emotionally charged people together in large groups. They were now primed and ready for manipulation.

It's a perfect study. You can't tell me that Obama was elected by a rational, thinking electorate that weighed his policies and personal experience & capability to undertake the job of President of the U.S. The emotional crowd won out on that one.

Now it's time to harness reason rather than emotion as the basis of the public discourse as you suggest.

Citizen Jane said...

Idna, if you'll pardon my saying so, that's exactly the kind of negative, irrational, partisan clap-trap that's keeping this nation from coming together to solve problems.

Of course there were Democrats who got caught up in the excitement of a campaign and voted the way they did for emotional reasons. As there were on the Republican side. I've never said emotional decision making is confined to one party or the other--although I will say that Democratic rhetoric is certainly not as prone to anti-intellectual paranoia as that of the fanatical right.

And I'm sure Fox News did a great job of ferreting out a few lefties who either didn't think deeply about the issues or didn't express themselves very well during the last campaign.

James O'Keefe--former darling of the tea party crowd, now under Federal indictment in Louisiana--found someone after several tries to make Acorn look bad. To generalize from a few stupid phrases uttered by a few thoughtless people and use them to try to disparage the ideas and concerns of over half the voters in America is, to say the least, disingenuous.

Thanks for a great example of exactly the type of "reasoning" I'm talking about here.

Sue said...

I have to agree with Idna on a lot of the 2008 election hype. There was lots of it and the Obama supporters used new media to their advantage and did it very well. But . . . one reason many people were so susceptible was that they were thoroughly fed up with the government of the previous few years. You may recall that after 9/11 Bush's approval ratings were extremely high. Over the next few years he managed to lose that and to alienate the majority of the populace. People (read voters) wanted a change, so they were primed to support the Obama campaign. He was the one candidate who wasn't an entrenched member of the establishment and who actually offered an alternative to the usual "business as usual" approach that both parties tend to use when they're in power. It's no wonder that so many are disillusioned now; they were naive enough to think that Obama's inauguration would actually change things -- not realizing just how entrenched the politics of government is and how long even a slight change takes to achieve.

But I don't think it's the fault of media or of "group dynamics" that people continue to hope. And if that's thinking with our emotions, I believe it's a good thing. Of course, it needs to be balanced with some rational approach, but like with everything else, we need a balance.

Catlover said...

C. Jane

Thanks for the answer to my query. I can't wait for part II. May I sum up what I got from part I?
You believe that people are subject to propaganda and the government needs to protect them from such. Is that it? Well, our founding fathers knew that one over 200 years ago. That is why they wrote the Constitution. That is why they placed Free Speech in the Number 1 slot. They knew totally free speech is the only protection against propaganda like the type put out during the Obama campaign. Thanks Idna for that reminder. If walking out between fake white Greek columns isn't propaganda I don't know my propaganda. (and yes, I know all campaigns put out propaganda). No wonder your side wants to limit free speech, an evil corporation might make fun of Obama's columns.

C. Jane you rail about the "evil" Pres. Bush and his "evil" packed court (are only the 3 evil or are all the 5 of the majority?) and their decision to allow corporations to do political advertising. Why are you not railing about the propaganda organized labor puts out?

A corporation is an organization of "individuals" associated for a common purpose. A labor union is an organization of "individuals" associated for a common purpose. What is the difference?

Real quickly, a corporation has controls called the individual stockholders. If they do not like what the corporation is doing, with a push of a button the shareholder can sell there shares and punish the corporation. Now a labor union member has no such easy control and no way out, that is if they like to feed their family. I assume you are a union member. If you do not like what your union does, can you push a button and not pay dues? No you can not, your stuck, very little control by the individual.

Yet after all that, you would say it is great that unions can take dues from members paychecks and buy ads for any cause the few union leaders decide. That is hypocrisy at its finest. End the hypocrisy, good enough for the unions is good enough for the corporations, That is what the majority opinion said. How about a posts on a unions abuse of its members dues.

Here is a good one of the Judge Stevens opinion:

One more then I will stop...

C. Jane you just wrote:
" I've never said emotional decision making is confined to one party or the other--although I will say that Democratic rhetoric is certainly not as prone to anti-intellectual paranoia as that of the fanatical right".

Did you see the famous clip of a supporter being asked why she was voting for Obama? She answered "because he is going pay all my bills". Then asked where he would get the money to pay her bills, she answered "from his stash". And you say the Democrats are the intellectuls.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Catlover,

First, I’m getting a little tired of hearing what the founding fathers intended. They knew little or nothing about “propaganda” in the current sense of the word. In their day, few Americans had access to a weekly newspaper, much less incessant messages (overt and subliminal) from print media, radio and television, and the Internet. The purpose of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution—a role that would be unnecessary if the intent of the words could stay constant over the centuries. That said, the Court is not supposed to make up new law every time the political balance of the Court changes; rather, it is charged with coordinating Constitutional intent, judicial precedent, and (ideally) common sense, given the nature of the modern world.

Now that you bring the subject up, quoting fragments of the Constitution in an effort to prove a political point—as the right is so fond of doing—does become tedious sometimes. Trying to take the words of the Constitution literally in the modern world sometimes makes about as much sense as trying to take the Bible literally. Both were intended to be interpreted by intelligent and open-minded people of good faith.

Did I say I approve of unions being able to spend unlimited funds for political ads? When did I say that?

Finally, comparing the roles of shareholders and of union members is ludicrous. A worker belongs to one union. He or she likely knows the name, phone number, and email address of local, regional, and state officials. If the policies are objectionable to the membership, members can vote directly to change leadership or change the policies.

Like almost all investments these days, mine are in the form of mutual funds. I have told my investment adviser that I don’t want a penny of my money invested in megabanks. (I was suspicious of them long before they played such a central role in the near-collapse of the world economy.) He says he can try but not make any guarantees; every mutual fund combines investments in many different enterprises. If I owned, say 5,000 shares of anything, it might be worth my while to educate myself about the issues and weigh in when shareholders vote. In reality, however, the only “shareholders” that count in most businesses are the owners and CEOs.

So we’re right back where we started. Big business and the rich have all the power, and we, the people, have none.

Catlover said...

Greetings C. Jane

Thank your for your responsive comment.

The founding fathers did know all about propaganda. B. Franklin was an inventor and knew full well how a new invention turned the world upside down, the "printing press". Are you saying he had no concept of how advances in technology might change the way people get their information in the future. I think not. The colonist were very well informed, with newspapers, flyers, public speeches, pamphlets, etc. That is why the founders knew the only way to keep our freedom was to have total free political speech.

The courts ruling we are debating did not "make up new law". The ruling declared an existing law unconstitutional. A constitution written by men far wiser than we will ever hope to be. If congress does not like the ruling, it has full power to pass new law that tries to limit free speech again. I would love to see Reid and Pelosi try it.

I implore you to rethink your position on this. You are only hurting yourself. With just the blink of an eye a new congress could try and silence the likes of ACORN, SEIU, or NEA and you will have no leg to stand on because you always agrued it is ok for government to silence certain groups political speech. I will will not be so encumbered and would be able to rail against that new law as well. What ever happened to the good liberals touting free speech.

Let us all know of any change in your thinking or I will have a great "I told you so" moment when Pres. Palin raids the NEA headquarters and locks everyone up. Ha Ha!

What is your position on a union being able to take a members dues and with no recourse, using those dues to fund a political cause the union member objects to? What about a "card check" for members to assign were their dues go?

I did not compare shareholders and union members. I know an individual shareholder has way more power than an individual union member. I compared "unions" and "corporations" as associations of individuals.

The plot thickens. I am shocked to find your are the proud owner of shares in companies such as Exxon, Haliburton and that evil WalMart. (Any decent mutual fund you own holds shares in those companies). To think you are personally profiting by way of receiving dividends from such evil. That is as bad as Al Gore beating us all about global warming (sorry, "climate change" now) and then himself flying around in his Lear jet. Tomorrow call your broker and sell sell sell all those tainted funds. Of course then only the millions of other Americans who own Exxon will be pocketing all those dirty oil company profits $$, not you.

Pres. Obama says there is a great future in Green energy, maybe try putting all your retirement savings in a Green Mutual Fund. See you in the soup line.

Citizen Jane said...

Dear Catlover,

Lol. I assure you, readers of my blog will be the first to know should I change my mind about any of the issues we discuss here—including whether or not corporations and unions are “persons.”

We apparently share a deep admiration for Benjamin Franklin. (Even so, however, I doubt if even his prodigious imagination could have foreseen the Internet.) But tell me: How can you say of the founding fathers that they were “men far wiser than we will ever hope to be” and yet discount the possibility that there are profoundly wise, knowledgeable, dedicated men and women serving in government today? How can you tar all politicians and public servants with the same brush if, as you point out, all “men” are not created equal in terms of intelligence, wisdom, or integrity.

(BTW, I’ll have nightmares tonight over that crack you made about Palin.)