Behavior Economics

Election 2020: The Dominance of the Media Narrative

Like many of us, I’ve been following the narrative of the 2020 elections. You know:

  • Is she really electable?
  • She needs to smile more!
  • What is she wearing?
  • She would be doing better if she were more likeable!
  • Oh, and that Pete Buttigieg, what a guy!
  • Why isn’t Beto O’Rourke doing better?
  • Of course, Biden is electable!

Do you see a trend here?

The real problem with this media narrative is that it begins to frame our thoughts on the election and the candidates. It shapes our thoughts. It provides a parameter for us to conceptualize the elections, candidates, and issues within.

Nuh uh! my favorite drunk uncle slurs his gin laced breath all over me. It might be fer all y’all ding-dang-dumb libels, but fer us tries and trued ‘Mericans, we knowed whut’s in our whuts! That’s whut we means by “Merican except-shon-ill-ism!

In spite of Uncle Ignuus’ objections, all y’all — and me, too — are really that stupid. We fall right into this cognitive trap every damn time! There are several good reasons for this unfortunate and very exploitable trend!

Evolutionary Psychology

Roots of White Supremacy

First, we fall for it because human beings EVOLVED to fall for it. You can argue amongst yourselves about evolution all you want, but the evidence for this one is pretty darn convincing.

In simpler times when we were doing all the hunting and gathering out in the wilds of Africa as we were growing up as a species 40,000 years ago, it didn’t pay to question the information you were receiving. Those that quibbled about a rapid rustling in the undergrowth, got et. While those that ran first and asked questions later, laughed and pointed as the quibbler fell prey to the predator.

We evolved to BELIEVE shit, even you, you pesky pedantic knee-jerk nay-saying teenager sitting in the back. Just because you disagree with and question everything doesn’t mean you ain’t believing it and that you’re smart. It just means you’re a pain in the ass! It’s whut you’uz like way back when! Uncle Ingus wheezes as a disturbing cracking sound forms around in what passes for a laugh.

We also evolved to be lazy thinkers. Our brain uses 20% of the energy of our body but is only about 1.5 kilos — Kilos?!!? Uncle Ingus shouts Whut kinda communist is you? Pah! Kilos! Speak ‘Merican, boy! You ain’t one of them ding-dang-dumb libel Brits, is ya? Or worse, you ain’t gone all Frenchy on me, have ya? — or three pounds. But, when you weigh 90 kilos or 200 pounds, your brain is about 1.6% of your body weight.

The Availability Heuristic

The WH’s Gaslighting Techniques EXPOSED!

To conserve energy in the lean time of hunting and gathering, we developed cognitive shortcuts to help us think better! These short cuts are called heuristics, which are simple rules that usually lead to an adequate solution. One of those shortcuts is the availability heuristics, which relies on the most easily recalled information to base decisions on.

So, if you hear over and over again that Elizabeth Warren is surging in the polls and that she has a plan for that or that there was no collusion, when you think about Warren or the Russia probe, respectively, that’s what you’ll think.

If you hear that Senator Klobuchar is an unusually cruel and harsh boss whose employees all hate her and flee her employ as soon as they can over and over again, then that’s what you’ll be doing.

The Framing Effect

Donald Trump FRAMED!

Both of these phenomenon taken together constitute the framing effect. You make decisions based on how choices are phrased either when asked of you or as you conceive of them. You can be asked to make the same choice but will make different decisions depending on whether it is asked with a positive frame or a negative frame. This is a very robust finding, meaning that it has been demonstrated in many studies, in many settings, with many choices, and hundreds if not thousands of participants.

There are three types of frames: attribute framing, risky-choice framing, and goal framing. And, all three are pertinent to the effects of the media narrative on our perceptions of the election.

Attribute Framing

Louise Linton Social Media Brouhaha

If you are asked to evaluate someone or something, you are rarely asked, what do you think of it? Instead, you’re often asked, how good was the movie? Or, what do you think her chances of winning are? Each of those questions either explicitly or implicitly has either a positive or negative connotation. If the asker thinks that she has a good chance of winning, that’s not the way you phrase the question.

Studies have been done asking participants what they think of beef that is 75% lean. You know the answer: damn good! Lean is good! That there beef is gooder than good! Or, other participants are asked what they think of beef that is 25% fat. Again, you know the answer: terrible! Who wants all that fatty beef? Ever’body knows that fat is bad bad bad for you!

The Ol’ Pussy Grabber is desperate to grab the narrative by the balls and lead it to his own greatness. This is why he is always talking about how great he is. The best. Ever’one’s favorite. And other heaping piles of bald-faced BS.

But, when the media either explicitly or implicitly describes one candidate as electable and others as of dubious electability, it has a tremendous effect on the reactions of the viewers. Notice how #Ivegotaplanforthat has affected Elizabeth Warren’s poll ranking. She’s finally kicked off the Pocahontas appellation and is now defining her own narrative. Buttigieg has taken his narrative by contrasting on Mother Pence’s homophobic religion with is own inclusive religion. Biden by attacking the Ol’ Pussy Grabber.

Notice how others who are floundering in the polls, Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, have not created a narrative for themselves.

Risky-Choice Framing

Trump as Mental Contaminate

In this framing set up, you can choose between two options. One is a percentage chance of a change in your position and the other a 100% chance of a change. Here’s a version of Kahneman’s classic example. Play along and post your answers in the comments! What fun!

Imagine that the UN is preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Antarctic disease, which is expected to kill 600 people in a small community in Europe. They have developed two alternative programs to combat the disease. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the program are as follows:

Program A: 200 people will be saved.

Program B: There is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved.

– A modified version of the Asian Disease Problem, which I found somewhat racially questionable.

Of course the fun doesn’t end there. It continues with a similar choice usually, but not always, given to another set of participants. Again, feel free to post your choices in the comments.

Imagine that the UN is preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Antarctic disease, which is expected to kill 600 people in a small community in Europe. They have developed two alternative programs to combat the disease. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the program are as follows:

Program A: 400 people will die.

Program B: There is a 1/3 probability that no one will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

If you do the math, which most of us don’t because lazy thinking, you realize that the choices for each are the same: Program A, 200 people will be saved and 400 will die; Program B, a 1/3rd chance that no one will die or everyone will be saved and a 2/3rds chance that 600 people will die or no one will be saved. They are the same mathematically.

But, they are not the same emotionally, so of the thousands of people who’ve answered these questions, it generally comes out like this:

First Question Second Question
Program A 75% 25%
Program B 25% 75%

That’s because of the anchoring effect or reference point or the tendency to base an answer on previous information similar to the availability heuristic, but the information comes much closer to the answer. For example if I give you an arbitrary number like 32 and then ask you this question: What percentage of South American countries is in the United Nations? You’ll likely give me an answer much lower than the next person who I give the arbitrary number, 87. Again, this has been established by numerous trials with hundreds if not thousands of people.

In the exotic disease scenario, the anchor or reference point is 600. When you see a guarantee of 200 people living, you think, Boy howdy, that’s pretty darn good. I’ll take it! But when you see the guarantee of 400 people dying, you think, Boy howdy, that’s pretty darn terrible. There’s got to be something better than that. And, you go for the percentage chance. The number anchors your response and the words save or die frame your response. It is as predictable as the grass dying in a drought except for your neighbor’s who cheats and waters his because special.

In the primary, our election is being framed by electability, which is a dog whistle for sexism and racism just like likeability was when Clinton was running in 2016. The media has labeled one candidate electible and the others as dubious pointing out all the reasons that they might not be: woman, gay, black, black and a woman, Hispanic. If John Hickenlooper and John Bennet were more popular, you’d be hearing about how electable they are.

Goal Framing

Dykes, schema, lesbian, LGBTQ, prediction
Schema Your Head Off

Goal framing is used to convince people to do something like wear motorcycle or bicycle helmets. Remember when that was a big deal? I don’t wanna wear no stinkin’ motorcycle helmet because I wanna be FREE! But, the argument that the rest of us didn’t want to pay for your dumb ass to be tube fed as you lived another 20 years in a nursing home because of a closed head injury carried the day. Now, ever’body does it, don’t they? The same can be said of seatbelts, smoking, and a couple of other public health issues.

When you’re trying to convince people to do sumpthin, studies suggest that it is better to tell them what will happen to them if they DON’T do it. After all, no one wants their head bursting open like a dropped watermelon when it hits the pavement, amirite?

This is the big failing of the Dems in 2016, isn’t it? What would happen if you didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016? Not only would the Ol’ Pussy Grabber be elected, but Roe v. Wade would be threatened because Smitch SMcConnell would successfully steal the Supreme Court seat of Merrick Garland and stack the judiciary with wingnut crazy judges. How the fuck did anyone lose sight of that? Man, it still chaps. Hold on, Notorious RBG!

It’s pretty clear that this is one reason Ol’ Handsome Joe is so far ahead in the race. He’s telling people what will happen if the Ol’ Pussy Grabber is re-elected.

Applying the Lessons

For the candidates, the recommendations are pretty clear:

  1. Attribution Framing: You’ve got to wrest control of your narrative from the media and start putting your best attributes and reasons for election out there. Warren’s prime example one here. When she became the I-have-a-plan-for-that candidate other than the Pocahontas candidate, her numbers started going up.
  2. Risky-Choice Framing: You’ve got to emphasize your electability. You’ve got to get that word out to the public and the media. If you don’t have a strategy for why you are electable, then you ain’t got shit this election cycle. Booker, O’Rourke, Castro, I’m looking at you boys. Why the fuck should anyone believe that you could be elected other than your general maleness? You gotsta give us a reason to believe in you.
  3. Goal Framing: Take the fight not only to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber a la Handsome Joe, but what terrible things will happen if you nominate one of the other million bozos running? Climate change and choice and voting rights and LGBTQ+ rights are all prime examples of issues that can be used to argue that you should be nominated over the other yahoos running. I’m looking at you Middle-Course Biden!

Avoiding the Traps

Is Orange Trump the New Black?

So, if we aren’t to be a slave to our lazy thinking, what can we do to avoid jumping to such erroneous conclusions? Using the framing effect and the availability heuristic are known as intuition because we use them without realizing it. Lucky for us, Kahneman — the originator of prospect theory, which is the foundation for both the availability heuristic and the framing effect — has a solution.

Way back in 1956 at the beginning of the Second Arab-Israeli War also known as the Suez War or the Suez Crisis, Kahneman at the ripe old age of 22 was asked by the Israeli army to develop an interview protocol to assess the combat readiness of soldiers. He developed a system of assessing the soldiers on several independent dimensions. The 19 year-old interviewers didn’t want to do it that way. They wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with the soldiers and then formulate their opinion, which would be an unreliable way of doing it.

Kahneman realized that he would have to compromise or his system would never be used properly. He proposed that they use the interview protocol and evaluate the soldiers on each of his dimensions, and then “close your eyes and give a score.” He found that the scores that were given this way were close to the average of the scores on the dimensions. He concluded that he was circumventing the framing effect, availability heuristic, and other biases that thinking is vulnerable to.

By delaying any overall conclusion until the end of the process, the intuitive conclusion would not interfere with the evaluation of the dimensions. Your intuition is no dummy. It can guesstimate an average as well as anyone can. So, magico presto, the interviewers formed their impression based on more reliable data and got it about right!

According to Kahneman, the Israeli military forces are still using the system with only slight modifications to this day.

This is what you do: you think of four to six dimensions that you would evaluate a presidential candidate on. Think up some descriptors for when a candidate does that thing well and when they don’t. Give them a score based on that, average the scores, and call the highest scorer your candidate. It is a far better system than watching the endless news cycle ad nauseam and basing your vote on the biases of those media toadies and other sundry idiots.

If you think of those dimensions and descriptors, feel free to list them in the comments.

14 replies »

  1. There is a trap set for Dem candidates in the media narrative when it focuses on their differences and demands that they differentiate themselves, whether it is on “elect-ability” or any other supposed quality, a trap that the trolls and fakesters will exploit with (quite literally) a vengeance and the media will eat up like eating contest champs. It is the trap that the Dems fell into in 2016 when voters were persuaded to stay home on election day because the wrong person got the nomination, the creation of the “Never Hillary” and “Never Bernie” camps. Who is electable? If all the Dem candidates make clear, ALL OF THEM, that they will all stay in the campaign to the end, that those who drop out of running will get out and campaign for someone else, and bring their supporters, voters, and donors with them, and they will ALL be out working their tails off for the eventual nominee, including the message, “Nobody stays home on election day because they wanted somebody else, because if they do, it means 4 more years of Trump and Smitch.” They need to get clear among themselves on the core of their common platform and make a point of that, whatever details they may disagree about. If they can do that, the nominee, whoever it is, will be electable. If they fail to do that, we are toast.


    • Howdy Bob!

      I’ve been repeating versions of this since 2016. And, in the framework of the post, that is goal framing. What happens if you do something, i.e. vote, or don’t do something, i.e. vote. The research shows that the emphasis should be on the consequences of not doing that something, i.e. voting. The message is, “Do you want four more years of the same? Then get off your ass and vote Dem like your life depends on it because it does!”



      • Indeed it does. And, the onslaught of trolls, fake news, deep fake vids, and hackers looking to get into anybody’s email is going to be an order of magnitude more than last time. It is at the point now that nothing political on social media can be taken at face value unless you’ve already seen it on the actual web site of a reputable, trusted source.


        • Howdy Bob!

          The deep fake vids are one of my biggest worries precisely because we are so predisposed to believe what we perceive. It’s the reason CGI works. It’s the reason that even crude special effects works and rubber masks and other tricks with forced perspective and make up work in movies and TV shows. Even when you know it’s fake like you do in movies and TV shows, you still believe it. It is very diabolical and I doubt we as a species or society will have the wherewithal to manage it very effectively.


          Liked by 1 person

          • Considering the level of suspension of disbelief it takes to be a Trump fan, it really is scary. Part of the problem is that the skills and resources needed to detect the fake are much less common than the ability to create it, by the time it can be exposed it will have been seen by huge numbers and be nearly impossible to remove from all the platforms.


            • Howdy Bob!
              And as we’ve seen such things never reallly disappear. They continue to exist in isolated pockets of the internet to revived by new discoverers of what they think is the truth.

              I guess it is true that our greatest blessings are also our greatest curses.


              Liked by 1 person

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