Behavior Economics

Defund the Police and Emotional Decision Making


On 15 November, I wrote a short post concerning how the slogan, Defund the Police, had helped defeat several moderate House Democrats. These two reasons were discussed: (1) the slogan was memorable, and (2) it was easily understood. It brought a fair number of comments from readers, which spurred my thinking. I realized that I didn’t explain the psychology behind the effectiveness of the way the Republican Party demagogued the slogan. Let’s do that now.

One of the things I like about the psychology here is that it is so well established. There are lots of research findings from many researchers in many settings using a variety of methodologies. It is as solid as it gets in psychology which is a lot like being the tallest building in Wichita, but it is about as good as it gets.

Evidence of Defund the Police Affecting the Polls

For everything the Ol’ Pussy Grabber is or isn’t, he gets white racial animus. While Dems were smugly making fun of him for begging suburban women to like him for saving their neighborhoods from having Cory Booker move in next door to them — we were so sure that all those soccer moms were just lusting after Booker like we did — they were getting their racial angst stroked. We know this because the percentage of white women voting for Trump remained unchanged from 2016.

About 55% of white women voted for Trump give or take five percent if exit polls are to be believed. As it turns out, suburban women — dog whistle for white women — do love him.

But you know what else people loved in Election 2020? Police reform. Although, police reform measures were only on the ballots in a limited number of locals and those were predominately liberal centers like Minneapolis, Seattle (King County), Portland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, and Sonoma County. Still, they all won, which is saying something for the strength of the movement.

The difference between the competing electorate factoids seems to be more in their presentation and resulting emotional reaction than in their factual basis. No where on the ballot, for example, did the slogan Defund the Police. Instead, there were ballot measures for creating civilian oversight and review boards and removing mandatory minimums for the number of officers in a jurisdiction. But, the emotions of fear of the Other that Defund the Police stimulated deep-down in these white women’s minds was on the ballot when they saw the names of the candidates due to the close association that the Republican Party made between them.

To understand this seeming contradiction, we have to understand how people make decisions.

Emotional Decision-Making

Long-time readers of Ye Olde Blogge know that human beings evolved to be emotional decision-makers. There are several caveats that we must accept. First, our brain is an energy hog consuming about 20% of our total energy consumption while comprising about 2% of our physical make up. And, that energy consumption goes up when we need to concentrate and think hard. In our calorie-rich environment that may not seem like a big deal, but in the calorie-poor hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our early ancestors, it was very important. Evolving efficient ways of using our magnificent brain was literally the difference between life and death.

SECOND, emotions are affective states that alter our response patterns to situations giving us an advantage. They are fast and usually have a damn good environmental reason for having been activated at least in the savannas of Africa where they evolved. If something scared you, you were more likely to survive if you reacted with fight-or-flight than with curiosity.

And THIRD, we developed a number of shortcuts, called heuristics, to help us make fast emotional decisions that were usually accurate. If you over-reacted, the worst that could happen was being embarrassed. If you under-reacted, you were dead. Over-reaction for the win!

The Affect Heuristic

As it tuns out there is remarkable similarity between environmental stimuli that have similar effects. Probably the most evident and convincing of these is that food that is bad for you is bitter and foul tasting. Things that stink are likely to be bad for you. Things that stare at you are likely to be bad for you. Fruits and vegetables that are colorful are likely to be good for and those that are green or black are bad.

If you saw a new thing that shared one of the bad characteristics, you disliked it. If you saw one with a good characteristic, you liked it. And the affect heuristic was born!

The affect heuristic is a cognitive shortcut that allows people to make decisions and judgments based wholly on their emotional reactions. If we like something, then we are likely to react favorably to it and if we dislike it, unfavorably. That like or dislike reaction is instantaneous. It happens before you even know it. It happens in reaction to nearly everything and everyone that is new under the sun.

When white people, aside from activists, progressives, allies, and other disestablishmentarian-types, first encountered Defund the Police, I can guarantee you that they disliked it. White people, by and large, from the time they were small have been taught that the police are friends and helpers.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring occurs when we base our estimate of something on some other thing that we think we know whether they are related or not. For example, if I say the number five, and ask a group to estimate the number of countries in West Africa, there average guess will be significantly lower than the group who started with the number 100. Because the number was activated in their associative network, it influenced their thinking.

Because the Repubes so assiduously linked their Dem opponents to Defund the Police and went on to define Defund the Police as meaning to abolish the police, when voters stood before their ballot, they thought of what they knew of each candidate and made their final choice. Pulling the emotions associated with that easily thought of and easily understood slogan out of their unconscious, whether they knew it or not, influenced their choice. For the average white voter, it meant that they were voting with their racial existential crisis was activated.

Once we’ve had our feeling of liking or disliking, we’ve made our choice. The only thing left is for us to rationalize our decision. For most white voters that means citing any other reason other than race because racism is bad.

There are tons of other psychological factors that influenced the effect of Defund the Police on their votes, but this is one of the most important ones because of its pervasive and subtle influence over us.

Image Attribution

“Emotion” by BdwayDiva1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

6 replies »

  1. Therein is the truth of this exchange in “Don Juan In Hell” by George Bernard Shaw in a discussion of the difference between Heaven and Hell.

    “ANA. But surely there is a great gulf fixed.”

    “THE DEVIL. Dear lady: a parable must not be taken literally. … A mere physical gulf they could bridge; or at least I could bridge it for them (the earth is full of Devil’s Bridges); but the gulf of dislike is impassable and eternal. And that is the only gulf that separates my friends here from those who are invidiously called the blest. “

    Liked by 1 person

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