Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Delegating decisions

A couple of times in the last semester. I heard the question on why people obey the law, why populations are following the rules decided by their government and legislature. I was struck that the first and only thing that came up was the constraint story: the government has constraining power through, say, its regalian authority.

Now, there is no denying that this plays a part. However, it seems to me that one strong reason people abide by the rules is that they have elected those people to make decisions in their stead. In the same way you don't have time to investigate the news by yourself and you expect the journalists to do this job for you. This was underlined in a recent post of Dean Baker on the coverage of Minnesota's government shutdown by NPR:
It is not balanced reporting to present a Republican legislator from Minnesota talking about spiraling state spending and then present someone else talking about state services. Most NPR listeners will not have the time to look up the data on state spending in Minnesota. NPR's reporter should.
In the political field, Gabriel Lenz published a paper in 2009 where he considers the earlier evidence of a "priming" effect in political campaigns. Priming is a general psychological theory in which a prior exposure to an external signal makes you more receptive to a future signal or more prone to a certain behavior. If you want a fancy example, a recent psychology paper suggested that male libido was a main cause of war

Across four experiments Lei Chang and his team showed that pictures of attractive women or women's legs had a raft of war-relevant effects on heterosexual male participants(...)The effects on the male participants of looking at attractive women were specific to war. For example, their ability to locate pictures of farmers, as opposed to soldiers, was not enhanced. Moreover, the war-priming effects of attractive women were greater than with other potentially provocative stimuli, such as the national flag.
Previous research tended to explain the fact that the voters are giving more importance to topics discussed in news media to judge the quality of the candidates they have to vote on. In his paper, Lenz explains that there are two possible ways to explain why you might observe such a relation:

  • People might learn from the news which candidate supported their ideological position and will judge them based on this. For instance, you might have an isolationist ideology. Initially, you do not know which candidate in the Republican primary feels the same way. Watching the debate last week, you realized that there might be differences in the Republican party, namely, you realized that you want to support Mitt Romney's position
  • People might learn from the news the positions supported by each candidate and adopt the position of his favorite candidate. For instance, if you're a Mitt Romney fan and that you had no clear position on Afghanistan, you might change your mind and push for a quick withdrawal, after what he said in the Republican debate
Interestingly, Lenz finds far more evidence for the latter effect: people tend to adopt what their favorite politician/party defend. The fact that this happens might be obvious, the fact that it is by far the most important effect was not clear to me. Admittedly, Lenz's paper only focuses on 4 different case studies, but the evidence seems to be quite clear that at least on those topics, the leaders have a huge influence. It also shows that people, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously, delegate their power of decision to the politicians.

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