Archive for the ‘political science’ Category
Today, the US government will close its combat command in Afghanistan. One of the most difficult arguments to have about foreign policy is when to end an intervention, such as terminating our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time that happens, many lives have been lost and much has been spent. It is often the case that political groups may seize power and might be anti-American in their orientation. Understandably, people might ask, “Is it all for nothing? Did our soldiers die so that a democratic government would fail and be replaced by tyrants?”
People should ask a different question, “What guarantee do we have that more lives and money will make things better?” We should also ask, “Is there a significant chance that our actions could make things worse?” The answer to these questions is “in most cases, things will not get better with more intervention and they might get better if we stand back.”
The reason is that countries drawing the attention of democratic nations tend to be very broken on some level. In Iraq, the nation was saddled by Baathist tyranny and sectarian violence. In Afghanistan, the problem was a weak state created by decades of Soviet and American interventions, tribalism, and the drug trade. When a third party intervenes in such nations, it is, by definition, an outsider. External threats tend to make people rally around the leader, however vile that person may be.
Instead, we should let nations be free of threat from American forces. That doesn’t mean that the nation will magically heal itself, but, at the very least, it deprives tyrants and charlatans of one source of their power. They no longer have us to point to, or, when we give them arms, they no longer use our guns to undermine our goals. And sometimes it works. Our departure will sometimes allow a political evolution to occur that might be impossible with troops on the ground. Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party, but it has opened up in significant ways and is more integrated into the global economy than we might have suspected in 1975. Ask yourself, what would Vietnam look like today if we had taken John McCain’s advice and stayed 100 years until the job was done?
When I started graduate school in the last century, my approach to political analysis was very close to an old school rational choice model. People had interests and ideological tastes. Then they asked government to defend their interests or enforce their tastes. In the last 15 years that I’ve been working on institutions, movements, and related issues, my views have changed. With respect to politicians, I still adopt a somewhat standard rational choice model. Elected leaders have fairly intuitive utility functions, it’s just that the political environment is stochastic in nature and suffused with ambiguity.
However, my approach to voters and “retail” politics is completely different. For example, I no longer believe that people (even fairly educated people) have consistent ideological beliefs. Public opinion research and everyday observation shows that people hold contradictory views on policies, when they even have any knowledge at all. I also don’t believe that many people have terribly stable material interests that are expressed at the voting booth.
So what’s left? The big drivers of politics are group identity and individual self-image. Basically, my current position is that a lot of mass politics is some version of group identity writ large. For example, a great deal of partisan identity in the US is driven by being pro or anti-black. Foreign policy makes little sense until you understand that a lot of it has to do with fighting outsiders (e.g., Islamists, communists). In many nations, party coalitions are defined along class lines, linguistic lines, and ethnic lines. In fact, Lipset and Rokkan have an old book that succinctly argues that multi-party politics is really easy to understand once you take all these social categories into account.
While most sociologists appreciate group identity, they tend to under appreciate the role of self-identity, which is really appreciated by psychologists. For example, it is certainly true that the Democratic/Republican cleavage rests on racial attitudes. But that doesn’t explain why Democrats would be less into the military. Theoretically, you might imagine a party that combines pro-black and pro-military attitudes. Once you accept that unrelated identities can be bundled, it is easy to see that attitudes toward defense probably reflect an individual’s desire to be seen as tough, which through historical accident can be bundled with racial attitudes.
Now, when I try to understand polls or parties or policies, I do consider interests, but I also use the lens of group identity and self-image. It clears up a lot of things.
That’s the name of an article in the New Yorker that explores the work of my good friend political scientist Brendan Nyhan. The essence of pretty simple: people don’t change beliefs if it somehow challenges their identity:
Last month, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a study that he and a team of pediatricians and political scientists had been working on for three years. They had followed a group of almost two thousand parents, all of whom had at least one child under the age of seventeen, to test a simple relationship: Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines? Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.
The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines. “It’s depressing,” Nyhan said. “We were definitely depressed,” he repeated, after a pause.
It’s the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people’s beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior. For example, when women are asked to state their gender before taking a math or science test, they end up performing worse than if no such statement appears, conforming their behavior to societal beliefs about female math-and-science ability. To address this so-called stereotype threat, Steele proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Steele’s research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.
Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.
Read the whole thing.
Last week, I argued that academics face poor incentives. We are rewarded for solving hard problems, but rarely rewarded for simple, but important, problems. On Twitter, Eric Crampton suggested that my argument could be seen as a vote for think tanks as policy vehicles:
There’s a simple logic here. Policy is the whole point of think tanks. In practice, there would probably be a bias in favor of simple solutions as voters and politicians would have a tough time understanding complex solutions.
Still, I don’t see most think tanks as immune from perverse incentives. Rather, they have a different audience that imposes its own incentives. For example, an Atlantic article chronicles the decline of the Heritage Foundation as the primary source of high quality conservative policy work. The story is straightforward, the need for funding made it hard to resist the Tea Party. Heritage flipped on so many issues from health care to immigration that it’s hard to recognize it as the same organization.
Academia has the perverse incentive of rewarding people for technical skill at the expense of real world importance. The think tank world has a different problem. These organizations depend on fickle donors. So yes, simple is good, until the winds change.