Friday, November 16, 2012

Obama uses science to beat Romney

The anti-science bent of certain elements of the Republican party (Creationism anyone?) is obviously repugnant to many people, including me. Now it appears that stance came back to bite Mitt Romney during the presidential election.

The Obama campaign secretly assembled a team of famous experts in psychology, persuasion, and behavioral economics to plan out campaign strategy and messaging:
This election season the Obama campaign won a reputation for drawing on the tools of social science. The book “The Victory Lab,” by Sasha Issenberg, and news reports have portrayed an operation that ran its own experiment and, among other efforts, consulted with the Analyst Institute, a Washington voter research group established in 2007 by union officials and their allies to help Democratic candidates.

Less well known is that the Obama campaign also had a panel of unpaid academic advisers. The group — which calls itself the “consortium of behavioral scientists,” or COBS — provided ideas on how to counter false rumors, like one that President Obama is a Muslim. It suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice on how to mobilize voters.

“In the way it used research, this was a campaign like no other,” said Todd Rogers, a psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former director of the Analyst Institute. “It’s a big change for a culture that historically has relied on consultants, experts and gurulike intuition.” 
This team of scientists provided concrete, actionable strategies to the Obama campaign:
For example, Dr. Fiske’s research has shown that when deciding on a candidate, people generally focus on two elements: competence and warmth. “A candidate wants to make sure to score high on both dimensions,” Dr. Fiske said in an interview. “You can’t just run on the idea that everyone wants to have a beer with you; some people care a whole lot about competence.” 

Mr. Romney was recognized as a competent businessman, polling found. But he was often portrayed in opposition ads as distant, unable to relate to the problems of ordinary people. 

When it comes to countering rumors, psychologists have found that the best strategy is not to deny the charge (“I am not a flip-flopper”) but to affirm a competing notion. “The denial works in the short term; but in the long term people remember only the association, like ‘Obama and Muslim,’ ” said Dr. Fox, of the persistent false rumor. 

The president’s team affirmed that he is a Christian. 

At least some of the consortium’s proposals seemed to have found their way into daily operations. Campaign volunteers who knocked on doors last week in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada did not merely remind people to vote and arrange for rides to the polls. Rather, they worked from a script, using subtle motivational techniques that research has shown can prompt people to take action.
I recently wrote about the Obama campaign as the heir to Lee Atwater's mantle of ruthless, decisive campaigning; it seems that the team there also inherited his mantle of applying science and technology to winning elections.

There's an old saying, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight."  The Republican Party better start focusing on applying science, or it will be doing precisely that in its campaigns.

Psychology is the Physics of the 21st Century

"It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives."

A few months back, I was asked, "What do you think we'll look back upon centuries from now and marvel that we didn't understand?"  There are plenty of things we know are bonkers, but which were considered normal in the past--the value of bleeding the sick, for example.

After thinking about if for a few minutes, I concluded that future generations will look back upon our era and marvel at our ignorance of human behavior.  The rise of positive psychology and behavioral economics represent a new human science that promises changes as vast and impactful as physics in the 20th century.

I even created a slideshow summarizes the principal findings for newcomers to the topic.

This morning, I ran across a David Brooks op-ed that argues that emotional intelligence has dramatically increased in the past 50 years as our conception of manliness and family has changed.  We no longer expect or even praise cold, distant fathers who ignore their families.
The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.

Body type was useless as a predictor. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.

The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.

Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.
Not only have our values changed, but even people who grew up under the old system have the ability to change and improve.

I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing how the world changes when we begin to remake the world to fit how our minds work, rather than vice versa!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I actually have something good to say about Occupy Wall Street

I'm not generally a fan of ill-defined protest movements, but I'll make an exception for a new initiative from Occupy Wall Street.

OWS is holding a benefit concert tomorrow that's called "The People's Bailout."  What's interesting is how the proceeds will be used:
OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

This is a simple, powerful way to help folks in need — to free them from heavy debt loads so they can focus on being productive, happy and healthy. As you can see from our test run, the return on investment approaches 30:1. That’s a crazy bargain!
Now that's what I call a sensible approach to philanthropy--one that leverages the tools of capitalism.  If only all protest movements were smart enough to adopt high-leverage market-based mechanisms for change!

The Chicago Way: Obama as the heir to Lee Atwater

"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way!" (The Untouchables

Not that long ago, the Republican Party was a ruthless election machine.  You may not have approved of its tactics (Willie Horton, anyone?) but you couldn't deny its results.

Now there's a new sheriff in town.  Republicans have tried to paint Barack Obama as a Chicago politician.  And they're right.  Obama's presidential campaigns have been masterpieces of electioneering.  And I'm not just talking about things like tapping into grassroots over the internet.

At every stage, the Obama campaign has showed a ruthless willingness to exploit any possible advantage, especially in terms of money.  In 2008, Obama turned down public financing so he could take advantage of his fundraising machine, and buried the much poorer McCain campaign.  McCain was likely to lose anyways, but no sense taking chances.

This cycle, the Obama campaign did something similar to Mitt Romney:

One Sunday in May, Mr. Messina, the manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, went to the president along with other top advisers and proposed an unorthodox strategy. The campaign, he said, wanted to spend heavily, starting immediately, on ads blasting away at Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.
"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.

The strategy also caught Mr. Romney at his most vulnerable time. The Republican nominee had been damaged by the bruising primary season. He limped out of it in mid-April battered and short on money to defend himself.

His top advisers faced the harsh reality that no matter how much money they raised for the general election, they couldn't, under election law, spend it until Mr. Romney officially claimed his party's nomination in late August. Mr. Romney would have to weather months of negative ads without the financial resources to respond forcefully.
This is tough-minded, hard-nosed campaigning.  Obama's campaign broke with conventional wisdom and attacked when the opposition was fiscally vulnerable.  It's like kicking a guy when he's down, and if you've ever been around me when I'm watching an action movie, you'd know how much I favor that strategy.  If there's a woman in peril who kicks her assailant in the groin and runs while he's on the ground, you'll hear me shout, "No, you idiot, kick him when he's down!  You don't have to run if you fracture his skull and kill him!"

You don't have to admire the tactics or even the candidate to appreciate watching a master at work.*

* As one friend (who voted for Obama) noted when I described my admiration, "Too bad his team doesn't bring the same competence to governing!"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is Manliness Hazardous to Your Health?

"Well, I'm not the world's most masculine man / But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man"
--The Kinks (singing about a transvestite homosexual lover)

I am not noted as a totem of masculinity.  I don't repair cars.  I let my wife program the VCR.  I eat arugula almost every day.

And yet, when I tore the ligaments in my pinkie earlier this year, I refused to go to the doctor.  Instead, I asked my other basketball playing friends for their advice, and bought a splint at Walgreens.

Just last week, Sean Glass asked me about my splint, and after hearing the explanation, showed me his own mangled pinkies.  We laughed, and not one of the other men at the table said something like, "You know, maybe you should go see a doctor."

Later in the week, I suffered a concussion at work, then drove home afterwards.  I didn't tell my wife until I got home because I figured she'd insist on coming to pick me up if I told her about my injury.

I like to consider myself a rational and enlightened man--practically a SNAG (Sensitive New-Age Guy).  I'm okay with asking for help and showing vulnerability.  Yet even I behave in bizarrely masochistic ways, as illustrated above.  Why?

And while these minor injuries may not seem like a big deal, is our pursuit of manliness costing us in other ways?  I was struck by a recent piece from Michael Schwalbe, "The Hazards of Manhood," about the consequences and politics of manly stoicism:
Most American men know perfectly well the qualities they must display to be considered fully creditable as men: power, competitiveness, and toughness. This turns out to be enormously useful for generating profit. Just give men opportunities to display manhood in these ways and they’ll do things that add to the bottom line, even if it’s to their own detriment.

Like John Henry, a working-class man’s desire to appear strong and tough will often lead him to lift more weight, keep working despite pain, and forgo safety measures that slow him down and suggest fear or vulnerability. To appear competitive, he may strive to outdo his fellow workers, bringing a smile to the boss’s face.

Middle-class and upper-middle-class men do the equivalent. To display toughness, they work long hours and exalt efficiency over conscience and compassion. They compete for promotions, putting work first in their lives, lest they be seen as wimpy or wussy—sexist code words for “feminine” or “womanly.”

This kind of manhood striving is driven by a contradiction: To be a real man in U.S. society, one must have or display power—the capacity to exert control over one’s self and the surrounding world—but the fact is that most men in a capitalist society have little or no power. For most men, striving for manhood status is an attempt to evade this contradiction, to escape the psychic pain it causes.
I'm reminded, curiously enough, of the movie "Sin City."  Mickey Rourke plays Marv, a tough ex-con who helps avenge a murder.  At one point, a voiceover notes, "Most people think Marv is crazy. He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He'd be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face. Or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him."

According to Schwalbe, in some sense, all of us men are like Marv (even those of us who make our living with our words, rather than with our fists).  We still feel the atavistic desire to demonstrate our masculinity with toughness, even to our own detriment.

We can't change who we are; millions of years of evolution are at work.  But we can be aware of the dangers of manliness, and work to ameliorate its effects.

Now if you excuse me, I have to start stretching my pinkie so I'll be able to play basketball this morning.  It gets pretty violent in the paint.