Sunday, October 5, 2008

How Political Parties Capitalize on the Way People Think

For many Canadians, elections are a boring sideshow to their regular lives, or a duty to be endured. But people are likely paying much more attention to the political messages than they think.

Political campaigns are carefully planned and scripted, using time-tested approaches to winning. Many of these approaches prey on the weaknesses of the human decision making process, the thinking traps that most people don’t recognize, even as they succumb to them.
“If citizens understand these thinking traps and how the parties apply them, they can better analyse the information and make a decision at the ballot box with more confidence,” says Randy Park, an expert in how people think and make decisions, and the author of Thinking for Results. “The majority of our decision making takes place without us ‘thinking’ about it - and the parties count on this fact.”
The framing of the “ballot question” is by far the most important aspect of the campaign. It is designed to capitalize on two thinking traps: the anchoring trap and the extreme thinking trap. Each is important in its own right; combined they have a huge effect on the voter’s final decision, which is why the parties are so focussed in the early days on trying to define the ballot question in a favourable way.
The anchoring trap says that when making decisions people tend to place more emphasis on the first information they receive. (This is similar to comparing a “regular price” to a “sale price.”) If a party can anchor the ballot question in an advantageous way, everything else the voter sees or hears is filtered through that question. For months it has been clear that the Conservatives intend the ballot question to be about who is a strong leader.
The ballot question also relies on the “extreme thinking” trap. Our brains like to view decisions as yes or no, good or bad, one extreme or the other. It is much easier to make a decision if we have two clearly distinct options. (The physiological basis for this tendency is that it takes less time and energy to make a yes/no decision than to ponder the subtleties of issues.) If a party can define the ballot question in a way that has a yes or no answer (“is he a leader?” versus “what are the characteristics of a leader?”) people are more likely to make solid choices.
“The risk with using the extreme thinking trap in defining a ballot question is that during the campaign, if the opposition manages to sway public opinion, it could backfire in a huge way, says Park. “Using the example of defining the ballot question as ‘leadership,’ if Stephane Dion performs well, and Stephen Harper has a slip, the voters’ opinions of who is a leader could flip and cause the Conservatives serious damage.”

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