Mind Matters — The Psychology of Sound Bites

Well, here we go plunging into the psychology of politics. Let’s all blink before we leap! The writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink reminds us of the problems of electing politicians on the basis of the Warren G. Harding effect. Harding may have been the first president elected as a result of modern marketing, which presents us with an “instant image.” He was a good-looking, good sell, none too bright and lacking substance. He became an incompetent president.

So as intelligent voters, how do we not get swayed by the Warren Harding effect? This effect may be more pronounced now than ever because of our electronic media: TV and the internet give us not so much factual information overload as superficial, often erroneous, sound bites.

Sound bites fit right in with the Warren Harding effect, giving us a quick connection to a candidate.

While rapid, instantaneous cognition—that intuitive knowing in the blink of an eye that is based on a deeper understanding of a given subject can be a marvelous thing, rapid cognition has its dark side with the Warren Harding error. Gladwell notes that rapid cognition based on superficialities that we fool ourselves into believing as substantive is “at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. It’s why picking the right candidate for a job is so difficult and why, on more occasions than we may care to admit, utter mediocrities sometimes end up in positions of enormous responsibility.”

So how do “utter mediocrities” manage this? For one, we may find it easier to identify with them. Projective identification is that psychological process where we see ourselves in another (“Gee, he/she is a lot like me; he/she’s real average”—just how you’d choose your cardiologist or brain surgeon, right?), or when we want to see ourselves in another (“Wow, he/she is really rich and famous; maybe if I vote for that one, I can dream of being rich and famous too”), even when the reality is totally opposite our own situation. Examples of the latter projections abound—when voting for this politician is like shooting yourself in the foot—why vote for the one who wants to dismantle Medicare and Social Security when you’re so dependent on it? Because the reality of the voter’s real needs pales in comparison to the fantasized projection.

Projective identification can go another, negative way too—where there is an aspect of ourselves we hate or don’t want to face. So we displace, project that part of ourselves on another. (The “I’m good, you’re bad” routine.)

Politicians can play with people’s positive and negative projections in at least two ways, using the fear factor and using deflection. Politicians can align themselves with the voters’ projections by enlisting fear, repeating phrases that play on death and security. These repetitious sound bites do not have to have any correlation with truth and reality. Once the fear factor is employed and embeds in the brain, the voter has difficulty recognizing the facts of the matter. (Examples: fear about gun control—even though gun control needed in the inner city will not take away guns from hunters, sound bites belie the truth; or fear about the estate “Death Tax”—when, in fact, it affects an incredibly small percentage of people.)

Deflection goes hand in hand with the fear factor, whenever a fallacious sound bite might get debunked, deflection is displayed. In other words, the politician turns attention away from the “debunking” to another issue—or non-issue—often a triviality rather than a real issue at all. Deflection and distraction is a handy tool in parenting toddlers. One would hope the discerning voter would see beyond the ploys of politics and vote for the candidates who are not necessarily just like us and maybe not even be just for us. (In other words, we need to see the larger picture beyond our own egos.)

Discernment beyond deflection and projection means we consider who will be best for the future—not just our immediate future but for our children and grandchildren. Decisions have long abiding consequences.

To check your own prejudices, take the IAT—Implicit Association Test, available at www.implicit.harvard.edu. To check facts, see www.factcheck.org.