By Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, is the author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 07/11/06):
ANOTHER national election season has come to an end — the sorriest, sleaziest, most disheartening and embarrassing in memory. The best one can hope for is a candidate who is a complete cipher. How has American electoral politics come to this?
I think we can gain insight from a study published by the psychologist Eldar Shafir 13 years ago. Suppose you are confronted with the following problem:
You’re serving as a juror in a custody case in which each parent is demanding sole custody of an only child. The facts of the case are complicated by ambiguous economic, social and emotional considerations, and you decide to base your decision entirely on the following few observations:
• average income
• reasonable rapport with child
• relatively stable social life
• average working hours
• average health
• above-average income
• close relationship with child
• extremely active social life
• lots of work-related travel
• minor health problems
To which parent would you award sole custody of the child?
Parent A is average in every way, without compelling positive or negative features. Parent B has a mix of strong positive (very close to the child) and strong negative (lots of travel) features. Asked to make this choice, the majority of respondents — 64 percent — choose Parent B.
What makes this study really interesting is what happens when another group of respondents is given the same character sketches, but asked a slightly different question: “To which parent would you deny custody of the child?” Here again, a majority, 55 percent, choose Parent B.
How can it be that a majority both accept and reject the same parent?
Professor Shafir’s explanation is that when people are asked whom to accept, they look for positive features in the parents — reasons to accept one over the other — and Parent B has them. In contrast, when people are asked whom to reject, they look for negative features — and again, Parent B has them. No matter which question you ask, Parent B stands out.
What does this tell us about modern electoral politics? When you go into the voting booth, you’re trying to decide whom to accept or whom to reject. Are you judging who the good candidate is or who the less bad candidate is?
The effort by each side to coat the opposition in slime has made many of us cynical, giving us the sense that our task is to reject the worst, not select the best. Nobody’s any good, we think, but some are worse than others. Let’s keep those candidates out of office. Our job becomes one of denying, not awarding, office.
What that means is that if you want to win an election, you need to find candidates like Parent A, who give us no reason to say no, rather than Parent B, who present a complex set of features, some attractive and some problematic.
If somehow the cynicism lifted, and we saw ourselves charged with the task of deciding who to say yes to, we’d have more candidates like Parent B. Just one negative feature would not be enough to disqualify someone, in our minds. There would be little to gain by capturing and broadcasting “macaca moments,” or subtly invoking old Southern fears of black men cavorting with white women. Candidates would be able to take positions and speak their minds. This might lead to the arrival of candidates who actually have positions and minds. We might even be willing to risk generating a little enthusiasm at the prospect of being led by them.
But unless something is done to quell “gotcha” journalism and relentlessly negative campaigning — and as long as we continue to enter the voting booth looking for reasons to say no — the ciphers will be the winners.