How did we get to this point in the 2016 election? DePauw University psychology professor discusses the basic findings presented in his 2013 book, The Tell–findings which explain to a great extent how voters who think they are making informed, rational decisions often make choices that are anything but.
by Donovan Wheeler
Featured Photo by Amber Bowers
Settled into his comfortable office on the first floor of DePauw University’s Harrison Hall, Matt Hertenstein is about as far removed from the race for the White House as the rest of us. As a researcher and a psychologist, Hertenstein isn’t interested in sharing who he thinks should be next president. Nor does he want to share his views about supply-side economics, international free trade agreements, conditions on the ground in Syria, or the role of government in regulating gun ownership. What he is interested in is how the rest of us process those issues when we step up the voting booth and cast our choice. Or to be more specific, he’s actually interested in whether we really think about any of these issues at all.
“Recent studies have been published since I wrote The Tell which move beyond the measurement of ‘competency,’” Hertenstein explains, “One of those addresses ‘power’ in much the same way I called attention to a candidate’s odds of appearing ‘capable’ of doing the job. What we’re learning is that voters use the same type of metrics—heuristic—to determine who is more powerful, and those are the candidates people gravitate toward.”
The heuristics, Hertenstein refers to are the skills each of use when faced with a dilemma or problem. Often lacking all the information we need (Which restaurant will be better? Which movie is going to be more entertaining?), we fill in the gaps in our knowledge with the most logical, best-informed guesses we can make. And even though those seemingly logical decisions often sit far removed from the actual facts, we are usually confident that we’re at least functionally informed. In his 2013 book, The Tell Hertenstein walks us through many of those societal moments when we’re forced to fill in logical gaps. From choosing a mate, to working in or with sales people, to sorting out our choices at the ballot, Hertenstein lays out a fascinatingly narrated presentation of one of the most basic facts which psychology teaches: we are not always honest with ourselves.
Donovan Wheeler: I want to get to the book’s relevance to this wild 2016 election year in a moment, but before I do that I want to make sure I understand one point correctly: Your book as whole is really about a larger idea…one of making informed decisions and simply moving forward from there, right?
MH: “It’s about making hard choices versus easy ones.”
DW: Such as?
MH: “Well, take health care, for example. It’s about preventing the forest fire versus putting out the forest fire. The goal is to move toward a model of prevention, and I think that genetic testing is going to play a large role in that. That’s going to open up other dilemmas. Companies such as 23-and-Me, which conduct genetic testing, will unlock important secrets about our potential for things such as heart disease, cancer, and so forth. This will of course create privacy issues, but if it’s going to lead to a healthier life then arguably we should know that stuff.”
“Take basketball for example. Coaches always call time-outs, when an opposing player is about to step up to the free-throw line—to ‘ice’ them, right? When researchers actually studied this, they discovered that it has the opposite effect. Players shooting free-throws perform better after the time-out. So, anecdotally, we think the otherwise, but empirically it’s not true.”
DW: I get that, but I enjoy making some bad choices because I prefer a life of quality over one of quantity.
MH: “As do I. But at least you’re making that decision volitionally and ‘in the light’ rather than ‘in the dark,’ as opposed to someone in the 1930’s smoking a cigarette because they’ve been told it will help their respiratory system.”
DW: A volitional decision is not something we make when we’re trying to vote for a leader, and often we turn to stories and anecdotes of the person in the Kroger line buying lottery tickets with welfare money instead of the data which shows that we could pay for all the welfare in the country with two military fighter jets. Why do you think these anecdotes are so powerful?
MH: “There’s nothing more powerful that seeing a person—or yourself—experience a situation and then seeing an outcome. You saw it with your own eyes, and you don’t think that your eyes (or the rest of our senses) lie. So, because we believe in our senses and the veridicality of how we think about the world, the powerful nature of those experiences stick with us. So, for that reason, it’s very challenging to try to overcome anecdotal evidence.”
DW: Even though it distorts the truth.
MH: “Science is FULL of examples which demonstrate that anecdotal evidence is often…often…wrong. For example, if I hold a string in my hand, with a weight on the end of it—say a cork or something like that—and I’m swinging it above my head and then let go… What direction does the cork go? Does it fly out bending in the direction of the circle as it was moving when I held onto it? Does it shoot out in a straight line? Or does it somehow arc the opposite way and curve in opposition to the direction I was slinging it? And even though you do this your whole life, from the time you were a kid, and you’ve watched it fly out of your hands hundreds of times, when we survey people about it, the vast majority get it wrong. It actually leaves at a perfect tangent to the circle. It doesn’t arc at all.”
DW: That’s a physical example. How does this work psychologically?
MH: “Take basketball for example. Coaches always call time-outs, when an opposing player is about to step up to the free-throw line—to ‘ice’ them, right? When researchers actually studied this, they discovered that it has the opposite effect. Players shooting free-throws perform better after the time-out. So, anecdotally, we think the otherwise, but empirically it’s not true. That’s why I love psychology. It’s so non-intuitive. The anecdote is powerful, but if you carefully and intelligently assimilate the data you can be very confident in the results.”
DW: And we approach politics the same way?
MH: “Our mind plays tricks on us, especially when we establish an idea in our heads about how the world works. We carry a phenomenon called ‘confirmation bias’ which means first of all that we seek out evidence that supports our views, and the remaining evidence we encounter—even if it’s contrary to what we think—we tend to discount which means that it’s very difficult to be objective. Given that hundreds of studies support this claim makes this a good fact to know. Hopefully it would make you introspective enough to realize it exists and make you question your assumptions.”
MH: “Most of my liberal friends consume certain publications, websites, and news programs while most of my conservative friends have a different set of media they use. We’re all seeking information which confirms the way we think. This is an opportunity for us as people to grow, to reach out. If you’re a conservative…watch some MSNBC, and if you’re a liberal watch a few shows on FOX News. Doing that exposes you to these opposite ways of thinking. But the challenge is still to then think clearly about all of the issues in front of us rather than going on assumptions only.”
DW: We don’t have a Walter Cronkite, any more.
MH: “But even then…”
DW: Even then?
MH: “We like to think of Walter Cronkite and others like him as objective and unbiased, but who chooses which stories are covered in the first place? How are they covered? What evidence are they not showing you? Science tells us that it’s impossible to be completely unbiased, no matter your viewpoints. We live in a polarized society which creates a sense of certainty that is often not founded. I think there’s a paucity of humility in our society, and we’re all guilty of that. I think I’m just as guilty as anybody.”
DW: In the book you spend time addressing how we are genetically predisposed to be anxious or more secure in terms of our personalities….
MH: “Let me put that in a political context. There’s research out there which argues that people are genetically predisposed to be conservative or liberal. So we might think that we’re being ‘rational actors’ in our decision-making, when in fact we have to thank Mom and Dad for the genes we have and how resistant or open we are to new ideas. That doesn’t mean that ideas are in plaster…some things can be malleable, but you do have your parents to thank to some degree for the way you see the world.”
“Hillary, on the other hand, doesn’t fit the model because we have so little data on female politicians. The sample sizes are so small. It’s not that researchers haven’t wanted to study women, but look at how few women hold seats in the Senate or the House. That makes it very difficult to come up with underlying traits or principles in female candidates which predict political success.“
DW: I’m thinking about the chapter in your book when you address the early menstrual cycles in young girls. Am I wrong when I interpret that politically? If I say, here’s evidence that by slashing the national safety net for the country’s poor we’ve created a destabilized society which is evident in the form of earlier periods?
MH: “I think we can differentiate between two things. Number one are the averages. So, yes—on average—girls are experiencing puberty (and much of what comes with that) earlier. But number two has to do with the individual differences. What do those look like within the population? What you see then is that some girls are transitioning much, much earlier, but others…not as much. That chapter deals with those individual differences rather than the average overall, and when it comes to that, most researchers feel this has to do with parental availability and responsibility.”
DW: So basically I’m guilty of what you’ve explained to me: I read that chapter and contorted it to support my own biases. Since I believe we have been wrong to dismantle the national safety net, I saw your evidence in the chapter as proof I was right.
MH: “Yes, you did…but welcome to being human, because we all do that. But I think it’s good to embrace that part of ourselves and even celebrate it because it raises awareness. The big idea in the book is the idea that our minds are fallible. So fallible that we believe we think logically about the world, when the reality is that we don’t. And if people can come away after reading The Tell with that message in mind, then I think that’s a win.”
DW: And again…this is helpful during election years.
MH: “Liberals walk away from conservatives after a political argument thinking, ‘What the hell are they thinking? How can they think like that?’ But those conservatives are walking away from the same conversation thinking the same thing about their liberal friends. Realizing that is very humbling.
DW: Much like teenagers who think their parents are off-base and vice-versa.
MH: “Yes. To use a similar example, most people believe that when the last child leaves home to go to school or work the ‘empty-nest’ parents are unhappy…maybe even in some type of mourning. But that’s completely a myth. The research actually says that those parents haven’t been happier since before they first got married. When they started having kids, their marital happiness went down. We have been conditioned to think that having children makes us happier, but that’s not true. The ‘empty-nest syndrome’ is a myth. A Texas study asked people to carry devices they could use to periodically rate their happiness as they went about their days, and what the results found was that people who were with their kids were about as happy as people doing house chores.”
DW: So I’m not a disturbed parent then when I fondly look forward to my kids moving out.
MH: “I think knowing this information can have a meaningful impact on our lives. When people go through the stress of raising children, they can realize that what they’re feeling is actually pretty normal.”
DW: Another issue affecting the political landscape is the evolving definition of what it means to be gay, lesbian, trans-sexual, and so forth. You delve into that in your book, but I want to ask you: do you think that the increased visibility of gay and lesbian figures in the media and on television has contributed to our increased acceptance in mainstream society?
MH: “Scientifically I can’t say, but I think that if you look at the literature in general then there’s a case to be made that having roles models who are positive, strong, independent-thinking…all these things we value in society in general…when displayed by people who are gay…that shatters the stereotype which are still operating in people’s minds. So I believe that these shows are powerful counterweights to how we think. But what the data does show is that changing these attitudes takes time…it’s been a decade-and-a-half since Ellen advanced this conversation.”
DW: So let’s look at what is evolving at a much faster rate instead. You write a passage in your book describing how people in power—particularly the very wealthy—conduct themselves around other people. When you observe Donald Trump, do you see this pattern in him?
MH: “I can’t say that I’ve formally analyzed Trump’s behavior, so these are impressions. I want to make that clear. That said, you can see some non-verbal behaviors which are indicative of a higher socio-economic class.”
DW: Such as?
MH: “Lack of eye contact. When somebody’s talking to you, and your eyes are off to the far wall or the ceiling…making eye-contact only once in a while because it’s not that important to you. And, in the case of Trump, his posturing when he takes the stage, when he’s on the stage, when he’s giving interviews…you see a lot of hard leaning in and visible arm and hand gestures. What you don’t see is the diminutive mannerisms in other candidates. What you see are movements that are taking up space—emotionally and physically. Those behaviors take over the conversation. Is it wrong that he has these behaviors associated with people in high-SES or high-power…? Not necessarily. But his mannerisms are nonetheless associated with that group.”
MH: “I want to make this point, too…you see the exact same thing among people we work with and among our friends as well. Look at relationships between students and teachers: there’s a power differential there, no matter how much we might try to downplay that. As a high-power person, a teacher probably gives off different non-verbal behaviors than he does when he’s among his friends.”
DW: What does that mean?
MH: “It means that this analysis is not about Trump, and it doesn’t suggest he’s unique. It only suggests that he’s like any of us when we’re engaging with people who we perceive are on a different level of power and status.”
DW: Your epigraph for chapter nine quotes Edward L. Flom who says: “One of the hardest tasks of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you’re perceived to be by others.” In my own notes I wrote: “I really hate this.” And I do. I am so tired of hearing warnings and admonitions from my own bosses who keep saying that “perception is reality.” When I hear that, I think to myself: “Except when it’s not…which is most of the time.” Do you think politicians exploit this fallacy?
MH: “Skilled politicians do. Politicians who want to influence people understand that this has an impact which is why they spend so much time polishing themselves—sometimes physically. Because they’re responding and interacting with millions of people each time they go out. And when they’re engaged in elections that come down to a single percentage point, or even half of a percentage point, those things matter a great deal.”
MH: “But when it’s more personal, among you or me the experience is different because we typically resent being misperceived. And that causes difficulty and friction. I mean you have the Al Rokers who come off as jolly, happy, nice people—and then you have other people whose faces cast a different impression. This could also apply to behavior, how our language comes across…”
DW: Such as the “resting bitch-face” expression I hear mentioned often.
MH: “I was about to mention resting bitch-face…there’s some evidence that this does affect how people are treated. And that works the other way, too—people with pleasant expressions come off as just the nicest people in the world. In fact, it’s hard not to like these people even after barely talking to them.”
DW: This segues to your chapter on politics, and the way we choose our leaders. You spend much of it detailing how we make choices based on facial structure and the perceived appearance of competence. Given that we have some…how do I say this…visually interesting figures running for the White House, how do candidates such as Trump, Hillary Clinton, and others fit with the results of this research?
MH: “Because Trump has been historically outside the political establishment, there are variables which cannot be accounted for in the research. He does fit the data in the sense that a vast amount of studies focus on white males in the political system, and most of the factors which the research observes—competency, power, etc.—are characteristics that, from my perception, he carries. Interestingly enough, I’m sure that within a year or two of the election’s conclusion, research will run studies testing Trump’s perceived confidence, powerfulness, and likability against other candidates and people.”
DW: And Hillary?
MH: “Hillary, on the other hand, doesn’t fit the model because we have so little data on female politicians. The sample sizes are so small. It’s not that researchers haven’t wanted to study women, but look at how few women hold seats in the Senate or the House. That makes it very difficult to come up with underlying traits or principles in female candidates which predict political success. So she’s more of the anomaly when it comes to the research. Then you add her reputation and her long-established history as First Lady, a US Senator, and as Secretary of State, and all of that makes her even more so. That means that when you try to use this research to make a prediction of a Trump vs. Hillary race, the data is largely ‘agnostic’ because they bring in so many variables.
DW: In fairness, your research concentrates on the faces of people which test subjects wouldn’t recognize.
MH: “Right. And all of the studies do take naïve subjects. One of the coolest studies in that chapter of The Tell…if not in the book altogether…is one where very young Swiss children looked at images of French parliamentary candidates and could predict who would win with 70% accuracy.”
DW: I’m thinking about the late Neil Postman’s work in Amusing Ourselves to Death. There’s the chapter where explains that Americans living in the early 19th century wouldn’t have recognized someone like James Polk (because of limited imagery in newspapers), but they would have been intimately familiar with his words and his policies. Fast-forward to today, and we can visually recognize Barack Obama, but even Americans who support him may not be very well versed on his policy stances.
MH: “That’s why voters, who when it comes to actual policy matters, operate from ignorance and fill in the holes with perception—things which really don’t matter that much.”
With each new “Super Tuesday,” with each round of primary voting and desk-war punditry on television, I find myself thinking about Hertenstein’s words. It’s not a stretch, by any means to say that if Americans would set aside the tendency to heuristically inform themselves and actually learn where all the candidates stood we presumably would be looking at two very different faces on our computer and TV screens. But Americans don’t do that. Perhaps when Hertenstein wrote The Tell three years ago, he anticipated that our inability to make rational leadership decisions would bring us to this point. Perhaps he didn’t. Either way, what Matt Hertenstein describes in his book is world where people face crucial decisions by going with their instincts. What a world that has created.