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Between Friends: Input from academia tweaks the election

MarionFranckW

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From page A9 | November 25, 2012 | Leave Comment

A tiny detail 24 paragraphs into a New York Times article on campaign strategy got me nodding my head.

“Academic ‘Dream Team’ Helped Obama’s Effort” by Benedict Carey revealed some of the advice from academic social scientists that helped Obama find new, supportive voters.

How do you get people to do things they haven’t done before, like vote? The paragraph that got my attention describes an early experiment by one of the Obama-team psychologists.

“Dr. (Robert) Cialdini and two colleagues tested how effective different messages were in getting hotel guests to reuse towels. The message ‘the majority of guests reuse their towels’ prompted a 29 percent increase in reuse, compared with the usual message about helping the environment. The message ‘the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels’ resulted in a 41 percent increase…”

Such a sign could, indeed, change my behavior.

When I’m in a hotel room reading a typical sign about the environment, sometimes I decide to reuse my towel and sometimes I don’t. I prefer getting a new towel, particularly if the hotel is not in a drought-stricken area. After all, I’ve paid for it.

But if I believed that the message about hotel guests were true and that half of the former inhabitants of my room were more environmentally conscious than I am, I would feel embarrassed. Those few words would be the feather on the scale that would tip me toward reusing my towel.

Apparently, the Obama campaign used a version of this strategy by telling people that their neighbors were planning to vote. I wish I had been aware of this approach in 2008 when I went door to door for Obama in Nevada. I knew that neighbors were voting, but I didn’t say so. My message could have been the feather that nudged new voters to the polls.

Obama’s so-called academic “Dream Team” of unpaid psychologists and other social scientists included several University of California faculty members, such as Craig Fox, a behavioral economist at UCLA, and Samuel L. Popkin a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

Their advice and the advice of others who called themselves COBS (consortium of behavioral scientists) helped the campaign find pockets of voters that turned the election toward Obama in unexpected parts of Ohio and Florida.

The Times article quotes Todd Rogers, a Harvard psychologist who was not on the Dream Team, who said, “In the way it used research, this was a campaign like no other. It’s a big change for a culture that historically has relied on consultants, experts and gurulike intuition.”

Democrats won in part because they believed in social science, believed in research and used this strategy. Republicans lost, in part, because they lacked this strategy, but their problem is bigger than that.

Too many Republican politicians have publicly scoffed at academia, particularly the liberal arts. A widely publicized example comes from Florida where about a year ago Gov. Rick Scott recommended cutting liberal arts funding at state colleges in favor of science and technology.

Of anthropology majors he said, “It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.”

Around the same time, incoming Florida State Senate President Don Gaetz told The St. Petersburg Times, “When the No. 1 degree granted is psychology and the No. 2 degree is political science, maybe before we ask $100 million more of taxpayers, we should redeploy what we have. That way we make sure we’re not sending graduates out with degrees that don’t mean much.”

Even political science doesn’t get his OK? Voices like these speak too loudly in the current Republican Party.

Where is William F. Buckley when the Republicans need him, the quintessential articulate conservative, a student of political science, history and economics when he was at Yale?

He died in 2008.

Instead, we hear from people like Adam Schaeffer who, during a 2010 Fox interview I watched said, “The Department of Education serves no purpose from what I can tell.”

Apparently, Schaeffer is not permanently tone deaf to the value of education, because voter turnout in Ohio and Florida got his attention. In the National Review Online (a branch of the publication founded by William F. Buckley), Schaeffer wrote two weeks ago, “The conservative/free-market movement and the Republican Party need to take social science seriously and catch up as quickly as possible on this front.”

He continued, “We need to move from the Era of Gurus into the Era of Science.”

He’s learning.

Perhaps there’s hope for the Republican Party, if their politicos and commentators stop correlating academia with snobbery and begin to look at the behavioral sciences as fields that are valid and helpful.

Would such a change be good news or bad news? From my perspective, the good news is that Republican politicians might support academic research, which is important to a lot of people here in Davis. The bad news is they might win more elections.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at marionf2@gmail.com

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