Tag Archives: psychology

academic research aesthetics expertise freedom Hobbes information density information design memory distortion Mitt Romney Ockham's Razor partisanship persuasion philosophy politics science and philosophy

Will the leaked Romney video really sink his campaign? I doubt it.

Oh man, I really have to find something geekier to write about.

Recently a video of Mitt Romney speaking at a fundraiser has been all over the web. It’s gotten a lot of attention because of claims that 47% of Americans are with President Obama “no matter what” because they “believe that they are victims”, “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them”, and “these are people who pay no income tax.”

I’ve seen a lot of blog comments and the like saying how this video is a huge problem for Romney, how this will turn the election against him, etc. Supposedly this is the secret message to the millionaires that, once out, will turn the 99% against Romney.

I don’t think that’s the case at all.

I think Romney is playing a totally different game. In fact, I don’t think he really believes the “47 percent think they are victims” talk at all, and he knows that he can count on the votes of huge numbers of people who are dependent on government benefits.

This is easy to demonstrate. For example, here’s an article showing that 8 of the top 10 states by percentage paying no income taxes are so-called red states, which vote Republican. Here’s a cool interactive map that shows in more detail where government benefit recipients live, by percentage and benefit type. Clearly that map covers a lot of Romney country.

This New York Times article from earlier this year spells it out in detail: many, many people voting for candidates who promise to slash benefits are currently dependent those same benefits. How can this be?

Some of those votes can be explained by sheer ignorance, but I bet most are explained by human psychology. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini writes about the most effective methods for influencing behavior – covering everything from how tupperware parties influence sales decisions to what convinced everyone to drink the koolaid in Jonestown.

One of the tools is called “liking”, specifically association. We want to link ourselves to positive events and disassociate from negative events. Cialdini’s examples mostly deal with the way people talk about sports teams (“we won” instead of “the team won”, etc.), but the same applied to political parties and other political groups. In fact, the more damage we feel to our self-image, the more likely we are to make these associations. So if a life-long Republican loses their job and is forced to live on unemployment, it makes sense if they stand in lock step with the party that’s demanding spending cuts, rather than changing their opinion.

Another related tool of persuasion is similarity. According to Cialdini’s research, we consistently like people who have similar opinions, background, etc. to ourselves, and we’re much more likely to be persuaded by someone we like. Salespeople are trained to find (or fake) similarities with their customers to get them to buy that car. What’s more, we don’t necessarily value objective similarities as much as similarities to who we think we are, or who we would like to be. If you want to change someone’s mind, appeal to their aspirational identity.

So I’m not sure that leaking this secret message to millionaires is that devastating to Romney’s campaign. In America, we are all millionaires who just happen to be facing some setbacks right now. In our heart of hearts, we’re all just one step away from being celebrities and rock stars.

When Romney is talking to millionaires, he knows he’s talking to a lot of thousandaires and nothingaires too. Are you “dependent upon government”? Do you believe you “are a victim”? Do you think you “are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it”? If you feel deeply that you aren’t that kind of person, then you’re mentally placing yourself in that room too, even if you can’t afford the $1000 donation (or whatever) to get in.

Note that I’m not saying that Mitt Romney, or the Republican party, has a monopoly on the use of these techniques, but I think it’s clear they are extremely good at using them, way better than the Democrats. It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters play against the Washington Generals.

I have my own political opinions, but my point with this blog post isn’t to convince you to vote one way or another. I just think this is a brilliant demonstration of how human psychology works, and how the psychology of persuasion is used to achieve very counterintuitive results in elections.

What do you think?

The information design and aesthics of five-year-old me

I recently came across something at my grandmother’s house – a drawing I made when I was five years old. Normally it would be more appropriate to post it on a refrigerator than a design and usability blog, but bear with me. The interesting thing about this crayon drawing is that it’s a representation of a real place – so we can see a little bit about how I saw my world at that age and how I tried to represent it.

Let’s look at this picture from three perspectives to find the good, the bad, and the ugly.

My house, according to 5-year-old me

The Good – Information Design

First, how well does this image convey information to the viewer?  Most of the time when we talk about information design we’re worried about accurate infographics, legible labels and structured documents.  Since this image was intended to represent a real-world place we can look at it the same way.

Young me apparently had an eye for color and texture. The red and black brick makes the house immediately recognizable – I bet that if I handed it to a stranger and lead them to the right street, they would pick out my parent’s house immediately. The barn to the right was my dad’s large shed, and the color scheme and pattern of the beams is pretty accurate.

My house, according to 5-year-old me When viewed as a thumbnail, it’s clear this image actually has a fair degree of information density – and this is years before I had read anything by Edward Tufte. The viewer gets a good number of identifying characteristics in a small space, including architectural style and building materials.  I had even included a bit of topography (the barn is uphill from the house and front yard).

The Bad – Artistic Aesthetics

Now let’s look at it from a more artistic point of view.  Aesthetics are subjective, so I like to take into account the intent of a piece if possible.  For this drawing, accuracy is the most immediate concern.  Not all art has to be photorealistic or even representative, but I have no doubt that young Jason was trying his hardest to draw the place exactly as it existed.

For an objective piece this has many errors and omissions.  For example, my parents’ house does indeed have a door, a number of additional windows, and a garage. The house is a ranch and my guess is that the shape shown here was influenced by the boxy, generic house shape that shows up in cartoons and childrens’ books.  The window in the barn was never actually there and the driveway shouldn’t reach all the way back to it, instead ending at the missing garage.

Note that everything is completely flat – there’s no notion of perspective. I can’t be too hard on kindergarten self on this point because even the Ancient Greeks and Romans never mastered linear perspective. It’s hard to believe, but the brilliant minds that designed and built the Parthenon did not understand that to accurately represent our three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, parallel lines should converge toward one or more vanishing points.

Classic photo of the Parthenon

The two human figures represented in the windows are trite, generic stick figures.  They show no emotion or individuality, and are poorly executed compared to the house and barn.  The green grassy ground ends abruptly to the left of the house leaving an unbalanced, awkward composition.  Overall I would have to say that this work was a failure, with some consideration given for the limit of the medium and the spotty recall of my five-year-old brain.

The (Potentially) Ugly – Childhood Development

Now for the analysis that is a little too close to comfort – where does this artwork put young me on the timeline of childhood development?  I remember getting a lot of praise for my drawings when I was little, but lately I’ve begun to notice that adults praise any mark a child puts to paper.  Was the foundation of my self-worth built upon patronizing indulgence?

Psychology researcher Viktor Lowenfeld mapped out childhood drawing development into stages by age.  Here’s a page illustrating some of the stages and here’s a great comparison between his stages and those of Betty Edwards of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain fame.

Lucky for my inflated ego, 5-year old me falls comfortably ahead of the curve.  The ground is defined as a flat line, and there’s a clear spacial relationship between objects.  Colors reflect the real world, especially when you take into account the limited Crayola palette.  This places 5-year-old me firmly in the Schematic stage of development, usually see at 7 to 9 years.

I should stop congratulating myself long enough to note that in this stage, size often reflects emphasis or importance.  The barn is much larger in this picture than in real life, and the stick figures are small and deemphasized.  Did the barn stand out in my mind simply because I spent most of my time in the back yard, or was it because that’s where my dad kept cool things like the sledge hammer and gas for the lawnmower?  Are the people small and anonymous to fit the window spaces, or do they reflect some lack of social development?

The effect of knowledge on accuracy and partisanship on distortion of memory of baseball statistics


In order to study the effects of expertise, time delay and partisanship on memory distortion, 34 college students watched a baseball game and then recalled statistics from the game directly after and again, one week later.  Two tests were performed.  In the first, subjects were grouped according to their reported expertise and experts were found to be more accurate than novices at recalling statistics.  In the second, subjects who reported partisanship toward one team did not consistently distort toward the their team.  Instead, distortions were mostly toward average numbers for individual statistics.  Distortion in this study seemed to be due to filling in of more generic ideas rather than emotional gratification.


Do people tend to distort hard-to recall information in their favor?  The literature so far says yes.  In Bahrick, Hall and Berger’s (1996) study, college students tended to distort memories of their high school grades upward.  This finding is attributed in part to more frequent rehearsals of positive content, but because students who got mostly A’s were much more likely to distort a forgotten grade to an A, some of this correlation may be due to reconstruction based on generic memories.  Their work dealt with the differences between quality-oriented and accuracy-oriented studies of memory, as suggested by Koriat and Goldsmith (1994).  This investigation follows their model of study to some degree.

Another related question must be asked: what is the affect of expertise and time on memory distortion?  Some research (Sanbonmatsu, Sansone & Kardes, 1991) has suggested that only moderate inferences are drawn shortly after initial processing of the information, and that stronger influences were made after an extended period of time.  Expertise also affected inferences, with people more knowledgeable in a subject area less likely to draw inferences about unknowns than novices.  The study, however, dealt with drawing conclusions based on a lack of knowledge rather than attempts at recall.

Recall of a baseball game based upon common statistics is a suitable area for exploring these questions.  Within just three innings, enough data can be collected to produce worthwhile results.  Subjects watching the same game in the same room will have very similar encoding conditions and statistics that have definite positive and negative directions for each team are easily identified.  Extensive statistics are kept on all baseball games, so accuracy is easily verified.  More importantly, a wide range of fans (who tie great value to their teams performance) and non-fans (who have less reason for distortion) for each team are easy to find.  It is believed that the emotional effect of the game will be magnified if a World Series game is used.

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