Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Bandwagon Effect

I expect you may hear a lot of stories like these-- basically, the press claiming that John McCain is more popular than the numbers show he is, or otherwise minimizing the importance or size of Barack's lead-- and to some of you it might not be obvious why those stories are out there.

I think the reason the distortions are being made is because of a well-known psychological characteristic of humans called "the bandwagon effect" that the Republican propagandists are aware of and are intentionally trying to exploit. You may recall that when you were in grade school, children in your class often ganged up to behave in a bad way, or to express belief in some answer to a question, when they should have known better (that is, that the behavior or answer was bad or wrong). You may even have been surprised at which particular children ultimately jumped on the bandwagon from time to time. It turns out that it's natural for people to want to do what "everyone else is doing"-- our psychology as a species tends to compel individuals more or less to follow the group. But figuring out when the unpopular answer is the better one takes rare discernment and personal psychological strength. So if it doesn't look like John McCain is at least kind of popular, it makes it unattractive in a very basic way for more people to decide to become McCain supporters. The press simply can't report frankly on McCain's unpopularity or on Obama's popularity (as long as a distortion won't be obvious to most of the audience) because otherwise McCain can't extend his support-- a lot of people won't want to become McCain supporters if they don't think a lot of other people support him, too.