Monday, September 17, 2012

Electoral Choice: Common Assumptions Challenged

In this TED video, Sheena Lyengar makes a presentation about the art of choosing. She focuses on three assumptions and then applies empirical research to see how the assumptions stand to reason and facts.

First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one that makes the choice.
Second assumption: the more choice results in the best choice.
Third assumption: you must never say no to choice.

Lyengar refutes all three assumptions.

The first assumption is refuted based on evidence that individuals from different cultures make the best choice when they are told what to choose, and in other situations, individuals make the best decision when collaborating with others. 

The second assumption is refuted based on evidence that individuals from different cultures make the best choice with less choice, and in some instance with more choice. For example, individuals in society with less choice have difficulty dealing with numerous choices, and consequently the numerous choice diminishes the quality of choice through confusion etc.

The third assumption is refuted based on evidence that individuals in different cultures response to having choice and not having choice. Individuals who did not have choice (in certain situations) were better off than individuals that did.

However, Lyengar does not draw on any examples from the political sphere. What can be learned from her research and perspective?

At the kernel of democracy, the people decide who governs them; the people have a choice through their votes. Yet, for example, in the United States, Americans have no choice in who are their President and Vice-President; these persons are determined by the Electoral College. Should Americans choose their President and Vice-President? Can a democracy be a democracy when people are told who governs them at the executive level of government?

In some democracies, there are many political parties like in the Netherlands which are competitive. In other democracies like in the United States, there are only two competitive parties. What is the optimum political choice? The FDA believes that a fair and equitable electoral process should encourage political participation, and that whatever political parties are competitive in that playing field so be it. However, if the electoral process is unfair and inequitable, then electoral choice is being reduced by process deficiency rather than the voice of the people.

In some elections, there may be no viable choice, and some voters say no to voting because they do not want to support a candidate that does not represent their views/beliefs or they do not want to choose the lesser evil. (Choosing the lesser of the evil still results in evil.) In the case of the U.S. presidential electoral system, Americans as mentioned have no choice in who their President and Vice-President are. Apparently, the American founding fathers distrusted democracy and the voice of the people, but why should Americans trust a small group of Electoral College electors?

Sheena Iyengar: The art of choosing (TED speech transcript):

.... First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It's called "being true to yourself." But do all individuals benefit from taking such an approach to choice? Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies in which we sought the answer to this very question. In one study, which we ran in Japantown, San Francisco, we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children into the laboratory, and we divided them up into three groups.

The first group came in, and they were greeted by Miss Smith, who showed them six big piles of anagram puzzles. The kids got to choose which pile of anagrams they would like to do, and they even got to choose which marker they would write their answers with. When the second group of children came in, they were brought to the same room, shown the same anagrams, but this time Miss Smith told them which anagrams to do and which markers to write their answers with. Now when the third group came in, they were told that their anagrams and their markers had been chosen by their mothers. (Laughter) In reality, the kids who were told what to do, whether by Miss Smith or their mothers, were actually given the very same activity, which their counterparts in the first group had freely chosen.

With this procedure, we were able to ensure that the kids across the three groups all did the same activity, making it easier for us to compare performance. Such small differences in the way we administered the activity yielded striking differences in how well they performed. Anglo-Americans, they did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them, as compared to when it was chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers. It didn't matter who did the choosing, if the task was dictated by another, their performance suffered. In fact, some of the kids were visibly embarrassed when they were told that their mothers had been consulted. One girl named Mary said, "You asked my mother?"
In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice, second best when they chose for themselves, and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith. A girl named Natsumi even approached Miss Smith as she was leaving the room and tugged on her skirt and asked, "Could you please tell my mommy I did it just like she said?" The first-generation children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents' approach to choice. For them, choice was not just a way of defining and asserting their individuality, but a way to create community and harmony by deferring to the choices of people whom they trusted and respected. If they had a concept of being true to one's self, then that self, most likely, [was] composed, not of an individual, but of a collective. Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one's own preferences. Or, you could say that the individual's preferences were shaped by the preferences of specific others.

The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others. When, in contrast, two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another's success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships. Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.

The second assumption which informs the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice. So bring it on, Walmart, with 100,000 different products, and Amazon, with 27 million books and with -- what is it? -- 15 million date possibilities now. You will surely find the perfect match. Let's test this assumption by heading over to Eastern Europe. Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly communist countries, who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society. One of the most interesting revelations came not from an answer to a question, but from a simple gesture of hospitality. When the participants arrived for their interview, I offered them a set of drinks: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite -- seven, to be exact.

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard. "Oh, but it doesn't matter. It's all just soda. That's just one choice." (Murmuring) I was so struck by this comment that from then on, I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas, and I asked them, "How many choices are these?" Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda. When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices -- juice, water and soda. Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand. You know, research shows repeatedly that we can't actually tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Of course, you and I know that Coke is the better choice.

For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is. Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better, and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters and so every choice matters. But for Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice before they could protest that they didn't know how to swim. When asked, "What words and images do you associate with choice?" Grzegorz from Warsaw said, "Ah, for me it is fear. There are some dilemmas you see. I am used to no choice." Bohdan from Kiev said, in response to how he felt about the new consumer marketplace, "It is too much. We do not need everything that is there." A sociologist from the Warsaw Survey Agency explained, "The older generation jumped from nothing to choice all around them. They were never given a chance to learn how to react." And Tomasz, a young Polish man said, "I don't need twenty kinds of chewing gum. I don't mean to say that I want no choice, but many of these choices are quite artificial."....

This brings me to the third, and perhaps most problematic, assumption: "You must never say no to choice." To examine this, let's go back to the U.S. and then hop across the pond to France. Right outside Chicago, a young couple, Susan and Daniel Mitchell, were about to have their first baby. They'd already picked out a name for her, Barbara, after her grandmother. One night, when Susan was seven months pregnant, she started to experience contractions and was rushed to the emergency room. The baby was delivered through a C-section, but Barbara suffered cerebral anoxia, a loss of oxygen to the brain. Unable to breathe on her own, she was put on a ventilator. Two days later, the doctors gave the Mitchells a choice: They could either remove Barbara off the life support, in which case she would die within a matter of hours, or they could keep her on life support, in which case she might still die within a matter of days. If she survived, she would remain in a permanent vegetative state, never able to walk, talk or interact with others. What do they do? What do any parent do?

In a study I conducted with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali, American and French parents were interviewed. They had all suffered the same tragedy. In all cases, the life support was removed, and the infants had died. But there was a big difference. In France, the doctors decided whether and when the life support would be removed, while in the United States, the final decision rested with the parents. We wondered: does this have an effect on how the parents cope with the loss of their loved one? We found that it did. Even up to a year later, American parents were more likely to express negative emotions, as compared to their French counterparts. French parents were more likely to say things like, "Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much. He gave us a new perspective on life."

American parents were more likely to say things like, "What if? What if?" Another parent complained, "I feel as if they purposefully tortured me. How did they get me to do that?" And another parent said, "I feel as if I've played a role in an execution." But when the American parents were asked if they would rather have had the doctors make the decision, they all said, "No." They could not imagine turning that choice over to another, even though having made that choice made them feel trapped, guilty, angry. In a number of cases they were even clinically depressed. These parents could not contemplate giving up the choice, because to do so would have gone contrary to everything they had been taught and everything they had come to believe about the power and purpose of choice.

In her essay, "The White Album," Joan Didion writes, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the idea with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience." The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much: freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says, "You can have anything, everything." It's a great story, and it's understandable why they would be reluctant to revise it. But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes, and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways.

Americans have so often tried to disseminate their ideas of choice, believing that they will be, or ought to be, welcomed with open hearts and minds. But the history books and the daily news tell us it doesn't always work out that way. The phantasmagoria, the actual experience that we try to understand and organize through narrative, varies from place to place. No single narrative serves the needs of everyone everywhere. Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long....

Question for Readers:

Should electoral choice be limited arbitrarily by elected politicians or by the voice of the people through a fair and equitable playing field for political parties?

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