Applaud Info, Not Agreement

Bryan Caplan makes the point:

Almost everyone takes this for granted, but it still freaks me out: Audiences in presidential debates applaud just because a candidate says something they agree with.  … Audiences are giving speakers powerful psychological incentives to conceal any information that challenges their beliefs. Why not just hold up big signs that say: "TELL US WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR"?


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  • Dave

    This argument takes the candidate’s policy positions as exogenous, when in fact policy positions are often endogenous to the campaign. It also assumes that the policy positions of other voters are exogenous to the campaign. Neither are true. The purpose of following a political campaign isn’t just to pick a candidate you agree with. The purpose is to end up with a candidate whose positions as closely as possible mirror yours, even if that requires changing his or her views. As a secondary goal, campaigns provide as good an opportunity as possible to influence the views of your fellow voters (because that’s about the only time most people pay attention to political matters). For both of those reasons, applauding when a candidate says something you particularly agree with makes perfect sense, as a signaling mechanism to both the candidate and other voters.

    On the other hand, applauding when a politician says something new and challenging makes no damn sense at all. If politicians were looking to say new and challenging things, they would be opening startup companies or writing novels, not running for office.

    Games change greatly when you iterate them…

  • Dave, I don’t see the relevance of whether positions are “exogenous” to the main point here. Why bother with calling the format a “debate” if it is just stating positions?

  • Dave

    So your problem is with the title??? I can firmly assure you that not one presidential “debate” has ever been used to actually settle an argument. Long before Lincoln-Douglas, presidential debates have been simultaneous alternating campaign commercials, not actual attempts to ascertain the truth-value of any given proposition. I assumed everyone knew this. As live campaign commercials, audience feedback is essential, and necessarily keyed to agreement, rather than intellectual curiosity.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    The information value of what a candidate actually thinks about any subject is tiny. Paying attention to that is, I feel, a kind of correspondence bias. Once elected, the candidate’s position on most issues will be determined by circumstances and by the politics of his party. Even if the candidate has known and heartfelt positions on some issues, little can be extrapolated from that (for example, Blair’s penchant for foreign humanitarian relief is well known – but try predicting how he would react to Iraq from that fact; the other variables and circumstances are just to numerous).

    In one way, applauding pronouncements you agree with is sensible – the candidate has left a hostage to fortune. He has changed the circumstances; it will be politically difficult for him to back away from his promise. This provides more information about his behaviour if elected than whatever his genuine feelings are.

  • This is not just in politics. You’re basically talking about all human interactions. Even in a scientific seminar, when I like to be challenged, I’m happy when the speaker uses my methods or has a way of thinking similar to mine, and I’m not happy if the speaker says that my methods are crap. Why? For one thing, I’m pretty sure my methods aren’t crap, and if the speaker thinks that, I suspect that his or her ideas aren’t going to be so great.

    It’s well known that it’s politic, in just about all settings, to say what the other person wants to hear. Given the rewards from doing so, perhaps a more interesting question is, why don’t people say what other people want to hear more often?

  • Dave, it is not so much the name, as that participants offer arguments instead of just making claims. More generally, we rarely see any speakers vigorously applauded for providing new info.

    Andrew, often we express dominance by disagreeing, and submission by agreeing, and so we disagree to try to signal dominance.

  • Andrew, I believe that there are risks involved in saying just what others want to hear when that deviates from the truth, perhaps most importantly because if the others find you out you get punished for the lie. And since small lies are more easily concealed, it’s a stable strategy to just say what others want to hear part of the time.