Howard Stern on Voter Rationalization

I don’t think Howard Stern has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but this piece was pretty well done.  He had one of his guys interview Harlem voters  asking first who they were voting for.  They would say Obama.  Then, the interviewer mentioned McCain’s policies, pretended they were Obama’s, and the interviewees thought these were great ideas.  That is, they would ask questions like this:  "Are you more for Obama’s policy because he’s pro-life, or because he thinks he our troops should stay in Iraq and finish this war?"  And they would say something like, ‘because he’s keeping the troops in Iraq’.

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  • curious

    does anyone doubt that we could just as easily find three white mccain supporters in rural ‘Merca who would enthusiastically back obama’s policies if they were labeled as mccain’s?

  • the0ther

    wow. i hope those people being interviewed were simply biased against disagreeing with the interviewer, rather than being that ignorant. but hey maybe they know something that i don’t, maybe paying any attention to politics is a waste of one’s time.

  • Matthew F.

    It’s easy to plant information given the ‘study’ design. It didn’t include any safe guards against bias. No control group, not a representative sample, nor did they ask other ‘races’ the same question. What about controlling for the interviwer? What if he was black instead?

    This is an unusually low quality post.

  • jay

    It’s an old media trick. You interview a lot of people, and then only play back the stupid responses. Bias by omission.

  • eric falkenstein

    I’m sure McCain supporters will find this funnier than Obama supporters, just as more Democrats find John Stewart funny because he makes fun of Bush a lot, but that has to do with the reader/listener’s biases more than the target. I’m sure it happens on both sides, there are major omitted variables to capture, and all sorts of methodological are issues raised, but this is Howard Stern, not James Heckman. It’s funny, and a nice anecdote of how we support our prejudices with arguments ex post (something that I think is done more cleverly, not necessarily less frequently, as one becomes more educated).

  • tim

    I would be very hesitant to suggest black people are supporting Obama due to race. Black people have traditionally voted Democrat by a large margin. In 2004, Kerry recieved 88% of black votes. In 2000, Gore got 90%. In 1992, Clinton got 83% (10/7% Bush/Perot respectively) and in 1996, 84% (12/4% Bush/Perot). I’m having trouble finding good poll numbers, but Obama seems to currently enjoy approximately 90% support from black voters. Even 95% would not be a very significant deviation from past trends, though.

    The question, then, is whether the interviewed voters are voting not along racial lines but along party lines. I would suggest that that is obviously true and has been true for black voters for a long time who, for whatever reason, are singularly turned off by the Republican party. I’d also suggest it’s true for most voters, who tend to be more influenced by the politics of personality than by actual issues.

  • This reminds me of the great old “Talking to Americans” segments of Canadian news satire show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in the late ’90s. The host, Rick Mercer, would basically walk around American places — including Harvard, IIRC — and make Americans look stupid and ignorant by saying absolutely asinine things that they would enthusiastically agree with. Oh, the ballyhoo from south of the border! The rage and complaints! Of COURSE you could find somebody that would say just about anything if you looked long enough! The segments must have been heavily edited! They must have persisted until they found just the right person to ask! Oh, the injustice! Oh, the manipulation! Horrors!

    …point being, (a) it’s true: people will agree with just about anything if there’s an enthusiastic interviewer and a camera in their face. God knows you don’t want to get in an argument with a stranger on TV. (b) Of COURSE there are less-informed Obama supporters out there. Have you seen the frothing wingnuts outside the McCain/Palin rallies, screaming “terrorist” and “Muslim”? Heck, Palin HERSELF doesn’t understand the privacy principle and Roe vs. Wade — she disagrees with her OWN policies IN REAL TIME.

    As Matthew F said: low quality post. Low-hanging fruit, guys. Balance this with a similar interview with some KKK members in South Backwater, KY, and maybe we’ll talk.

  • Unnamed

    If Stern wants to publish this, he’ll have to differentiate it from Cohen (2003), “Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I don’t know if it’s enough that he used Harlem residents instead of college students. The abstract:

    Four studies demonstrated both the power of group influence in persuasion and people’s blindness to it. Even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated position of one’s political party. This effect overwhelmed the impact of both the policy’s objective content and participants’ ideological beliefs (Studies 1-3), and it was driven by a shift in the assumed factual qualities of the policy and in its perceived moral connotations (Study 4). Nevertheless, participants denied having been influenced by their political group, although they believed that other individuals, especially their ideological adversaries, would be so influenced. The underappreciated role of social identity in persuasion is discussed.

  • Vladimir Slepnev

    In addition to voter rationalization, we see a lot of beautiful commenter rationalization right here in the comments. Guys, I get it, I can guess what party you support; anything else? 🙂

  • It seems that many of the commenters are complaining that McCain voters are stupid to and for that reason this is a bad post.

    I think this is a bad comment! Nowhere in the post does Falkenstein say “look how stupid Obama voters are!” If you feel this is the critique he is making, then you are merely trying to react to feeling attacked. The title of the post is “Voter Rationaliation” not “Anyone Who Votes For Obama is Stupid, whereas No One Who Votes for McCain is”.

    Yudkowsky wrote about what is happening here over a year ago. Political examples of bias are necessarily distracting. It is unlikely that a similar post about rationalization about the choice of which bubble gum to buy would be so…political.

  • Mike

    “does anyone doubt that we could just as easily find three white mccain supporters in rural ‘Merca who would enthusiastically back obama’s policies if they were labeled as mccain’s?

    Where did he single out black or pro-Obama voters? If you want to see bias, maybe you should look into the mirror.

    “nor did they ask other ‘races’ the same question.”

    Again, where did the post’s author mention race? Yet that’s what you read into it.

    Some of the comments in this post are pretty ironic, given that this is a site dedicated to overcoming bias. Are some of you even aware of your own?

  • William



    Don’t worry, Eric, some people actually understood the post.

  • John Maxwell

    There’s a reason why this country’s congress isn’t composed by the entire population. The reason is that average people aren’t informed enough to know what’s important in politics. This is not a bad thing–if you’re not a politician or a talking head, thinking about campaign finance reform is probably a waste of time. Ultimately, we elect politicians for superficial reasons, and it’s up to the politicians, not the people, to improve things.

    (If you’re a person who wants to improve things, and you either lack strongly-held political beliefs or have a history of changing yours, please become a politician!)

  • John Maxwell

    >Some of the comments in this post are pretty ironic, given that this is a site dedicated to overcoming bias. Are some of you even aware of your own?

    Well gee, it wouldn’t be a bias then now would it? A bias that you’re aware of is like a measurement error that you know exactly. Heh.

    For anyone who thinks they might have a noticed a hint of bias, Eliezer has something to say: “When you notice an error in yourself, this signals your readiness to seek advancement to the next level.” You should be happy if someone accuses you of being biased, not sad. There might be an opportunity for you to reach a more advanced level!

    Whenever I read something about some or other bias, there is often some part of my brain that says “Ooooh! But I’m not like that, I swear!” So it’s always great to be put in a situation where I can learn if I am like that. I would love to be part of a study like the one Unnamed mentioned, just because I’m so convinced that I wouldn’t succumb to group influence. And if I did? Well, I’d laugh at myself and think about how I can improve.

  • Scott

    A funny little segment, but not really anything new.

    The “Proof of Existence” for stupid people was completed some time ago. (TIC)

  • Matthew F.

    I am not partial to any party and don’t vote. To tease apart subtle behavorial differences requires more than what Stern did. That’s all I am saying.

  • komponisto

    Strongly second Slepnev, bobvis, and Mike.

    Politics really is the mind-killer.

    Of course you could find the same phenomenon among McCain supporters. Does anyone seriously think for a moment that the point of this post was “look how ignorant Obama’s voters are!”?

    The defensive reactions of some commenters are very telling — particularly in light of all the whining that we have heard from intellectuals about people voting for Republicans despite “agreeing” with Democrats’ policies. The point is, people are clueless about policy, period. Politics isn’t about policy — you might have heard?

  • curious

    Re: ‘Does anyone seriously think for a moment that the point of this post was “look how ignorant Obama’s voters are!”?’

    i’d *like* to think the post was intended with a little more subtlety. but that statement was the obvious message behind the howard stern segment.

  • Johnicholas

    This is described as “rationalization”, that is, irrationality.

    Politics wonks have a hard time sympathizing with people who favor candidates without knowing the issues well. However, it’s perfectly reasonable to say “I like and trust my friend, who is similar to me and has the same values as me, but pays more attention to politics. My friend says I should vote for So-and-So, so I will.”.

    If you favor a candidate, and don’t know the issues well, taking your candidate’s positions is reasonable.

  • Mick

    Check out the Newsweek article from a couple years ago. It pretty much says that no one really votes based on logic or reasoning, but because of emotional responses the candidate gives them

  • Expert mythmakers in battle (Stern and Obama). Yudkowsky and Hanson are frequently mythmakers (rather than empiricists) too, but don’t play at this level.

  • William S

    “for whatever reason, are singularly turned off by the Republican party.”
    The reason is pretty obvious when you think about it for more than a few seconds. The Republican strategy has, since 1966, been the “Southern Strategy”, by which I mean the sort of people who put Confederate flags out their window.

  • Way to sock it to those Greens, William.

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