Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Kerry Cascade

Duncan Watts, a professor of sociology explains in "The Kerry Cascade" how a '50s psychology experiment can explain the Democratic primaries.

He says that the choice of Kerry as nominee is not the product of individual judgments by voters, but of a cascade of socially influenced decisionmaking as a result of the outcome of Iowa and New Hampshire - less than 1% of the electorate.

Watts recounts famous experiments in social psychology in which a room full of shills can surprisingly often influence a subject to reject the clear evidence of their senses. In the experiment Watts relates, the subject is shown lines which were plainly not equal in length. 30% of the subjects none-the-less went along with the decision of the group that the lines were equal.

In a similar, but more shocking, experiment subjects were introduced to a waiting room full of shills. The experiment simulated a building fire, including smoke pumped into the room. Many subjects, rather than sensibly fleeing the building, remained in the room because of the seeming unconcern of their fellow occupants. Rather than violate the social consensus to remain in the room, many subjects remained long enough that the fire would have resulted in their deaths.

This experiment shows that even if the decision has truly monumental consequences, social signals, such as the votes of Iowa and New Hampshire voters, can have distorting effects. What is perhaps that most remarkable aspect is that even when participants are confronted with the truth of how they were influenced, they will attempt to rationalize their conclusions with purportedly objective reasons.

This is exactly how voters are reacting to their selection of Kerry. They point to his experience, or his electability, his veteran status, his medals, his foreign policy positions, whatever. The truth is that these are simply justifications for a socially determined decision made for one reason only: an irrational social cascade. There is a name for such a trend - a fad.

There is no basis for the choice of Kerry over any other candidate (well, except maybe Sharpton...), and we would be giving the similar justifications for our votes had the cascade lined up behind any of the other candidates, including Dean.


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