Prof Ho’s Practical Economist’s guide to choosing a President: Forget about the issues

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As presidential debate season approaches, the concerned citizen often will ask himself: how to choose a president. Here’s the secret:

Forget about the issues.

Yes, yes, that advice goes against every pious commentary about what Democracy and voting should be about. Yet piles and pile of social scientific evidence suggests that when it comes to understanding the issues, we the people don’t have a chance.

Behavioral economists and psychologists have identified dozens of common mistakes and mental shortcuts that impair our ability to rationally evaluate the merits on any particular policy. For example, confirmation bias is the finding that we tend to believe evidence that supports our preconceptions, and dismiss evidence that goes against them. Many conservatives tend to dismiss the science of climate change and the science of evolution, not because they are anti-science, but because they are predisposed to be against intrusive regulations and in favor of a moral system that accompanies a religious world view. In the same way, liberals are just as eager to dismiss scientific evidence when the science goes against their support for organic foods, or their fears regarding the safety of children vaccines.

Similarly, the fundamental attribution error causes us to ignore how a person’s environment shapes her decisions; instead we over-attribute a person’s successes or failures to her character rather than her environment. For example, economists mostly are agreed that presidents have relatively little influence on job creation and economic growth in the short term—both of which are largely determined by acts of Congress, history, and the broader economic environment, and yet we tend to attribute an economy’s successes or failures to the abilities of whoever happens to be in office at the time.

One might think that we should just educate people and correct these mistakes—I used to—but evidence finds that experts often exhibit greater biases than non-experts, and even the simple act of correcting a misconception, often makes that misconception stronger. In a recent experiment, people given evidence that something they believed is a misconception—e.g. that Obama is a Muslim or that vaccinations cause autism—will acknowledge the legitimacy of the evidence, but a week later, after the details of the correction are forgotten, become more convinced of their original false belief.

Furthermore, from personal experience, more knowledge often brings less clarity not more to an issue. As a former White House energy economist, I probably know as much about the arcane minutiae of fuel economy regulation and ethanol policy in the US as just about anyone. And yet, after spending years of study on economics and engineering, and countless hours immersed in thousands of pages of laws and regulations, I still feel inadequately informed to conclusively evaluate the merits of most proposals, even in this narrow domain. It seems crazy to me that those with a NY Times education feel qualified to second guest US Israel policy.

More importantly, even if we could get all voters up to speed on all the issues, economists generally believe that this would be wasteful and massively inefficient. Pollsters and statisticians know that there is no need to collect the opinions of every American when a smaller representative sample will do. Why expect 300 million Americans to spend years properly learning all the nuances of every policy when we can hire experts to do it. We don’t all go to medical school in order to make health decisions, we trust our doctors to do it. Why should we feel qualified to second guess our representative policymakers on troop withdrawal in Afghanistan or free trade agreements with South Korea?

So what is the alternative? Given the difficulties in finding a benevolent dictator, it is necessary to find a good way to elect leaders. My answer relies on other psychological evidence that shows there are some things people are relatively good at: evaluating someone’s character.

Research shows that with just a few thin slices of observation, we can often accurately assess attributes like a person’s teaching ability, personality, relationship status, or trustworthiness. Post-game analyses of presidential debates often devolve into discussions about nervous tics, sweaty brows, verbal miscues, awkward kisses, smug smiles, or confident demeanors. Pundits often decry these speculations as inconsequential, demanding instead that voters focus on issues. But maybe these cues are exactly what we should be looking for. Evolution has made humans really good at evaluating whether we can trust that stranger from the neighboring tribe; evolution has generally not selected for the ability to analyze economic policy or geo-political relationships.

So stop pretending like the issues matter and that you understand them. You don’t. Instead, try to see the politician for who he is, ideally meet the politician in person—even a handshake conveys lots of information. Vote, not based on issue; instead, vote on character, vote on values, vote for the person you trust most.