Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

The Top-Down View of the Democratic Primaries

How politics showcases our tendency to see the world as we wish to see it.
Now that the presidential primary season that wouldn't end has ended, now that we've had a few weeks for the tempers and tensions within the Democratic party to subside at least somewhat, can we all agree that there are few domains better than politics for demonstrating the top-down manner in which people often perceive the world?

We like to think that we see the world precisely as it is. We fancy ourselves social perceivers untainted by bias or preconceived notions, even as we acknowledge the prevalence of such foibles among our peers. As far as we're concerned, we make decisions and take positions in a bottom-up fashion: we impartially weigh all the relevant evidence before forming a higher-level preference, ideological stance, or group affiliation. So we believe that our opinions about a woman's right to privacy and when a human life begins are what dictate our position on abortion, not vice versa.

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But we're clearly not operating in this bottom-up manner much of the time, as politics so often demonstrates. It's now a month since the Democratic National Committee's heated meeting concerning how to deal with the delegations from Florida and Michigan, two states that moved their primaries earlier in the season than party rules allowed. With this bit of perspective, let's review the positions staked out by the Clinton and Obama camps before, during, and in the aftermath of the meeting:

• Clinton supporters argued that the DNC's refusal to seat full delegations was an example of disenfranchisement, a clear subversion of the will of the voters in Florida and Michigan as well as the basic democratic principle to count every vote.

• Obama supporters argued that the rules of the game were known by all when the primary season began, and that it wouldn't be fair to allocate delegates based on these votes several months later, what without a full campaign in Florida and with Obama's name not even on the Michigan ballot.

Mind you, these weren't just the arguments of the campaign staffs themselves, who are paid to endorse and spin a particular perspective. No, if you talked to voters who supported Clinton or Obama in the weeks before (and just after) the DNC meeting, many of them, too, were quite avid in their endorsement of one of the positions above.

Were these bottom-up perspectives? That is, were Clinton and Obama supporters objectively assessing the facts on the ground and arriving at rational responses accordingly? Of course not. Like a savvy attempt at a mathematical proof or an activity-book maze, they were working backwards from their desired endpoint, in this instance the outcome that most benefited their candidate. Not that most Clinton or Obama supporters would have admitted or even realized that they were doing this, as heartfelt and earnest as they had become in their evaluation of the controversy.

But to suggest that these were bottom-up processes is to suggest that had you, one year ago, presented Democratic voters with a hypothetical primary scenario mirroring recent events, those individuals destined to become Clinton supporters would have, even then, perceived the scenario as a clear example of disenfranchisement. By the same token, so, too, would the future Obama supporters have been strong supporters of the sanctions against Florida and Michigan one year ago. Highly unlikely! It is difficult to believe that Democratic voters' endorsements of "count every vote" and "rules are rules" one year ago would have predicted their candidate support in 2008, in true bottom-up fashion.

After all, many Obama supporters (including, I assume, the candidate himself) were on the other side of the "count every vote" argument after the 2000 election in Florida, a parallel not lost on Clinton and her supporters. And the Clinton camp (including, again, the candidate herself) aren't off the hook either—where was the righteous outrage when the decision was first made to exclude the Florida and Michigan delegations?

Of course, those on the other side of the political aisle are hardly immune to such top-down processes themselves. Going back again to the wake of the Bush/Gore 2000 election, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans were suddenly willing to ask a federal court to impinge upon state rights, in this case Florida's decision to call for a state-wide recount. Does anyone really believe that Republicans and Democrats in 1999 would have had had widely discrepant opinions about human versus machine recounts, a year before the issue became central to the election outcome in 2000?

And don't forget about the five conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court Justices who were suddenly swayed by this appeal for intervention in a state election when a Republican electoral victory was on the line. It's a decision that one of its supporters, Justice Antonin Scalia, is hardly eager to discuss, much less relive. In perhaps the best demonstration yet that we often make decisions from the top on down—with ideology and affiliation dictating how we see the facts on the ground, not vice versa—Scalia recently dismissed a question about the case by saying, "Get over it; it's so old by now." This from the famous originalist, who argues that the words of the Constitution must be interpreted in a manner consistent with their original meaning from over 230 years ago!

Of course, none of these examples should surprise the well-read psychologist. A half-century ago, Hastorf and Cantril showed Dartmouth and Princeton students film of a football game between their schools. Princeton students were twice as likely as their counterparts to think that the rough play during the game was started by the Dartmouth squad. The Dartmouth students reported seeing half as many penalties committed by their team as did the Princeton students.

Presidential primaries... Ivy League football games... driver arguments over traffic right-of-way... different people often see the same "reality" very differently, and these differences are more attributable to top-down processes of perception and decision-making than we typically recognize.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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