Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Who am I? Who are you? Who are Barack Obama and John McCain?

Situations matter when evaluating people.

The focus of the Presidential Elections in the United States has now narrowed to Barack Obama and John McCain. The American electorate is being bombarded with messages from the media, the blogosphere, and the campaigns. Some of these messages are designed to give us information about policies that we can expect Obama and McCain to carry out if elected. Most of them, however, are focused on helping people decide who these men are. Their character is expected to be crucial for people's decisions

I was thinking about the election when reading a paper by Elanor Williams and Tom Gilovich in the current issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. This paper focuses on the information people use to make judgments about themselves and others.

The message of this paper is quite simple. When we think about our own character, and we want to make predictions about who we are, we think both about our past actions and our beliefs about what we will do in the future. So, even if you have not always been a great student in the past, if you plan to study harder in the future, then you may think of yourself as a better student than your past actions might dictate.

In contrast, when you make assessments about others, you focus primarily on their past actions, and not on their future goals. That is, when assessing others, past actions are the predictor you use for future returns. So, if someone hasn't been a good student in the past, you assume they will continue to be a poor student, even if you know that they plan to do better in the future.

I think this asymmetry between self and others has an impact on the way people assess candidates who change their opinion on issues over time. First, let's think about ourselves for a moment. I know of almost nobody who has never changed their opinion on any topic ever. Most of us know that we base our opinions on the information we have available to us at a given moment as well as our current life situation. For example, when I saw the movie Rebel without a Cause for the first time, I was about 17, and I thought that the character played by James Dean was about the coolest guy ever. When I saw the movie again in my mid-30's as a parent, I thought he was a short-sighted idiot. I recognized that my situation had changed, and so my perspective had changed as well.

When we evaluate political candidates, we treat them like we treat most other people. We assume that their past actions are the primary predictor of what they will do in the future. When they change their opinion, then, we make what psychologists call a dispositional inference. That is, they assume there was something about the person rather than something about their situation that caused them to change. (Notice that this differs from what people do about themselves. If you change your own opinion, you typically assume that there was something about your situation-like becoming a parent-that led to the change.)

So, when we evaluate other people, such as Barack Obama or John McCain, two things happen. First, we start by using their past actions to determine who we think they are. Then, when we get evidence that they changed their opinion, we assume that there is something about them rather than about their situation that led to the change of opinion. Often, this inference leads to charges of being a "flip-flopper" or perhaps being the sort of person who bases their opinion on the outcome of polls rather than based on principle.

An interesting thing happens, though, as someone begins to lean toward one candidate or the other. Your preferred candidate comes to be treated more like an extension of yourself than the less-preferred candidate. Thus, you are much more likely to make situational inferences about actions by your preferred candidate (something changed in his situation that led to the change in opinion) than for inferences about actions by your less-preferred candidate.

Now that you know about this tendency, you can correct it. When a candidate takes an action that you want to explain, recognize that your initial inclination is probably going to be to assume that something about that candidate caused the action. Go out of your way to consider the situational factors that might also have played a role. Presidential elections are far too important to let our biases in the way we evaluate people affect the outcome of our choice.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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