First, I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong. About a month ago, I published a column about what I called the lazy voting epidemic. People use gut-checks, self-identification and emotional appeals to dictate their vote — and that can cause real problems when it comes to the outcome of emotionally charged elections.
I think I identified a valid issue there. What I got wrong was the nature of that issue and its implications. Fundamentally, a gut-check isn’t some sort of malicious moral failure — it’s a heuristic. It’s not something we can eliminate, but it is something we can work around.
I want to run through something I call the confidence game. This thought experiment poses a simple question: How much information does one have to know to be mostly confident about a stance on a real-world issue?
The example I like to point to is the economy. Economics is an incredibly complex discipline, and understanding economic policy requires an enormous amount of information about the function of markets, international trade, monetary policy and human behavior. Well-respected economists with decades of experience diverge massively on the merit of relatively simple pieces of policy, and consensus in the field is much rarer than, say, in most of the physical and natural sciences.
Now, say you’re a voter trying to decide on whether Donald Trump weakening trade agreements will improve your job prospects and wages. How much do you have to know? First, you have to know about the effects that import and export tariffs have on labor markets. You have to know about the structure of various world economies — are trade deals causing unemployment in your industry, or are more fundamental shifts in the global economy to blame? On top of all that, to effectively parse this information you probably need some sort of working knowledge of modern history and research in the social sciences. The homework quickly begins to pile up.
If you’re a college-educated professional with a lot of free time, there’s a good chance you already have the background information needed to make this kind of decision efficiently. But if your public education system was underfunded and neglected, and you didn’t have the wealth to go to college, this amount of research starts to look like an unreasonable task.
Now, take this stack of required reading and multiply it for each major issue in modern politics. Environmental science, foreign relations and even systemic racism must be understood through complicated webs of scholarship and history. Most Americans have busy lives and limited resources — doing this kind of research rigorously just isn’t feasible.
In this light, “gut voting” seems a lot more reasonable. Without a comprehensive body of facts, all a voter is left with is intuition and trust of a candidate’s public persona. All of us use these kinds of heuristics in our daily lives to navigate problems with limited information. Whether we’re deciding on dinner plans or choosing career paths, we tend to follow the lead of people we trust and the direction of our intuition. It’s basic human nature to tap into these kind of tools when the facts are limited. It’s a problem that can’t be avoided unless you rewrite the human genome.
This issue isn’t exactly new, and solutions for these sorts of problems have been proposed in the past. One of the most interesting is sortition: the idea that a small, representative portion of a population can be randomly selected to make political decisions. Voters are given more time and information to sort out issues of policy. This system would almost function like jury duty for legislation. Now, creating this would involve quite a bit of governmental restructuring, so we’re probably not going to see it implemented on a wide scale anytime soon. Still, we can push for it in local government, and starting a conversation about the structure of our democracy can only be a good thing.
A more immediate solution is for us to try and use better heuristics. We have to accept that sometimes we won’t have the information to make a fully informed decision, so we have to be aware of our biases and heed the ones that tend to work for us, rather than against us.
When we turn to personal experiences to inform us, let’s prioritize the marginalized people that may have less access to the public eye. When we trust the judgements of experts, let’s weigh nerdy, perhaps unattractive experience over slick, sexy rhetoric. And most of all, when we follow our emotions, let’s pick empathy over fear and bitterness. Of course, our awareness of the problem isn’t going to be enough to solve it. But it’s an important start.
AARON COOPER is a College freshman from Morristown, N.J., studying cognitive science. His email address is email@example.com. edu. “Aanarchy” usually appears every other Tuesday.