Arnold Kling  

Brooks vs. Caplan

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David Brooks writes,

In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness. “People often act without knowing why they do what they do,” Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, noted in an e-mail message to me this week. “The fashion of political writing this year is to suggest that people choose their candidate by their stand on the issues, but this strikes me as highly implausible.”

... Each of us has an unconscious but consistent way of construing the world. Some of us light up when we see a candidate being intelligent, others when we see a candidate being friendly or sentimental. This is the mode we use every day to make sense of the world.

My own intuition is that this unconscious cognition is pretty effective. People are skilled at judging character. And through reading, thinking and close observation, they can educate their unconscious to make smarter and finer distinctions.

Bryan Caplan, in The Myth of the Rational Voter, takes pains to debunk the "miracle of aggregation," which is the theory that individual irrationality is overcome by the wisdom of crowds. Brooks gives us what one might call the "miracle of emotional intelligence," in which individual cognitive ignorance is overcome by people's intuitive judge of character. I think that the miracle of emotional intelligence is no less of a wishful-thinking fairy tale than the miracle of aggregation.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
TGGP writes:

I don't think Brooks is even conscious enough of the Caplan critique to characterize this as "versus".

BGC writes:

On the other hand - with the benefits of hindsight, it looks to me as if the electorate get the choice between two candidates right much more often than chance.

This is not evidence, just my impression.

I think bimodal choices are fairly robust, anything more than two to choose between and there are problems...

And of course, both candidates or parties may be bad. And it may not much matter about the choice. But I feel the electorate usually chooses between them wisely more often than not (in many elections there are no really burning issues - the current US presidential election being an example).

And I am fairly certain the electorate's decision is usually better than the decision of the intellectual elite. When the UK electorate chose Margaret Thatcher three times in a row against the united opposition of the intellectual class, the electorate was right - with hindsight.

Of course the electorate can mess-up - electing Adolf Hitler for example. But then the German intellectual/ expert class mostly supported Hitler too, so they would not have done any better.

Dr. T writes:

Authors and pundits such as Mr. Brooks, should avoid sweeping generalizations. I, for one, do not make emotional, intuitive decisions about candidates and rationalize my choices afterwards. I learn about the candidates and decide who, in my judgment, will do the most good (or cause the least harm). Looks, age, race, ethnicity, etc. have no direct effect on my decision-making. I realize that most voters are less rational and objective, but not all voters.

Andy writes:

1. Most humans make emotional, intuitive decisions about most things and then come up with post hoc rationalizations about their decisions. There is no reason to think voting is different.
2. Most people I know are unable to vote for a politician they prefer; they vote against the politician they prefer least.

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