Arnold Kling  

The Affiliation Heuristic

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It seems to come up a lot in the discussions of Cato. Cato has worked really hard to cultivate a favorable/neutral reputation with liberal intellectuals. "We're not the religious, homophobic, xenophobic right-wing crazies. We're the anti-war, anti-Fed, anti-pot-law right-wing crazies."

I would prefer to have a favorable/neutral reputation with liberal intellectuals myself. But I am wary of being manipulated because of that desire.

I am not a big believer in the affiliation heuristic. I think that people say that they use the affiliation heuristic a lot more than they actually do.

For example, when right-wingers say we need to examine President Obama's past affiliations with radicals, are they sincerely using those affiliations to evaluate his policy stance? If so, that would mean that they do not have enough information about President Obama's current policies to evaluate them, and instead they need to draw inferences based on his past affiliations. Really?

Similarly, when Ezra Klein says that he respects the Cato Institute, is he actually using the affiliation heuristic when he reads Cato policy papers? If so, that would mean that he is incapable of evaluating policy papers on their merits, but instead he must draw inferences based on scholarly affiliations. If you believe that, then I have a bridge across the Charles River I would like to sell you.

Regardless of the affiliation heuristic's actual merits (and I am pretty negative on it), I am offering a meta-heuristic. I am saying that when you see someone invoking the affiliation heuristic, your standard presumption should be that they are being hypocritical and manipulative. (Is that Robin Hanson whispering that this is an uninteresting statement, because, hypocritical and manipulative is what humans are all about?)

Readers are welcome to submit instances in which they have observed someone sincerely invoking the affiliation heuristic. Examples of the form "I used it sincerely when..." will be disregarded, because with p=1 you are not telling the truth. Examples of the form "Kling used the affiliation heuristic when..." will be particularly interesting, and I bet it turns out that they prove my point.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
frankcross writes:

I don't know why you think Cato cares about this liberal intellectual opinion. It is possible, just by being fair and open-minded, that one would be respected by a group, even if one were indifferent to that group

Ryan P writes:

See paragraphs 2-5. This is someone using the affiliation heuristic in a completely sincere and completely valid way. (If you'd like to tell me that you have expertise in all areas in which you have opinions, even weak ones, I'd like to remind you that you're only supposed to try to con other people.)

John Palmer writes:

I don't know if this qualifies. It seems more like a blatant ad hominem to me:

Several years ago, I was talking with a person who strongly supports government action to deal with what he believes to be a serious global warming problem. When I questioned him and showed him some articles, he said of one, "Well, that was done by Cato, a right-wing group" and dismissed it on those grounds alone.

RJB writes:
"If so, that would mean that he is incapable of evaluating policy papers on their merits, but instead he must draw inferences based on scholarly affiliations."

Most successful academics knows they can't evaluate every paper "on it's merits" by themselves. Even if I had the expertise (which I don't, outside my own narrow area) and the time (who does?), I am only one person. So even when I have the time to read a paper carefully, I'm still very cautious about letting my own judgment completely trump the many people that have reviewed and commented on a paper before it was published.

If a particular paper hasn't been vetted, I will indeed rely on the author's affiliation. Someone who has been at a strong institution has passed a number of stages of vetting over the average quality of their work.

I don't know much about the quality of Cato, so I wouldn't rely more on a document because the author is at Cato. But I don't think it is surprising or insincere that Ezra Klein would rely on institutional affiliation to add to his own personal (and imperfect) assessments of quality, much as I do for my fellow academics.

MG writes:

Re-examining an office holder's past affiliations (or for that matter past actions), when those affiliations or actions have been denied by the office holder (or recalled differently from actual reality) does add new information -- about the office holder's "straightforwardness" or just plain honesty. It may also allow you to better handicap his/her commitment to current policy stances, especially those that appear to conflict with those previous affiliates.

steve writes:

I think I disagree. I do believe there is value in examining affiliations especially when it comes to politicians running for office. Maybe not so much in evaluating the merits of particular proposed policies, but rather in reading between the lines of a politicians stated intentions. It is common knowledge that many politicians will pander to the wings during a primary and then head for the center during the general election. How can you tell which way they will govern? Well, past performance and strong affilitians (one speech introduction isn't much) are the best indicators in my opinion.

tom3 writes:

1. It's not exactly the same point Arnold was making about Ezra Klein (whether the affiliation heuristic has ever really influenced the way Klein responded to a Cato paper), but I would ask Klein if he could name a single significant issue where Cato--whether through the availability heuristic or by logic and evidence--changed Klein's opinion on an issue away from his acknowledged technocrat/left/liberal views. I'd guess there isn't one.

2. I'd say the affiliation heuristic does affect the way people experience restaurants. A lot of a trip to a decent restaurant is your mood about the place going in, and that is affected by what you have heard others say about it.

Chris Koresko writes:

Arnold Kling:...when right-wingers say we need to examine President Obama's past affiliations with radicals, are they sincerely using those affiliations to evaluate his policy stance? If so, that would mean that they do not have enough information about President Obama's current policies to evaluate them, and instead they need to draw inferences based on his past affiliations. Really?

As one of the relative handful of not-quite-libertarian right-wingers who post here, I will try to respond to this.

When Obama appeared on the national scene, he was essentially unknown. We all knew he'd been a state senator in Illinois, then, briefly, a U.S. senator. And suddenly he was the Democratic front-runner in an election season in which Democrats looked poised to make huge gains.

On the conservative talk-show circuit there was, not surprisingly, a lot of uncertainty about Obama at first. There were whiffs of extreme liberalism -- even radicalism -- about the man, but there was also a good deal of reluctance to accept that weak evidence as definitive. Some conservatives, mainly establishment Republicans, predicted that if elected he'd govern as a moderate. John McCain, his rival for the presidency, famously announced that we'd have nothing to fear from an Obama presidency. The Big Media were all for Obama, and at least one major paper publicly announced that they'd realized they were skewing their coverage and would try to make it more balanced. A group of journalists on a TV talking-head show admitted they knew almost nothing about Obama.

So trying to figure out just what Obama was became a cottage industry among conservatives. A number of books were written which advanced various theories. He's an anti-colonialist, wrote Dinesh D'Souza. Other conservative writers panned that idea.

"Know a man by the company he keeps." Some pointed to his comment (in his autobiography) that he'd sought out the Marxist professors in college. There was his association with Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers; his decades-long membership in the church of a racist, anti-American nutjob; connections to various Islamists, ACORN, the SEIU, and a host of others, which taken together painted a pretty unpleasant portrait.

Since then, of course, we've had several years of actual policy to learn from. But it's not always easy to infer the intent behind the policy. It's absolutely normal for any politician to couch his arguments in terms he thinks the public will find attractive; whether or not he is being sincere may not be obvious, especially when the predicted outcomes of those policies vary widely depending on which Nobel prize winner is making them. Today conservatives argue whether his failures are due to incompetence or malice. (Incidentally, I've read that people with those views tend to support Romney and Gingrich/Santorum, respectively).

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