Arnold Kling  

The Affiliation Heuristic, Continued

PRINT
Does Obama Bear Responsibility... James Manzi Watch...

I can use Bruce Schneier's Liars and Outliers as the basis for another take. A basic question in the book is how human society is able to scale above the level where we can all recognize one another.

For example, in a large battle involving people you have never met, how do you know who is friend or foe? Soldiers' uniforms provide the answer. If you are on the Gray team, then you expect Blues to shoot at you but to be safe from the guns of Grays.

Ultimately, the affiliation heuristic derives from a scaled-up model of tribal shunning. You know that if you were shot at by a fellow Gray, he would be punished by the rest of the Gray tribe.

In commerce, Schneier gives the example of Quaker success in 18th century capitalism. If everyone (not just Quakers) knows that Quakers will shun other Quakers for dishonest, dealings, then as long as you can determine that someone values his membership in the Quaker community, you can count on him to be honest. Hence, the affiliation heuristic. A lot of long-distance trading was famously undertaken by ethnic minorities, where the affiliation heuristic substituted for being able to observe the other party at close range.

In fact, the affiliation heuristic is deeply embedded in commerce. You trust the doctor because you see her license on the wall, and you assume she does not want to lose it. You see her diploma from a leading medical school, and you assume that the school, too, would not want to risk its reputation by graduating a poorly-trained doctor.

And yet, I argued here that the affiliation heuristic is invoked insincerely, for manipulative purposes. We see that in marketing and in politics. Marketing campaigns sometimes try to use affiliation to get you to buy a product. This will make you just like X! If you don't have it, you will be like Y! Around here, the Washington Post slogan was (still is?), "If you don't get it, you don't get it."

Politics is very much a game of affiliation. Voting can be predicted very well on the basis of location and ethnicity.

What motivated my earlier post on the affiliation heuristic is that I generally am bothered by the way politicians and pundits deploy it. The Kochs are notorious for being notorious! Don't affiliate with them! President Obama once hugged a radical! Shun him! Steven Landsburg sides with Rush Limbaugh. Condemn him!

I find that ugly. Shunning someone's political positions is fine. But I don't want to see anyone shunned as a person. Don't tell me I can't associate with X because he is a liberal. Don't tell me I can't associate with Y because she is a conservative.

There are two arguments made for taking Ed Crane's side in his dispute with the Kochs over Cato's board. One argument is that being associated with the Kochs will be bad for Cato. That is the ugly use of the affiliation heuristic that I would prefer to fight than to accept.

The other argument is the fear that, under the Kochs, Cato scholars will lose their ability to speak out on issues where they are to the left of the Republican Party (indeed, often to the left of the Democratic Party): immigration, foreign intervention, civil liberties vs. the threat of terrorism, gay rights, drug laws, etc.

If that fear is justified, then the Crane side has a case. But my instinct all along has been that this is a personality conflict, not an ideological one.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (14 to date)
Jack writes:

As a Canadian working in the US who had strong individual policy positions but no party preference, I found this aspect of American politics and partisan affiliation in general to be difficult to deal with (Canadian politics is less divisive, though by no means better). I did not talk much about politics or policy, to avoid losing friends (or friendly acquaintances, more broadly). Most people have a hard time separating opinions, or even plain arguments for the sake of analysis (e.g. Landsburg's dense critics), from the person.

John Samples writes:

You need not believe the Kochs have hooves and horns to take Crane's side in the current dispute. Nor is it simply a personal dispute. Charles Koch has said that he wants Cato to be more effective. I recall that George Soros and his allies had a similar view from the left. They were dissatisfied with the political effects of traditional liberal think tanks. So they created the Center for American Progress which integrates wonkery, political campaigns and partisanship. Perhaps the Kochs are trying to emulate what they see as CAP's effectiveness. From that point of view, Cato is "old school." Its staff see themselves as agents for a political philosophy, a task that requires both engagement with public debate and some distance from partisanship and the trench warfare of daily politics. They can reasonably believe that a new Cato created on the CAP model would end the traditional independence from partisanship fostered by Crane’s Cato. After all, when was the last time a CAP staffer criticized the Obama administration?

Mercer writes:

Landsburg called women having birth control paid by insurance prostitutes. This would include his female students and partners of his male students.

What business would allow their employees to call their customers prostitutes? I think if Landsburg thinks he can call his students prostitutes and not suffer any consequences he has at least as much an entitlement mentality as Fluke.

My position on birth control pills is that they should be available OTC. If Rush and Landsburg really wanted to not pay for birth control they would call for the same. The fact that they instead call women sluts and prostitutes leads me to think they are upset about women's sexual conduct and not about the money.

Radford Neal writes:

Mercer wrote: Landsburg called women having birth control paid by insurance prostitutes.

Actually, no - he said the opposite. I guess you decided to comment without actually reading his blog post at http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/02/rush-to-judgment/

Mercer writes:


Rush calls Fluke a prostitute. Landsburg writes in response:

"Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy:"

Landsburg agrees with Rush that Fluke :

" deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered."

I don't think it makes a big difference that Landsburg thinks calling Fluke an extortionist is better then a prostitute. He writes that a women like many of his students deserves to be ridiculed. Later in a letter to the university president he contradicts himself:

"People who express actual views on this matter do not deserve to be mocked or ridiculed, and I never once said or implied that they do;"

http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/08/aftermath/#more-7120

Mercer writes:


Rush calls Fluke a prostitute. Landsburg writes in response:

"Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy:"

Landsburg agrees with Rush that Fluke :

" deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered."

I don't think it makes a big difference that Landsburg thinks calling Fluke an extortionist is better then a prostitute. He writes that a women like many of his students deserves to be ridiculed. Later in a letter to the university president he contradicts himself:

"People who express actual views on this matter do not deserve to be mocked or ridiculed, and I never once said or implied that they do;"

http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/08/aftermath/#more-7120

Daniel Shapiro writes:

Great post.

Radford Neal writes:

Mercer wrote: I don't think it makes a big difference that Landsburg thinks calling Fluke an extortionist is better then a prostitute.

So do you think that all those people who say "Property is theft", or "Taxation is theft" are using out-of-bounds rhetoric?

He writes that a women like many of his students deserves to be ridiculed.

Actually, he says their argument (not them) ought to be mocked - on the basis that it's not actually an argument at all.

Lars P writes:

Judge the honesty of Mercer's quoting technique for yourself:

Mercer:
Landsburg agrees with Rush that Fluke :
" deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered."

Landsburg:
But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered.

Mercer writes:

Landsburg also writes

" Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”.

and

"Over the last week, we’ve heard a lot from the people who (with a hat tip to one Joker), I now call “contraceptive sponges” — people who want others to pay for their contraception because — well, just because they don’t want to pay for it themselves."

http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/03/05/contraceptive-sponges/

Is he calling Fluke an extortionist and a sponge or her arguments extortionist and sponge? It is not clear to me he is making a distinction. When he writes like that he should not be surprised when people disrupt his class.

If Landsburg and Rush are trying to persuade people to be against insurance covering birth control I think they are doing a poor job. Why is talking about prostitutes, extortionists and sponges better then calling for the pills to be OTC?

Jack writes:

I worry we are getting off-topic, but to be clear, Prof. Landsburg's post was critical of those who make demands but offer no argument why we should agree. ("I want you to pay for my purchases because I don't want to pay for them myself.") Landsburg in fact offered several good arguments for (and against) insurance coverage of birth control pills. His point was to criticize those who demand something and offer no reason why, and further to mock the *position*, not the person.

Babinich writes:
Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Hmm, where have I heard that before?

Brian Clendinen writes:

The book and what you are discussing is pretty much the definition of identity politics.

I heard this story my dad tell me about a great uncle I was to young to remember. Family get together would be all about politics and be very argument and debative but friendly. My uncle was a diehard Democrat. Once he told my dad he was a yellow dog Democrat. My Dad replied what is a yellow dog Democrat? He said if a yellow dog ran as a Democrat he would vote for it.


That pretty much explains much of the electorate especially on the Democratic side. My uncles statement is a good story that shows how much political parties are a religion.

mark writes:

Right. What you are basically saying is, reject ad hominem arguments and their carrying out. Totally agree.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top