Monday, January 02, 2012

Karl Rove, Master Psychologist

I'm a big fan of Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist who's given us such great books as The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and his latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature. All highly recommended if you're interested in what makes us humans tick.

One of Pinker's core tenets is that evolution has equipped us with a set of "mental modules"—specialized bits of programming that endow us with basic human traits. There's one for simple math, another for finding our way home, another for detecting when other people are lying, one for handling language, and so on. Since these modules have essentially been layered on top of each other through the eons, they don't always mesh very well, and sometimes are in outright opposition (which can explain why we often feel conflicted about things).

The sum total of all these modules is what Pinker calls "human nature," and it's remarkably constant through (recent) time and throughout cultures worldwide. You can study it, figure out how it works, and use it to make predictions about how people will react in a given situation. One simple example will suffice: everywhere in the world, people have sensitive "unfairness detectors," and if they perceive that someone is being greedy, they will try to punish that person—even if it costs them something personally. (The technical term for this trait is "altruistic punishment".)

All of which is a long setup for my recent thought about that guy progressives love to hate: Karl Rove. The master political strategist responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House and keeping him there for 8 years.

Here's the puzzling thing about Rove: how does he get away with the stunts he pulls? He promotes outright falsehoods with impunity, and never seems to pay a price for it. He attacks his political enemies viciously and generally leaves them with their jaws wagging, babbling incoherently and ineffectually. He seems immune to counterattacks. How does he do it?

Well, I was reading some blog yesterday and came across something called Karl Rove's 3 Principles of Politics (I'd provide a link but don't have one). And it made me think of Pinker and his notion that humans are essentially pre-programmed to respond in certain ways to situations.

So I dropped Steve an email. And here it is (minus some irrelevant chitchat):

Dear Dr. Pinker,

This message is prompted by something I just saw on a blog,
called "Karl Rove's 3 Principles of Politics". They are:
1. Attack your opponent's strength from your weakness.
2. Accuse your opponent of doing what you're doing.
3. Be worse than anyone can imagine.

It seems to me this gets it about right. Rove's remarkable
success is mystifying, since by all normal standards he
"shouldn't" be able to get away with saying the things he
does. Pondering the above principles, it occurs to me that
Rove has figured out how to use our innate cognitive
faculties against us.

An example of what I mean: let's posit that humans innately
(and in this case, rationally) believe that an opponent
would normally only attack from a position of strength
(barring cases of "backs against the wall" desperation).
So if Rove accuses, say, Democrats of being captive to
special interests, we intuitively feel "He wouldn't say
that if he was himself vulnerable to the same accusation."
And therefore we tend to lend undeserved credence to his
claim. Outraged Democrats may attempt to point out the
deception (though they too seldom do), but Rove has already
won the argument.

Same general idea with the "Be worse than anyone can imagine"
principle: when Rove says something particularly outrageous,
our innate tendency is to think "Wow, nobody would say such a
terrible thing if there wasn't some truth to it!" We literally
can't imagine that it could be a total fabrication—nobody is
that brazenly dishonest. So once again he wins before the
argument even starts. And of course he phrases his attacks in
such a way that the victim is forced to respond with sometimes
complicated explanations of the actual facts, and as they say
in politics, if you're explaining, you're losing.

So I'll end by restating the premise/question: Can Rove's
remarkable and seemingly unlikely success be explained by the
fact that he has learned how to hijack human cognitive biases
and use them against us to advance his positions? And if this
is right, how could anyone effectively answer him, hopefully
without sinking to his level?

I haven't heard back yet; if I do I'll update this.

Update: I received this from Pinker on Jan. 6, 2012:

Thanks for sharing that insightful analysis, which I agree with. The strategy, of course, is a risky one, as big lies are the easiest to refute, and cannot survive forever. Rovism was defeated in the Congressional elections of 2006 and the presidential election of 2008, and therein lies a ray of hope.

Labels: , , ,


At 4:32 AM, Blogger Alex said...

It really helps if you have a friendly platform from which to launch your attacks. The vast majority of the time that Rove appears in the spotlight he is on Fox, he barely ever puts himself under the microscope with a media outlet which isn't pro-Republican. His stories are seeded there, and picked up by other major media sources using Rove's side as one POV among two or three to get some semblance of balance. However, because we seem to be wired to look for the sensational when it comes to news, the Rove POV will always stand out among a group because it will be the most outrageous.


Post a Comment

<< Home