chase martyn

Cognitive load in an era of political self-examination

In "The ideological right vs. the group benefits left: Asymmetric politics in America," Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins examine the differences between what motivates the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States:

[T]he two sides perceive politics differently and behave asymmetrically. The right is built on ideological commitment; the left is built on the policy demands of constituency groups. Their distinct governing styles reflect these consistent underlying differences. At both the mass and elite levels, Democrats think and act very differently from Republicans, in ways that have important implications for the American political system. 

This isn't a completely new analysis, but the authors' empirical methodology is interesting and compelling:

To assess our claims, we analyze a variety of empirical evidence to substantiate the fundamental asymmetry of the American left and right. We begin by examining this phenomenon among the mass public, finding that citizens are attracted to the Republican Party due to shared ideological affinity and to the Democrats on the basis of specific policy positions and social group identity. This distinction endures as we move from party identifiers in the electorate through the activist and donor classes to party leaders and elected officials.

Voters -- and humans in general -- have always made decisions and formed preferences that are irrational or inconsistent with one another. Perhaps one result of our culture -- of super PAC ads, talk radio rants, cable news "facts," and news by meme -- is that some of these inconsistencies are actually more difficult to sustain. We're living more self-examined political lives, for better or worse, and ticket-splitting between candidates who seem like the best potential drinking buddies is no longer the path of least cognitive resistance.

Ideology is now the intellectually-easiest framework for voting: it tells you exactly what to care about and, more important, what not to care about. The things it tells you to care about usually sound respectable -- and often sound downright inspiring -- when distilled into the format of a conversation among friends. And figuring out which candidates to support doesn't usually require any work.

Unfortunately for Democrats, as Grossman and Hopkins explain at length, our campaigns and governing styles just aren't wired for this phenomenon.1

None of this means that voters are less smart or less worthy than they used to be. I don't think every voter will ever make decisions like a dispassionate public policy expert or academic, though there's probably a (boring) dystopian film idea in that. Specialization has existed since the dawn of society, and cognitive load has been a factor in every human decision since the dawn of cognition. 

As Democrats, we should simply remain conscious of this and make it a goal in our campaigns to reduce the cognitive load required for each voter to choose to support our candidates. We need to reduce friction and make it easier to be a Democratic voter however we can -- legally, physically, temporally, and cognitively.


  1. Straight-ticket voting, which Democratic campaigns are in many cases wired for, may also seem like an intellectually "easy" framework for voting. But I'd argue that these days, continuing to justify total party loyalty can be cognitively difficult. For example, our culture has long fetishized "voting for the person, not the party," which shames straight-ticket voting but does little to offer an alternative.
07 November 2014, 3:31 pm ⸭ Permalink

Siracusa on OS X 10.10 Yosemite ⇒

To signal the Mac’s newfound confidence, Apple has traded 10.9’s obscure surfing location for one of the best known and most beautiful national parks: Yosemite. The new OS’s headline feature is one that’s sure to make for a noteworthy chapter in the annals of OS X: an all-new user interface appearance. Of course, this change comes a year after iOS got its extreme makeover.

Ah, the old tension: which platform does Apple love more? iOS continues to dominate Apple’s business in terms of unit sales, revenue, and profits. Last year, some Apple watchers had openly wondered whether Apple would even bother updating the look of OS X. And yet for the past several years, Apple has loudly and publicly insisted that it remains committed to the Mac as a strong, independent platform. Yosemite aims to fulfill that commitment—but in an interesting way.

16 October 2014, 8:52 pm ⸭ Permalink

Nielsen data has been wrong for months ⇒

Nielsen, the television research firm, acknowledged on Friday that it had been reporting inaccurate ratings for the broadcast networks for the last seven months, a mistake that raises questions about the company’s increasingly criticized system for measuring TV audiences.

The error wound up benefiting one network, ABC, while negatively affecting the others, according to people briefed on the problem.

In a world (or at least country) where it is actually knowable what everybody with cable is watching, it seems crazy that billion-dollar companies are subject to the whims of Nielsen's black box.

11 October 2014, 2:28 pm ⸭ Permalink

StartUp ⇒

Alex Blumberg is trying to start a new podcast network, and he's making a really good podcast about it.

22 September 2014, 1:55 am ⸭ Permalink

Privacy ⇒

A note from Tim Cook:

A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.

Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.

Privacy here means securing your data and communications not just from intruders and the government, but also from the companies who transmit and store it. It's a level of privacy that wasn't always possible with older technologies (analog telephones, postal mail), but in places where it was possible (Swiss banks, safe-deposit boxes), consumers came to expect it.

I don't know if Apple will live up to its promises, but in a world where "privacy policy" has become a euphemism for "page where users agree to give up their privacy," this is refreshing.

18 September 2014, 12:35 am ⸭ Permalink

“Don’t you (Foucault about me)” ⇒

McSweeney's "Canon of philosophy student karaoke songs."

09 September 2014, 3:45 am ⸭ Permalink

Meet the host: defying the rules ⇒

Chuck Todd was an imperfect host of “Meet the Press” on Sunday. And that’s perfect.

Sunday talk shows, and most particularly NBC’s “Meet the Press,” defy the normal rules of television news: spit-shine good looks and slick urbanity are unwelcome. Viewers don’t want anchors as hosts; they want hosts who don’t act like anchors.

The conventional wisdom has emerged: David Gregory was just a pretty face without much interest in politics, and that's why he failed. That's silly. He was an excellent White House correspondent -- perhaps the best TV journalist covering the Bush White House, when few were asking tough questions. He was chosen to moderate Meet the Press because he showed quite a lot of promise as a political journalist and a newsmaking interviewer.

But Gregory's MTP did end up feeling a bit stale and consultant-driven. It was almost like watching public television after it went through a network focus group. It had either given up on young viewers, or it had made the assumption (perhaps rightfully) that the only young people watching were doing so more out of an interest in tradition than an interest in the show's format.

One good example: Gregory's iteration of the program attempted to reconnect with middle America with a segment called "Meeting America." The Chuck Todd version of the segment, using the same correspondent and basically the same premise, is called "Who needs Washington?" The name change alone makes the segment feel a lot more relevant to the current national conversation.

That said, I'm pretty sure Meet the Press sank in the ratings not because of its segment titles or its host's TV news versatility, but because it stopped booking the best guests.

Tim Russert could get away with tough questions, and politicians still felt an obligation to go back on. You couldn't make a serious national political play without going through him first. Russert ruled by fiat, and after his untimely death, nobody felt quite the same obligation to appear on MTP. 

Far from a pretty face, Gregory's reputation as an interviewer who really wanted to make news drove the most important guests of the week to other programs. In the past year or two, most of the biggest Sunday morning bookings seem to have gone to ABC and CBS, only appearing on MTP as part of a full ginsburg (or something close). David Gregory became an unnecessary risk.

Without important guests, Gregory was never in a position to shape the conversation the way Russert could, and people stopped watching.

Maybe Chuck Todd's hardscrabble demeanor and apparent social media savvy will help him recapture Russert's magic and lead guests to appear on MTP despite the tougher and more unpredictable interviews. Ultimately, Todd needs potential guests to perceive a political cost for avoiding MTP, or the show's problems booking relevant guests will persist. Being the #1 show made this a lot easier, but it could still be doable.

I'd hate to think the only solution to the show's ratings troubles is to make it more appealing to politician guests. That's a race to the bottom that will make all the Sunday shows irrelevant before too long.

09 September 2014, 2:12 am ⸭ Permalink

‘The most important transportation innovation of the decade is the smartphone’ ⇒

Almost all movement in a major city now begins with a phone. Mobile apps and interfaces help people do everything from sort through route options to locate an approaching bus or hail a taxi or for-hire vehicle. While cities and transportation regulators have released data and encouraged innovation through contests and hackathons, no U.S. city has aggressively pursued development of an integrated app that enables users to plan, book, and pay for trips across multiple travel modes. Instead, it's the likes of Uber and Google Maps and CityMapper and RideScout that have demonstrated what is possible, and controlled the movement market to date.

The notion that movement in major cities almost always begins with a phone is quite interesting -- more interesting than the rest of this article, I'd argue.

Sure, cities could do more to integrate various transit options into one official, public smartphone app, and that would probably make transportation even easier. But smartphones already enable and encourage much better, more efficient transportation. We should be able to measure that more scientifically.

07 September 2014, 5:05 am ⸭ Permalink

Politeness as freedom ⇒

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is.

Experience tells me that I probably will form opinions or make a judgments all of the time, but being polite means I'm not very invested in any of them until I make the conscious decision that it's worth it.

14 August 2014, 11:47 am ⸭ Permalink

Study: Going vegetarian can cut your food carbon footprint in half ⇒

The researchers found that vegetarians had roughly half the diet-related carbon footprint of meat eaters. Vegans were lower still. But even if you can't bear to give up hamburgers, simply eating less meat could reduce the footprint of your food significantly:

02 July 2014, 3:42 pm ⸭ Permalink
Chase Martyn Chase Martyn is a political consultant, web developer, and (former) journalist. He currently lives in Chicago, and his opinions are purely his own.