*Updated: After reading this TIME article I feel I have a deeper understanding of Obama, his methods, and his goals.
From TIME: Obama is using a team of behaviorists to manipulate Americans.
Behaviorism was invented for the training of animals. Now it's used to raise children and manipulate spouses. And our fearless leader is deliberately using it to consolidate his power, advance his agenda, and create new social norms. This should give you a serious case of the creeps:
Two weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama's campaign was mobilizing millions of supporters; it was a bit late to start rewriting get-out-the-vote (GOTV) scripts. "BUT, BUT, BUT," deputy field director Mike Moffo wrote to Obama's GOTV operatives nationwide, "What if I told you a world-famous team of genius scientists, psychologists and economists wrote down the best techniques for GOTV scripting?!?! Would you be interested in at least taking a look? Of course you would!!"Moffo then passed along guidelines and a sample script from the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, a secret advisory group of 29 of the nation's leading behaviorists. The key guideline was a simple message: "A Record Turnout Is Expected." That's because studies by psychologist Robert Cialdini and other group members had found that the most powerful motivator for hotel guests to reuse towels, national-park visitors to stay on marked trails and citizens to vote is the suggestion that everyone is doing it. "People want to do what they think others will do," says Cialdini, author of the best seller Influence. "The Obama campaign really got that."
The existence of this behavioral dream team — which also included best-selling authors Dan Ariely of MIT (Predictably Irrational) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago (Nudge) as well as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton — has never been publicly disclosed, even though its members gave Obama white papers on messaging, fundraising and rumor control as well as voter mobilization. All their proposals — among them the famous online fundraising lotteries that gave small donors a chance to win face time with Obama — came with footnotes to peer-reviewed academic research. "It was amazing to have these bullet points telling us what to do and the science behind it," Moffo tells TIME. "These guys really know what makes people tick."
More on this from Bill Dupray of The Patriot Room, who points out that Obama understands from his manipulation team that most people don't know the difference between $100 million and $100 trillion, so telling them that you're cutting the equivalent of $1 from their family budget is conveniently misleading:
Seriously. President Obama has reportedly been working closely with noted behavioral economists, and their studies have shown that most people are “insensitive to scope,” meaning they are not very good at putting large numbers in their proper context. People will react about the same to a policy proposal whether the cost/benefit is $10 million, $10 billion, or $10 trillion. Consequently, the $100 million cut may seem huge to many voters.But it ain't. Read the rest.
*Updated to comment more on the TIME article:
Studies of all kinds of human frailties are revealing how to help people change — not only through mandates or financial incentives but also via subtler nudges that preserve our freedom to make choices while encouraging us to make better ones, from automatic-enrollment 401(k) plans that require us to opt out if we don't want to save for retirement to smart meters that warn us about how much energy we're using. [emphasis added]Or, to be accurate, manipulating us into making what someone else believes are "better choices."
Obama has a community organizer's appreciation for human motivation, and his rhetoric often sounds as if it's straight out of a behavioral textbook.Oh pleeze. Talk about a false dichotomy.
Obama's efforts to change us carry a clear political risk. Republicans already portray him as a nanny-state scold, an élitist Big Brother lecturing us about inflating our tires and reading to our kids. We elected a President, not a life coach, and we might not like elected officials' challenging our right to be couch potatoes.
Obama's aides seem to favor nudges that preserve free choice over heavy-handed regulation, an approach Thaler and Sunstein, the co-authors of Nudge, call "libertarian paternalism." But it's still paternalism, and Sunstein will have the power to put it into action. The idea of public officials, even well-meaning ones, trying to engineer our private behavior to produce change can seem a bit creepy.Only to RWE's. Author Michael Grunwald clearly isn't one of them. He embraces his new insect overlord:
But face it: Obama is right. Our emissions are boiling the planet, and most of our energy use is unnecessary. Our health expenditures are bankrupting the Treasury, and most of our visits to the doctor can be traced to unhealthy behavior. We do need to change, and we know it.
So why don't we? And how can we? The behaviorists have ideas, and the Administration is listening.
There's plenty more. It extends to the management of our money and our health and relies heavily on human passivity and laziness:
This is why default options pack such power. Most of us will save for retirement, run our computers in energy-efficient mode and be organ donors if we have to take action to say no — but not if we have to take action to say yes. Almost nobody signed up for a German utility's clean-energy plan until it became the default, and then 94% stuck with it. We're also much likelier to go to the doctor for preventive care like flu shots if the appointment is made for us. In a speech last year, Orszag even suggested charging us for doctor's appointments unless we take action to cancel, though he conceded that might sound "a little crazy at first blush or even second blush."This is horribly insidious: a subtle extension of the nanny state where numerous decisions are pre-made and pre-packaged for us, and the exact opposite of what it once meant to be an American: independent-minded and self-determining.
More along these lines is heading our way. The Administration hopes to harness our inertia with its automatic pension plan, a major step toward universal savings accounts, and by dramatically simplifying applications for federal tuition aid. Its push to computerize health-care records — another big-ticket stimulus item — could make generic drugs and cost-effective procedures our default treatments. And seniors who don't select health-care or drug plans could be automatically enrolled in low-cost options. "It would be nice if we all behaved like supercomputers, but that's not how we are," Orszag says."Creating social norms":
But Obama is no therapist changing individuals one at a time. He's an organizer trying to build community and inspire collective action through house parties and Facebook as well as rhetoric about shared values. In other words, he's trying to create social norms — behavioral change's killer app.Grunwald is drunk on the messiah's koolaid and awaits Obama's brave new world with bated breath:
Social norms help explain the attraction of opt-out 401(k)s as well: it's not just that we're too lazy to check a box but also that we assume the default is the accepted thing to do.
It would be nice if Obama could change our social norms so that green living and healthy eating and financial responsibility would be new ways of keeping up with the Joneses. But it would be enough if he changed Washington's social norms. We need better policies, not better attitudes.Obama and company hope to make use of the weaknesses of human nature to engineer an American life lived by default. May God have mercy on us.
Behavioral literature can be a depressing window on human folly. But it offers us ways to transcend our folly, to restrain our ids, to harness our conformity and inertia and weakness in order to do less of the things that hurt us and our country. "In the physical world, we understand our limitations," Ariely says. "Nobody gets upset because we can't fly. We just design something to help us fly." If Obama can help us fly from our bad habits, he'll provide the change we need.
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