AN UPDATE FROM ARTHUR
September 25, 2016
I don’t need to tell any of you that tomorrow evening is the first presidential debate. By most accounts, this fact brings Americans a strange mixture of joy and despair. On one hand, this interminable campaign is finally entering its homestretch. On the other hand, an evening of hand-to-hand mudslinging will dominate our televisions and our discussions even more than usual.
This got me wondering how much of a difference these election debates actually make. So I dug into the research. But before we get to that, I found an even more interesting study about how people make major decisions in our lives. Maybe it will offer some welcome distraction from the unenviable decision we have to make in a few months.
HEADS, YOU WIN; TAILS, HE GETS TENURE
Ever since I left academia and moved to AEI, I’ve worked hard to stay on top of interesting work in the social sciences. I keep a couple of great online aggregators, a handful of favorite journals and bloggers, and a few individual favorite scholars bookmarked, and I follow them all closely to see what’s new across economics, social psychology, happiness studies, and behavioral science.
Today, I want to share one particularly interesting study. It practically jumped off the page at me. Steven Levitt, a well-known economist of “Freakonomics” fame, has a new paper on a topic that we can all relate to: How do people make big, pivotal life decisions? And how can we evaluate whether we make good ones?
When I stop and think about it, the relative scarcity of a robust literature on this topic is surprising. What could be a more pressing or pertinent subject? But — among other difficulties — it is incredibly difficult to create a controlled environment with the kind of randomization that you need for rock-solid results.
Let me explain. To try and measure whether some small behavior makes people happier, researchers could simply randomly assign participants into “Group 1” and “Group 2” and impose different conditions on each. This ensures that people with preexisting differences aren’t self-selecting into different groups and polluting the direct causal link that you’re trying to measure.
This approach — create a controlled environment, randomly divide your participants into “treatment” and “control” groups, and then measure how they fare — works great for studying things like new medications. But not so much for studying major life decisions: whether to get married, what kind of person to marry, and whether to move across the country for a new job. It turns out people aren’t willing to surrender those decisions to a social scientist in the name of advancing science. Weird, I know.
That’s where this study gets creative. Levitt did the best he could to “randomize” decisions by looking at the impact of a coin toss on people’s likelihood of making certain decisions. First, he recruited more than 10,000 volunteers. Each one took a survey that asked about a big decision they were facing. Then came the interesting part: Levitt’s website presented participants with a coin flip that “told” them which choice to make. After the experiment, Levitt followed up with the recruits to see what they decided and how happy they were.
Obviously, participants weren’t bound to follow through and obey the virtual coin. So the first question the study examined was: How much does a virtual coin flip impact which choice people end up making? And as funny as it seems, it turned out that the coin flip influenced participants’ decision making a lot. Taking account of a range of other factors, Levitt finds participants who got heads were about 25 percent more likely to make the change they were considering. And these weren’t insignificant decisions. Some of the changes the participants were mulling included quitting their job or separating from their spouse.
Equally interesting, the people who went ahead and made the change they were considering usually wound up happier as a result. Among the participants who were considering “important” decisions, those who decided to make a change later reported being a full point happier (on a 1–10 scale) than those who stuck with the status quo. Maybe there’s a lesson here: If you find a potential decision sufficiently compelling that you can’t get it off your mind, you should probably just pull the trigger. (Check out my Valentine’s Day column from 2015, “Taking Risks in Love,” for one practical application of this principle.)
The potential lesson here is intriguing. The results suggest that people leave a chunk of potential happiness untapped simply by tethering themselves to the status quo. Even a randomized virtual signal from a stranger in academia was enough to give people a little momentum and push them toward improving their lives.
DO THE DEBATES EVEN MATTER?
Each season, the first head-to-head debate seems to mark the unofficial beginning of the campaign’s homestretch. And while the buildup is always dramatic, the country seems especially on edge this time around. Not only have the polls been tightening of late, but there has also been unusually high variance in the results, adding extra uncertainty. Throw in two candidates who most Americans don’t like, and it’s no surprise that analysts are predicting tomorrow evening’s debate could be the most watched in history.
But I’ve been wondering: Do the debates even matter? Is all the commotion remotely justified? What do the hard data say?
Academics have looked into this, it turns out. And the answer they’ve come up with is a go-to favorite among us ivory-tower types. Do the debates make a difference? It depends.
First of all, general election debates seem to matter less than everyone thinks. Surveying the literature, Professor John Sides at George Washington University concludes that presidential debates usually have little to no effect on general election outcomes. One study he cites, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, examined a big set of elections from 1952 to 2008. Their finding? “The best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”
So the general election debates hardly ever yield earth-shattering inflection points. But the data can still help us guess what might happen tomorrow night. In 2012, Nate Silver looked back at the historical record and found that the first debate usually helps the candidate whose party is out of power. Interestingly, he published his piece just a few days before Mitt Romney turned in an enormously successful performance in his first debate with President Obama. Romney’s big night won him a real bump in the polls (as per Silver’s analysis), but it soon faded away, and the underlying fundamentals of the race returned to the fore (as per Erikson’s and Wlezien’s hypothesis).
But this contrasts sharply with the research on primary debates, which seem to matter a lot. One 2013 study found that after primary debates, a whopping 35 percent of viewers said they changed their candidate preference. After the general election debates, only 3.5 percent of viewers said the same. People’s minds are seemingly only 1/10th as open during the general debates as during the primary debates. Why? I’ll make a few guesses.
For one thing, the primaries usually feature candidates with similar views. If voters can hardly distinguish between their options on policy substance, it makes sense that stylistic differences would exert a larger impact. What’s more, we hear a lot from primary voters that they are actually value debating skills pretty highly as an important trait that they’re looking for. (“I want someone who can really take the case to the other guy on national TV in October!”)
In sum, we are left with a bit of a paradox. While many primary voters seem to care a lot about rhetorical skills when they’re choosing who will represent their “team” in the general election, very few general election voters seem to be swayed permanently by those prime-time performances. As a result, debates matter a lot in the primaries but only a little in October.
Try dropping that factoid into the conversation at your debate watch party. It might be the most substantive talking point people hear all night.
- Here’s a stunning graphic on the rise of America’s army of jobless men — a crisis no one is talking about.
- Welfare reform was a success. We need to apply its lessons to other government programs.
- Read about the little-known provision tucked away in the Affordable Care Act that could move us toward the “public option” — without approval from Congress.
- Putin’s popularity: Propaganda, censorship, and aggression at work.
- A must-read from The Wall Street Journal on the rise of populism and the decline of social capital.
- Congratulations to my friend Ed Conard, whose new book, The Upside of Inequality, debuted at #8 on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
LISTEN TO THIS
Last time I took you to India to listen to a house concert with famous sitarist Ravi Shankar. Before we come back to occidental music, let’s take a side trip to Indonesia for a little gamelan, which is a traditional Indonesian orchestra of gongs, bells, and drums.
This stuff is rhythmically complex, and ordinarily accompanies dance performances that are stylized settings of ancient myths. I studied this music briefly when I was 18 and have loved it ever since. See what you think.
Until next time –
P.S. If you want to get some of my debate thoughts in real time Monday night, watch the New York Times Opinion page where a bunch of us will be live blogging the debate. I might be the only one you agree with.