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Informed civic engagement and the cognitive climate

Gave a talk today at an event sponsored by the Democracy Fund. Topic was how to promote high-quality democratic deliberations in 2016.

Pretty sure the guy who would have been ideal for the talk was Brendan Nyhan. Maybe he wasn't available. But I did the best I could, which included advising them to be sure to consult Nyhan's work on the risk of perverse effects from aggressive "fact checking."

Outline of my remarks below (delivered in 10 mins! Barely time for one sentence; of course, even w/ 120 mins, I still wouldn't use more than one sentence). Slides here.

1. Overview: Cognition & reasoned public engagement

Promoting reasoned public engagement with issues of consequence requires more than supplying information. The public’s assessment of information is governed by cognitive dynamics that are independent of information availability and content. Indeed, such dynamics can produce perverse effects: e.g., polarization in response to accurate information, or intensification of mistaken belief in face of “fact checking” challenges. The anticipation of such effects, moreover, can create incentives for political campaigns to foster public engagement that isn’t connected to the best available evidence, or simply to ignore issues of tremendous consequence.

2.  2012: Two dynamics, two missing issues

a.  Climate change was largely ignored in 2012 Presidential election b/c of “culturally toxic meanings.” When positions become symbols of group membership & loyalty, citizens resist engaging information that is hostile to their group, and draw negative inferences about the values and character of political candidates tho present it. It is thus safer for candidates in a close election to steer clear of the issue than to try to persuade. This explains Obama's and Romney's decisions to avoid climate: they couldn't have informed the public if they had and faced a much bigger risk of alienating voters they hoped they might otherwise appeal to.

b. Campaign finance, arguably the most important issue confronting US, was ignored, too, not because of toxic meaning but because of “affective poverty.” Public opinion reflects widespread support for all manner of campaign finance regulation. But the issue is inert; it doesn’t generate the images, stories, associations through which citizens apprehend matters of consequence for their lives. Thus, focusing on it would be a waste from candidates’ point of view.

3.  2016: Managing the cognitive climate

a.  The influences that determine cognitive engagement can’t be ignored but also shouldn’t be treated as fixed or given. If a cognitive mechanism that frustrates engagement can be identified, responsive strategies can be formulated to try to counteract the operation of that mechanism.  I’ll focus on the 2012 ignored issues as examples, but same orientation would be appropriate for any other issue.

b. Local political activity on adaptation is vibrant even in regions—e.g., Fla & Az-- in which climate change mitigation is taboo topic for political actors. Adaptation is free of the toxic meanings that surround climate change debate and indeed congenial to locally shared ones. Promoting constructive deliberations on adaptation has the potential to free the climate debate from meanings that block public engagement and scare politicians off.  The cognitive climate would then be more hospitable for national engagement in 2016.

c. Between now & 2016, there is time to work on affective enrichment of campaign finance. Just as public health activists did with cigarettes, so activists can create and appropriately seed public discourse with culturally targeted narratives that infuse campaign finance with motivating resonances. This would create incentive of candidates to feature issue rather than ignore it in campaigns.

4.  Proviso: Cognitive climate management must be evidence based.

The number of plausible strategies for positively managing the cognitive climate will always exceed the number that will actually work. Imaginative conjecture alone won’t reliably extract the latter from the sea of the former. For that, it’s necessary to use evidence-based strategies. Activists confronted with practical objectives and possessed of local knowledge should collaborate with social scientists to formulate hypotheses about strategies for managing the cognitive climate, and to use observation and measurement for fine tuning and assessing those strategies. And they should start now.

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Reader Comments (1)

Your selection of the two examples was interesting. Climate change, of course, is an old issue now, but still an understandable one. But campaign finance? "arguably the most important issue confronting US"? Hmm. Does that derive from the concerns of a particular quadrant in the cultural grid? And does the phrase "affective poverty" simply mean that not very many people cared very much about it, and you think they should? And does your advice to "work on affective enrichment" (!) of that issue (or, for that matter, any other one judged by some activist group to suffer from "affective poverty") by creating and publicly seeding "public discourse with culturally targeted narratives that infuse campaign finance with motivating resonances" really differ, other than in its use of more obscure terms, from old and crass attempts of political spin doctors to manipulate the public by means of "scary scenarios" and such? If so, it hardly seems that we need a science of science (or any other) communication to lead us there.

March 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

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