The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. — FDR, May 22, 1932
Most observers tend to agree that the bulk of the Democrats’ impending electoral catastrophe stems from economic woes. The economy is bad; therefore, people are turning against the party in power, as they always do.
Yet, a new Slate article uses some unnerving brain research to show how this is not as straightforward as Brendan Nyhan might have us believe. After all, people trust the Republicans less with the economy, and disapprove of Republicans in Congress even more than Democrats in Congress. Yet, the Republicans seem poised to seize power of the House (and maybe the Senate), and certainly control of the national agenda.
In the article, Shankar Vedantam points out that the irrational brain doesn’t necessarily make those connections, and prefers action to inaction:
Why do we habitually choose action over inaction when things are bad? The intuitive answer is that action promises to get us out of the mess we’re in. But that intuition turns out to be wrong. The action bias is driven less by the fear of failure than by the fear of regret.
Goalies experience less regret when they dive and allow a goal than when they stay in the center and allow a goal. Stockholders experience less regret when they sell—even if the market later rebounds—than when they hold onto a losing portfolio and watch it drop. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Sen. Hillary Clinton summarized the action bias when she said, “In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”
A goalie who dives and misses is heroic. A goalie who stays in the center and misses is just … ineffectual. Goalies dive because they seek to minimize their emotional losses, not their actual losses.
This reminds me of an experiment by Dan Ariely involving three doors. (You can play the game here, but I couldn’t get it to work.) In any case, the game works like this. There are 3 doors, and you click on a door with your mouse to get rewards behind that door. One of the three doors has better rewards, so the optimal strategy is to open all three doors, determine which has the highest rewards, and keep clicking it. It’s straightforward and most people figured out the discrepancy.
Here’s the twist: When the doors physically appeared to shrink, the test subjects switched doors much more often. That is to say, when scarcity became a problem, the test subjects were much more likely to take a risk with an unknown quantity. (See: Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle)
Maybe we’re just hard-wired to choose the unknown quantity in hard times, willing to do what seems irrational to achieve what we believe to be a rational result.
But if scarcity is what promotes radical and irrational choices, we may be in for a bumpy ride.