One of my heroes is Howard Raiffa, a pioneer in decision science and game theory. Before he passed away in 2016, Professor Raiffa held a joint chair at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. His expertise spanned statistical decision theory, game theory, behavioral decision theory, risk analysis, and (of particular interest to me) negotiation analysis. His seminal book The Art and Science of Negotiation is a classic text in the field of conflict resolution. It is a foundational text that integrates the fields of game theory and negotiation in innovative ways.
One of the examples of this synthesis of game theory and negotiation theory discussed in Prof. Raiffa’s book is the Prisoners’ Dilemma. In case you haven’t come across the Prisoners’ Dilemma before, it’s outlined in the graphic above and in the description below (written by Albert Tucker, who gave it its name):
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
- If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
- If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
- If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge).
This simple model is a neat representation of one of the central challenges of negotiation. If the prisoners trust each other, they’re better off overall. But if the trust is undermined, they are tempted to betray the other, and they’re potentially much worse off. Extrapolate this to any negotiation partnership and you understand the importance of trust between negotiators. Once trust is undermined, there is always a temptation to betray, which can be worse for everyone.
A later classic book in the conflict resolution field is Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation, which leverages the Prisoners’ Dilemma extensively. Axelrod invited game theorists to write algorithms to play the Prisoners’ Dilemma, and then to come to the University of Michigan (where Axelrod is a Professor in Political Science) to play in a Prisoners’ Dilemma tournament with multiple rounds. In a field of competing algorithms, some with very complex rules for when to betray and when to remain silent, the winning algorithm across all the matches was a simple approach titled “tit for tat.”
Tit for tat works this way: it starts out trusting on the first round, and subsequently copies the other side’s prior move. The core idea is that good behavior is rewarded by reciprocating with good behavior, but bad behavior is immediately punished. In practice, tit for tat cooperates when the other party has an immediate history of cooperating and betrays when the other party previously betrayed.
Now my goal is not not to give you a Spark Notes version of a degree in game theory and negotiation — so let me cut to the point. As Megan McArdle explained in the Washington Post last week, our nation is having a tit for tat moment. As Prof. Raiffa would have probably argued, our national nervous breakdown can be modeled in game theory, which can generate insights about how to start to recover. As Megan put it in her piece:
“…both sides think they have legitimate grievances, and both are hurting themselves as they try to punish the other. At this point, the only way out is for everyone to put themselves in timeout — to think hard about whether their behavior reflects the kind of people they want to be, or the kind of country they want to live in. And then try to find some common set of rules that will let us cooperate instead of mindlessly punishing each other.”
It’s not going to happen all at once, and there are sure to be fits and starts as we try to work our way back to cooperation. But the good news is, a) people respond to incentives, and b) tit for tat shows us it’s not really that complicated. We just have to keep our responses proportional and forgive quickly to get things back on track. But someone has to take the first step by trusting the other side.
There’s a lot of chaos in the media today about the shameful policy that requires the separation of immigrant parents and children in detention centers. And while I do have very strong opinions on that issue (hint: I’m against it) that’s not what I want to talk about in this blog, so I’m going to focus on another aspect of the debate that undercuts deliberative dialogue: a focus on anecdotes instead of data.
The immigration debate is perhaps the most prominent modern example of this trend. For political reasons, the current administration wants to make the connection that immigrants are criminals (of course, making immigration a crime by definition makes all immigrants criminals, even though immigration has happened since time immemorial, but I digress). The President began his campaign by saying many immigrants are rapists. He has continually elided immigrants (about 1m per year) and gang members, particularly MS-13 (estimated to have 8-10k members in the US). The Administration even puts out a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants to underscore this message. Hence the use of the term “infest.”
But this connection is not backed up by data. Two large studies, one by the Libertarian Cato Institute and another in the journal Criminology, concluded the exact opposite of the administration’s assertions. The Cato study concludes “As a percentage of their respective populations, there were 56 percent fewer criminal convictions of illegal immigrants than of native-born Americans in Texas in 2015… The criminal conviction rate for legal immigrants was about 85 percent below the native-born rate.” (See the chart at the top of this post for a summary of their results.) The Criminology study found that states with more undocumented immigrants had lower crime rates than states with smaller immigrant populations: “Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence,” the authors found. In fact, they conclude that the arrival of immigrants was a major factor behind the drop in crime rates in the US over the last 20 years.
So one way to maintain the position of the administration is to cloud the reality described by the data through a focus on individual stories. Many websites chronicle the tragedies of crimes committed by immigrants, and the stories shared are truly heartbreaking. But lists of crimes perpetrated by U.S. citizens would be similarly heartbreaking. And by putting all these stories in one place, and removing them from a broader context, the reader is left to reach their own conclusion: all these crimes by immigrants are proof of a trend, and we have to take action to protect ourselves.
It goes back to what I was discussing in an earlier post around “trusting your gut.” If you don’t like immigrants for some reason (we’ll leave the specific reasons to the side for now — but race, cultural differences, and language are three likely factors) you may be inclined to believe stories that reinforce that dislike. If someone describes several horrible crimes committed by immigrants, you may connect the dots and presume these stories represent a trend. Most people don’t put the time into learning the actual data before jumping to a conclusion, particularly if that conclusion is in line with their “gut instinct” (which introduces the previously described shortcomings).
But the focus on anecdotes over data is not isolated only to the immigration debate. Consider the opponents to the Affordable Care Act looking for stories of individuals adversely effected by the law, when in fact the data shows a huge positive trend across the general population. And this focus on stories over data is not only a conservative phenomenon. Some progressives have touted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories backed by anecdotal stories of individual children, while the data show conclusively that vaccines are safe.
This tactic works because each side can easily cite stories to bolster their argument, and the egregious details capture the imagination. The human brain is tuned to understand an individual story much more easily than to process reams of abstract facts and figures. In addition, skepticism has set in for most of the electorate as well about studies, namely that whoever sponsors the study will find a way to twist the results to bolster their perspective — so citizens learn over time to tune out anything with charts and data sets. There is also a sense that those who focus on data over individual stories are hard at heart, or cold and unfeeling. “How can you look at this murder victim and not be moved? Put your charts away.”
It’s fine to tell stories. In fact, telling stories instead of citing figures was part of what made Presidents Reagan and Clinton so effective as leaders. But decision makers need to make decisions on the basis of verified, unbiased data — not anecdotes. We need to protect policymaking from the political gamesmanship, and calling out the misleading use of anecdotes is part of that effort.
When my sons were young and I caught one of them doing something questionable (e.g. taking one more cookie than we had said he could have, or surreptitiously playing videogames on a school night) one of their go-to responses was always, “but [insert other brother name here] did [some other form of malfeasance] and you didn’t say anything when he did it!” The strategy being deployed by the son in question was obvious, but it was also effective: take the focus off of the specific transgression being discussed and raise the level of abstraction to supposed systemic injustices, with the implication that the rules were hopelessly random and unfair. The inconsistency of enforcement was presented as evidence of a clear parenting double standard.
This is understandable behavior for a four and a six year old. They came upon the strategy organically, and used it liberally. Fortunately, over time, they’ve pretty much grown out of it. But if I’m ever feeling nostalgic for the challenges of parenting kindergarteners, I can see the same strategy deployed on any cable news channel 24×7. For, my friends, we are deep in the golden age of whataboutism.
Whataboutism is the strategy of countering criticism by pointing to other actions supposedly more worthy of criticism. The Brits used to call it whataboutery, but by now the term “whataboutism” has taken over on both sides of the Atlantic. The Oxford Dictionaries define whataboutism as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.” But at base, it’s a sleight of hand trick.
The fundamental element of whataboutism is avoiding a narrow criticism by escalating to a claim of hypocrisy. There is a logical fallacy known as “tu quoque” that describes the tactic of countering your opponent’s argument not with facts, but with an argument that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that argument in the first place. Whataboutism is the weaponization of tu quoque in the political sphere.
For example, Hillary Clinton supporters, when confronted with criticisms about Benghazi, say: What about the soldiers who died in Mali during the Trump administration? Where were the hearings on those deaths? Or, what about the soldiers who died in embassy attacks under Secretary Powell or Secretary Rice? Why weren’t those fatalities treated with the same degree of seriousness?
Or conservatives, when discussing Trump’s overtures to North Korea, say: what if Obama had met directly with Kim Jong Un during his Presidency? Progressives would be singing his praises and nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Or liberals, when discussing Trump’s continuing profits from donors paying dues at Mar a Lago, say: what if Obama was in office and he tried something similar? The Republicans in Congress would insist on impeachment.
Why does whataboutism work? Well first, it takes the focus off of the specific transgression in question. The debate migrates to weighing the severity of different imagined activities, which are nearly impossible to objectively compare. Second, because it relies on imagined scenarios instead of real world events, it plays upon the implicit biases of the listeners. If you think Republicans are unreasonable, then whataboutism that invokes scenarios of Republican hypocrisy will likely be persuasive. If you think Democrats are unreasonable, then it’s likely that you’ll find imagined scenarios of Democratic hypocrisy more credible. Because these are all imagined equivalencies, untested by reality, listeners can craft their own nefarious narratives in their mind’s eye, shaped primarily by their biases. Third, it is true that examining issues in a broader historical context can be helpful — and whataboutism seems initially to be about such context, even though it’s really about fogging up the discussion.
As I said, the strategy is depressingly effective. I’d be remiss in this post if I didn’t note that Russia is the world headquarters of whataboutism. It is Putin’s favorite rhetorical technique. Once, when asked about President Bush’s criticism of Russian democracy, Putin replied, “I’ll be honest with you: we, of course, would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq.” That’s what the sleight of hand trick looks like when demonstrated by a practiced professional. Whataboutism in Russia is primarily used for propaganda purposes, bludgeoning the opposing side with a barrage of arguments possessing only the flimsiest of relationships to the original concern expressed. The Guardian has even argued that whataboutism has been elevated to the level of national ideology in Russia. Let’s hope that’s not where we’re headed.
We have a truism in the dispute resolution field: in any protracted disputes, odds are, both sides are right. How is this possible? Usually people presume that the positions of people in a dispute are contradictory, so if one side “wins” the other must lose. But in reality, for most protracted disputes, each side focuses on the issues where they feel they are right, and they ignore the other issues where they may be on thinner ice. So if you’re mad that I let the dog outside and he dug up the tulips, you focus on the fact that I didn’t lock the screen door on the porch like we agreed I would. But I’m mad that you still haven’t taken the dog to the puppy class training to stop him from digging in the garden. Are you right that I didn’t lock the screen door? Yes. Am I right that you never followed through on the puppy class? Yes. But we can argue all night about it, each focusing on the part we’re right about, and ignoring the part we’re wrong about. This let’s us feel like we’re in the right and avoids a real resolution.
I see this in our current political dialogue every day. Debates on cable news become shouting fests where one side loudly trumpets the things they’re right about, while the other side ignores those comments and trumpets the points that advantage their perspective. Each side thinks: I’m right about the points I’m making, so I’m winning. The viewers of the debate (influenced by their own implicit bias) hear the person advancing the facts they are sympathetic to and conclude: “I knew it. I’m right. Man, the other side got schooled.” But the “facts” just fly by each other — they never connect. They aren’t mutually contradictory, so the debaters never engage on the substantive issues.
Take the false dichotomy of liberal and conservative politics. A quick Google search tells me, “Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Conservatives believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.” Liberals, in contrast, “…believe in governmental action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all, and that it is the duty of the State to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Liberals believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need, and that people are basically good.”
So I’ve been told my whole life that, based on my beliefs, I’m a liberal. I do seem to vote Democratic in every election. But when presented with this list (e.g. “personal responsibility, free markets, individual liberty, American values, a strong defense”) I find it hard to disagree with any of it. I believe people need to take responsibility for themselves, that free market approaches are better than markets loaded up with tariffs and closed borders, individual liberty needs to be defended, American values (kind of a fuzzy concept, but I’ll presume the good ones) are worthy of promotion and adherence, and we have to have a strong national defense. Wait, am I a conservative? Well, no, because I also believe the government should work to ensure equality and equal opportunity, that government should help citizens when they’re in need, that civil liberties should be protected, and that government should work to alleviate the suffering of its citizens whenever possible. I definitely believe that people are basically good.
How can I believe all these things at the same time? Because they’re all true. Sure, we can narrowly define the dichotomy as “conservatives think government is good, liberals think government is bad.” But that’s a ridiculous oversimplification. I think (as I believe most Americans think) that government is good in some circumstances and bad in others. As is true in every area of life, the secret is in finding the balance. There are times when government needs to intervene (e.g. the financial crisis) and times when government needs to stay out (e.g. to let people live their lives as they like, so long as their choices don’t harm anyone).
The core tenets of conservatism are right. As are the core tenets of liberalism. The problem is that the way we debate them makes a false presumption about their mutual exclusivity. The truly important decision is in how we balance competing values in the choices we make. All our policies are dials, not on-off switches. Our debates should be about what levels we should set the dials to, not whether the switches should be on or off. This should be a component of a new kind of public deliberation, one that gets us past the positional theatrics and closer to consensus building and wisdom. Maybe we could call it eDeliberation.
On Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) forums, a popular inside joke question is: “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?” Redditor Reaverax even asked President Obama this question in an AMA on August 29, 2012. I’ve never done a Reddit AMA, but if someone asked me, I’d respond: as fearsome as a horse sized duck would be, the swarm of 100 duck-sized horses is probably the more worrisome opponent, especially if they know how to team up.
Think about taking on an angry falcon with a baseball bat. Nerve wracking, sure — but you’ve got a chance if you can land a swing or two. Now think about taking on a swarm of bees with a baseball bat. You’re toast.
I heard on a public radio interview yesterday that Putin controls essentially all the media outlets in Russia, and that’s how he convinces the majority of Russians that he is working in their interest (even though he and his oligarchs are robbing the country blind). The TV, the radio, and the newspapers all put out the official line from the government every day. The one outlet he can’t control is the internet, because it is so decentralized. But in that case, Putin’s administration just puts out so much nonsense (“fake news”) that it’s almost impossible to ferret out the truth from the lies.
That’s the challenge of our modern media landscape: defeating the swarm of bees with a baseball bat. If Churchill was right about the truth putting its pants on (as I discussed yesterday), the pace of the internet makes it impossible for the truth to catch up. Once stakeholders in civil society forfeit their commitment to the truth, then there’s a green light to release as many bees as you can to promote your side. And if your opponent is lying to mobilize their supporters, there’s a strong temptation to do the same so you can counter their energy. It may even seem foolish and naive not to.
But on the receiving end, how can we as individuals make our way through this blizzard of alternative facts? I saw a post on Quora today asking how people can still support this administration with all the scandals and revelations coming out on a daily basis. Those interested in exacerbating social conflict in the U.S. don’t have to write provocative content themselves — instead, they just have to find content that achieves their ends and then they promote that content. It may be that there aren’t really that many people in the U.S. who believe that the FBI is corrupt and compromised. But if there’s one person claiming that on social media, savvy players can promote the sentiment with re-tweets and search engine optimization, and boom: it’s at the top of everyone’s news feed the next morning. Next thing you know, parties who might have had a gut instinct along those lines feel vindicated, and they may feel motivated enough to start echoing the sentiment through their own channels.
When you’re caught in a blizzard it’s easy to get disoriented. You can’t tell you’re right from left. Once you lose a sense of which way is north you won’t be able to find it again. We need a GPS to help us get through the storm — a trusted foundation that we can utilize to reorient ourselves when we get confused, just like using instruments instead of visual cues to pilot a plane through a white out blizzard.
I remember a song I heard once about an idea that feels right even though it’s wrong — and even after the singer knows its incorrect, he finds himself returning in unguarded moments to it again and again, because it just feels so good to think it — even though he fully knows it is not true.
We all have a gut sense of the way the world works. Unfortunately our gut is often incorrect. Maybe it’s about race, maybe it’s about sex, maybe it’s about religion, maybe it’s about foreigners: a belief that is demonstrably untrue, but is almost impossible to extinguish. Social psychology has amply demonstrated how easily people can be manipulated, confused, and mislead — even when we’re convinced that we’re right. We want our worldview to be validated, so when we get new information contradicts our biases, our brains are very good at ignoring it. Which makes us fall back on our gut.
The news is supposed to help us overcome these shortcomings. We can’t do research on every topic of import in the news every day. We need writers and editors to do that research for us, and to tell us what they’ve learned. The news is supposed to be about facts, and it is supposed to enlighten us — and maybe even get us to change our minds on occasion. But it’s not fun to have one’s preconceptions challenged. It’s a lot more fun have someone tell you: “You know, you’re right. You’re gut is dead on. Don’t worry about the facts. It must be true, because it feels true. That’s more important than facts.”
It reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s definition of “truthiness” from the first season of The Colbert Report: “I know some of you may not trust your gut…yet. But with my help you will. The ‘truthiness’ is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news… at you.”
My Uncle, Av Westin, wrote a book in 1982 called Newswatch. Uncle Av had been Executive Producer for ABC News for more than a decade, and Newswatch was a memoir looking back over his time in the news business and looking forward to where the news was going. Av had worked in news bureaus when there were relatively few sources from which most Americans got their information. In his book Av spoke to the big three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) essentially picking what stories Americans would discuss the next day as they stood around the water cooler at work. The television networks watched the print media (primarily the major newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times) very closely, and often would follow up on print media stories with more in depth interviews and analysis. The news media was a pretty clubby business (which was, needless to say, dominated by white men on the coasts).
When he wrote the book. Av was worried about the blurring of the lines between entertainment and news at the major networks. News departments saw themselves first and foremost as journalists, and they had very strict ethical and procedural rules to follow in doing their work. Journalism schools specialized in inculcating these practices in budding journalists, and newsmen who didn’t follow them were unceremoniously pushed out of the business. Av was worried that the acquisition of the networks by for-profit companies would lead to revenue pressure that would weaken adherence to these rules. Media companies needs eyeballs, because eyeballs mean more money from advertisers, which means more profits. The arrival of 24 hour cable news made the situation that much worse. Every day required new scandal to keep revenues flowing in.
Av’s concerns were prescient. The newsmen who led the news divisions of the networks in the 1980s would be horrified by our current media landscape. Not only has hard news been essentially taken over by the 24-hour networks, it has become unapologetically partisan and opinion oriented. The nattering nabobs of MSNBC and FOX frame the supposedly centrist agenda of CNN, but they all know they’re in the eyeball business. The journalists still adhering to the old ethical codes have watched their audience drift away to opinion media and online news sources that play fast and loose with the old rules. Now content is king. Stories need to gather clicks. Ubiquitous reality programming now feels like news, even though it is far from actual reality.
Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Truth can take time, especially when there are powerful forces working hard to obscure the truth. Obsessing over the latest, breaking news sometimes is at odds with getting to the truth. The news is the first draft of history, and sometimes first drafts are wrong. If the pace of the news continues to increase, and there are new headlines coming out every day, then there’s no time to evaluate the truth of the last headline. And by the time the truth is uncovered, no one cares anyway, because it’s old news.
The journalists used to protect us from the lies. There was a small group of people who took their jobs as guardians of the truth very seriously, and they were committed to squashing the lies before they spread. Now control has been wrested away from that group by technology, and now everyone is broadcasting to everyone else 24×7. But if the guardians aren’t squashing the lies, who is fighting for the truth?