In one of the more creative attacks in contemporary Australian politics, Bob Carr (former NSW premier and newly installed into the Australian Senate) accused the leader of the opposition of hypnotising the electorate, repetitively using sound bites in order to sway public opinion.
The reality is that simple, catchy phrases do have a strong influence with some voters. Why is this so? Well, because the world is complex, but life is short, many of us feel that we have limited time and mental energy to apply to political issues and, well, we’re an impressionable bunch with short attention spans.
Advertisers use some of less sophisticated tendencies to convince us to buy their goods all the time. Make it look appealing and sell it using a simple, catchy message. But if we really reflect on whether we need that particular item, cooler heads sometimes prevail. Psychologists refer to these two different approaches that we have to making decisions as peripheral versus cognitive processing. When we think peripherally, we tend to quickly draw intuitively appealing conclusions, even on potentially complex issues. Cognitive processing involves a deeper, more systematic effort to think through things. The point is that most of us are capable of engaging in both modes of thinking, at least to some extent.
But is this really an issue from a democratic point of view? Well, yes it is. If there is a difference in what we might choose if we engage in peripheral thinking compared to cognitive thinking then there are some important issues at stake. The use catchy sound bites to draw us in using emotionally appealing language can ultimately be manipulative and effectively trick us into making choices that we may not have gone for if we had sat back and had a chance to work through the issues. When this happens in commerce and we buy something through misrepresentation, there are consumer laws to protect us. When this happens in politics it is possible to throw the government out after 4 years, but only after they have implemented a legislative agenda. What’s more, where the electorate is largely switched off, this kind of politics by sound bite can simply go on and on.
So there is a real problem here. And it’s not just politicians’ fault. The way that issues is portrayed in a media geared toward entertainment rather than edification also contributes. But, then again, the response to this criticism usually follows the line that it’s simply a matter of what the public want. But I do rather think that this is a cute way of looking at the problem, because we know it’s quite possible (if not likely) that the public would want something quite different if they were given the chance to reflect on what is going on in politics. If this is true, the question is, how can we find a way out of this vicious circle?
Research that we are doing here in the Centre is trying to address this very question. We are looking at how this deeper form of reflection on political issues can be facilitated among the public, as well as how information that covers all facets of important issues, from all perspectives, can be presented to help make an informed decision. For more information see our website.
Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.