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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reminding Elected Officials That They're Human

The other day I heard city councilmember Bill Green on the radio indignantly rejecting the idea that a large contribution might influence him. I left this message on his website:

As someone who has voted for you in the past, I am dismayed by the facile way you in which you dismiss the idea that $30,000 could influence you. That's an incredibly naive statement, and suggests that you need to study some psychology.

The classic work in the social influence field is Influence by Robert Cialdini. In it, on the basis of both experimental research and his own undercover investigation among "compliance professionals" such as marketers, Cialdini identified six major tools of influence. One of these is "reciprocity," the principle that if someone does something for you, you feel obliged to return the favor. You can't simply turn this off, because it operates on an unconscious as well as a conscious level. Pure intentions are no guarantee against it.

Because this effect can't be negated by an act of will (and public disclosure requirements prevent reliably shielding yourself from knowing contributors' identities), the only protection lies in declining donations from those whom you don't wish to influence you.

Understanding that everyone is susceptible to bias, scientists have instituted the system of peer review to keep each other's errors in check. This same principle of critical thinking applies to everyone, not just professional researchers. To minimize the risk that even seemingly benign contributors could exercise an unwholesome influence, it's important to make their role well-known or at least easily knowable.

Richard Feynman, the Nobelist who uncovered the cause of the Challenger disaster, defined science as "a set of techniques we've developed to avoid fooling ourselves" -- techniques that presuppose we have the humility to recognize our capacity for self-deception. In my view, assisting each other in this regard is one of the most important forms of human solidarity. I hope you will receive what I've written in that spirit and take it on board as you continue your public service.

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