Dohiyi Mir
    In Which NTodd Says His Peace

Wednesday, February 25, 2004
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The Kerry Cascade

Interesting article in Slate subtitled "How a '50s psychology experiment can explain the Democratic primaries":

Princeton social psychologist Solomon Asch showed a room of participants a series of slides displaying sets of vertical lines. Two of these lines were clearly the same length, while the others were obviously very different. The subjects were then given the seemingly trivial task of identifying which pair of lines were the same. But there was a trick: Everyone in the room except for one person had been instructed beforehand to give the same incorrect answer. The real subject of the experiment was the lone unwitting participant, and the real test was of an individual's ability to disagree with his or her peers.

Asch demonstrated a stunning effect: Faced with a decision that, in isolation, no one would ever get wrong, the unwitting subjects went against the evidence of their own eyes about one-third of the time.
When everyone is looking to someone else for an opinion—trying, for example, to pick the Democratic candidate they think everyone else will pick—it's possible that whatever information other people might have gets lost, and instead we get a cascade of imitation that, like a stampeding herd, can start for no apparent reason and subsequently go in any direction with equal likelihood.
Asch's unwitting subjects—clear victims of manipulation—when interviewed afterwards gave other rationalizations for their decisions, some of them succumbing to what Asch called a "distortion of perception" in which they perceived the majority as being correct.

In fact, the distortion of perception that Asch observed is a special case of what psychologists call "hindsight bias," the failure to notice how our opinions change as new information becomes available.
[T]he combination of cascades and hindsight bias renders much of what passes for "obvious" in this election campaign deeply misleading. Because the cascade is effectively driven by a small minority of voters, the result is more or less arbitrary—Dean really could be winning just as easily as Kerry. But once we know the answer, hindsight bias kicks in and makes the arbitrariness of the cascade (seem to) go away. Everything pundits are saying about Dean now could just as easily be used (and would have been used) to "explain" a Dean victory. Had that happened instead, we would all be walking around saying, "Well, of course Kerry lost—he's got all the charisma of a dead horse—and that Dean is a real firebrand." In each of these "parallel worlds," Dean and Kerry are exactly the same (more or less), and voters are (more or less) exactly the same as well. In terms of the inputs, the difference between the two worlds could be a coin toss.

That's what I hate about sudden death overtime in football: a mere coin toss can determine the outcome.


[Update: I was reading a post by Mary over at Pacific Views called Whose Echo Chamber?, which starts off with a comment about the typical 'Hey, everyone knew what Bush was like, so why are you surprised?' attitude. In light of the Slate article, and at the risk of seeing everything as a nail to hit my with my new Asch-built hammer, I wonder if "hindsight bias" applies here.

Did everybody really know how bad Bush was going to be? I recall watching one of the 2000 debates (when Gore "sighed") with Stef and a friend of hers from Oz, and we all couldn't believe Bush would ever convince anybody to vote for him. I'm pretty sure we knew he'd be bad news, but I certainly tried to give him the benefit of the doubt when he took office, and honestly never imagined he would end up being the worst president ever. But when people say "why are you surprised", aren't they really surprised?

I also wonder if the "social decision-making" mentioned in the article is germane wrt WMD and the Iraq invasion. Did people like Powell go along with Rummy and gang for the same reasons test subjects choose the wrong pairs of lines in the Asch experiments? And is that the same as "group think"?

Anyway, I'm just musing in my flu-induced stupor.]

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A non-violent, counter-dominant, left-liberal, possibly charismatic, quasi anarcho-libertarian Quaker's take on politics, volleyball, and other esoterica.

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