Posts Tagged ‘Moneyball’

Sunday Review: “the Victory Lab: the secret science of winning campaigns” by Sasha Issenberg

06/01/2013, 08:00:52 AM

by Anthony Painter

Sometimes you find yourself picking up a book with a degree of scepticism and ambivalence. This was one such occasion. Issenberg’s pacy Moneyball-style look at the evolving statistical and psychological science of winning campaigns had potential for ‘overstatement of case’ written all over it. It didn’t help matters when the final sentence of the introduction argued that this new application of science had enabled campaigns to ‘start treating voters like people again.’

And yet, I ended up convinced by Issenberg’s argument against my own expectations. The techniques and approaches he outlines within the Victory Lab, if applied with imagination, have the potential to re-engage millions in democracy – up to a point. His core contention is that voting is a behavioural act. As he eloquently puts it:

“What if voting wasn’t only a political act, but a social one that took place in a liminal space between the public and private that had never been well-defined to citizens? What if toying with those expectations was key to turning a person into a voter? What if elections were less about shaping people’s opinions than changing their behaviours.”

There is an old rational choice puzzle that all undergraduate students of political science are presented with. Why do people vote when, from an instrumental point of view with a low chance of influencing the outcome, it’s an irrational act? Rationalistic models of human behaviour have shown themselves in economics, politics and in psychology to be completely inadequate. Issenberg reaches instead for the behavioural science of the likes of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Robert Cialdini, and Richard Thaler  – all names that will be familiar to those who have been following these debates.

The answer to the rational choice puzzle is, of course, because human beings aren’t just instrumental calculating machines. Any (political) science that can’t cope with that insight is for the birds.


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