Letter to the Editor: Behavioral economics and the ASG election

I wanted to go skydiving. I made a reservation, paid for it, drove all the way there, flew up in the plane with a parachute on, knelt by the open door and willed myself to jump, but I couldn’t get myself to move. Then the instructor tossed me out into the sky.

I could turn on a toy robot and send it out the door of the airplane, but I couldn’t make myself do the same. For better or for worse, people aren’t robots.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes the human mind as being divided between two controllers, System 1, which is fast and based on instinct, and System 2, which is slower and where we do our deliberative thought. We feel like we’re of one mind, but Kahneman tells us that we’re mostly working in System 1, which evolved from a time when we had to react quickly to threats without needing to spend a lot of time deciding (“Hmm…might that be a tiger I see behind that bush…AHHH, I’m cat food!”) and to take quick advantage of opportunities (“I wonder if that might be edible…damn, it got away.”).

Up on that airplane, my System 2 said “Jump” but System 1 said, “Our genes did not survive millennia by allowing jumps into thin air, and we’re not going to start now.” Similarly, we aren’t hungry, and know we shouldn’t overeat, but that muffin is just sitting in front of us. We procrastinate; we stay up too late. We like to think we make smart, System 2 decisions, but mostly, we make easier choices by following System 1. This is particularly true in times of stress or weariness.

System 2 often tells us what we really should do, if we take the time to think about it, but System 1 is always ready to recommend action, often the action that provides the best short-run payoff.

I’m an adviser to Associated Student Government, and have been watching a lot of System 1 behavior of late. An election is a months-long process, not just for the candidates, but also for their helpers, and certainly for the people who administer the elections, in this case, ASG’s election commission. Who would want to be on such a thing? Who? People who love politics and the democratic process. Vote nerds! It’s a lot of hassle, a lot of time, but an important role.

They’re a team. System 2 would advise, “Be super careful with vote totals during an election!” System 1 says, “We’re a team; let’s trust and share.” For years that worked great; this year it slipped. (How did the ASG academic adviser let this happen? His System 1 says, “I should check up on that, sometime soon, but not today. I’m too busy.”)

As for candidates, what were they thinking? Tired as they were, it probably wasn’t much more than this: “Six hours to go; got to turn out the vote.” “Five hours left; who can we ask to vote for us?” “Four hours; please vote, please.” “Three hours; can I hold off going to the bathroom until after the polls close?” They’re pouring out everything they’ve got, and don’t think they have anything more to give.

What makes Pat Fitzgerald such a great coach is his ability to take players who are giving everything they can (as best as their System 2’s can tell) and finding a way to reach their System 1 and give them an emotional spark that lifts them to the next level. Similarly, Christina Cilento and Macs Vinson and their team thought they were giving their all, when unbidden, a member of the Election Commission gives them news that puts some spring back in their tired legs.

The campaign didn’t ask for the information, but once given it, couldn’t un-see it, couldn’t not react. System 1’s response to this news: “Gaaak! Must push harder!” System 2 should have spoken up, but in the last hours of a campaign, it’s System 1 time.

Then the votes were in and a winners declared. Some questions about whether they got information about the voting in progress got brushed off…and then System 2 woke up and said, “CRAP; those leaks may have just wrecked the election.” It was the night the polls closed, Christina opened up about everything, but System 2 is smart and correct, and the damage was done.

No one covered themselves with glory here (with the exception of Joji Syed and Archit Baskaran, who ran an exemplary campaign). Lessons were learned and Lauren Thomas made the Election Commission she leaves to her successor much better than the one she inherited.

Still, the question remains. One campaign had received unrequested information from a member of the Election Commission, and won, maybe because of this, maybe not. Months of hard work were now tainted. The other campaign wondered if they’d been robbed. The answer is unknowable, even to System 2.

Mark Witte is the ASG Faculty Adviser and an economics professor. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.