Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
When we tune in to the presidential debates, we want each candidate to tell us what his plan is, and why it will work. But how much information do voters really want? Should Romney unpack his five-point plan and carefully explain the logic behind it? Or should he just reassure us that he knows what he’s doing?
Conventional wisdom has it that too much complexity can mark a candidate for premature political death. History offers up Adlai Stevenson as a prototype of the earnest intellectual who buried his presidential chances under mounds of policy detail—making him a great favorite of the intelligentsia, but too rarely connecting with the average voter. As the story has it, an enthusiastic supporter shouted out during one of his campaigns: “You have the vote of every thinking person.” To which Stevenson allegedly replied (presciently): “That’s not enough, madam. We need a majority.”
The great challenge for candidates during a debate is that they’re not addressing “the average voter.” They’re addressing a mass of citizens with conflicting priorities, beliefs, values, and even different cognitive styles that shape how they evaluate arguments, and just how much detail they want to hear from those who would persuade them.
In the longstanding argument over whether voters are won over by candidates’ style or substance, the answer is undoubtedly: both. All of us rely on fast, intuitive modes of thinking (often called System 1 processing by psychologists) as well as slower, more deliberative evaluation (System 2 thinking). Some situations tilt us more toward one than the other. Anything that limits the sheer computational power we can devote to a task—for instance, watching the debates while at the same time following comments on Twitter—makes us depend more on quick but shallow System 1 processing.
But put different people in the same situation, and some of them will be more likely to fall back on intuitive gut reactions while others will delve into deeper analysis. Some folks, it turns out, simply tend toward more mental activity more than others, and psychologists have found a way to measure this difference using the “Need for Cognition” scale, a questionnaire that contains queries such as: “I really like a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems” or “I feel relief rather than satisfaction after completing a task that required a lot of mental effort.”
A long line of research (much of it done by Richard Petty, John Cacioppo and their colleagues) shows that people who score high on Need for Cognition respond differently to persuasive messages than those who score lower. When superficial cues (like the attractiveness or apparent expertise of whoever’s making the pitch) are compared against the quality of an argument, these eager thinkers are more likely to ignore the shallow cues in favor of the stronger argument. People who fall lower on the Need for Cognition scale will often find a logically weak argument as persuasive as a strong one, especially if it comes from the lips of an attractive or knowledgeable person.
In the face of such cognitive diversity, a sound strategy for a political candidate might be to make sure to control his style, body language, and general demeanor, and also to have a good, strong argument, ready to appeal to both System 1 and System 2 thinkers. But a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research by Philip Fernbach and his colleagues suggests that sometimes, a well-reasoned, complex, detailed argument can actually repel those inclined towards intuition.