Thursday, September 01, 2011

We decide based on what we want, not the other way around.

Today we got a fantastic illustration of how our preferences affect our perceptions (i.e. top-down processing) rather than the other way around.  In other words, there are two ways to make decisions:

1.  We can look at the evidence and then make a decision aligned with the majority of the evidence (which is the logical thing we THINK we do).
2.  We can decide what decision we want to make, and then look for evidence to support it and discount the other evidence (which is what we unconsciously REALLY do).

So what happened today?  President Obama wants to address the nation on Wednesday night.  At first, Speaker Boehner agreed, but then changed his mind and asked him to move it to Thursday.  Let’s look at process two.

Obama supporters:  He really prefers Wednesday because Thursday is the opening night of the NFL.  Fewer people will tune in, and some people will tune in and be forced to miss the opening game. He is such a nice guy - doesn't want to inconvenience anyone.  And what he says is important so the most people should be able to watch.

Obama detractors:  The House is on vacation and doesn’t start their session until 6:30pm that night.  So there is not enough time to do a security sweep of the room.  Plus, that time conflicts with the GOP candidate debate in California. 

Not only do people decide what evidence to focus on based on which one they want to come true, they also are good at discounting the other side’s evidence:

Obama supporters:  The House could easily vote before 6:30pm.  Why does their workday start so late anyway?  And it is easy for the GOP to move the time of their debate forward or back an hour.  Furthermore, Boehner first agreed and then changed his mind, clearly suggesting some ulterior insidious motive.

Obama detractors:  Forcing interested citizens to miss a football game is not nearly as important as security and the GOP debate. He picked Wednesday night specifically to interfere with the GOP debate.  It was all political calculations.

Then this morning Obama agreed to move his speech to Thursday

Obama supporters:  He is such a nice guy, always compromising.  It makes him a weak President, but what a nice guy!!  Unfortunately, he is at risk in 2012 because of this.
Obama detractors:  Obama is such as wuss.  He knew he was wrong, waffled on his decision, gave in to GOP demands as usual, and is ripe for the pickin in 2012.

The purpose of this post is to show how top-down decision making works.  I am not going to evaluate which side actually has a better argument.  And anyway, my political leanings may influence how I decide.  A more objective way would be to find people who are ambivalent about Obama and poll what they think.  Or we could look at how many Obama supporters agree with the Boehner argument and how many detractors agree with the Obama argument.  Both numbers would be small, but the one that is larger would suggest that argument is more convincing. 

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