Rational choice theory promotes the idea that preferences are logically ordered, or to use Paul Samuelson’s term, there is a revealed order of consumer preferences. If I prefer a to b and b to c, I will not prefer c to a – such is the hypothesis. It is an interesting hypothesis in so far as testing goes, since it turns out that testing preferences is very sensitive to initial conditions. In a recent experiment by Peter Johannson on what he calls “choice blindness” – that is, blindness to why one makes a choice and how one decides to be consistent, or otherwise, with that choice.
Here’s a summary of the experiment. Trigger warning – it begins in the sexist “is she hot or is she not” mode.
The experimenters presented subjects subjects with two photos of female faces and were asked which they found more attractive.
They were given a closer look at their “chosen” photograph and asked to verbally explain their choice immediately.
The trial was repeated 15 times for watch volunteer, using different pairs of faces but in three of the trials, unknown to the subjects, a card magic trick was used to extremely exchange one face for the other after a decision has been made. The subjects end up with the face they did not actually choose. And they were again, asked to explain why made them choose that particular face, even though it wasn’t really their first choice.
… The result was the 75 percent failed to notice the mismatch, and made up explanations for why they had chosen the face they had not originally chosen. When asked about a hypothetical – that you were involved in an experiment where the faces were switched – 85 percent said that they would notice the mismatch.”
Now these kinds of experiments cull their subjects out of real life. Having to choose among anonymous pictures does not fully account for real life choices in the ordinary routines of people.
However, what the experiment does say – to me – is that people – in Western, capitalist societies – have a tendency to search for consistency, once they have attached themselves to a choice. They, as it were, identify with their choice. Politically, this means that if one’s choice is simply a matter of liking or “hating” a political figure, one will often find oneself in contradictory and even nonsensical situations.
I have been thinking of Johannson’s experiment looking at twitter, which is a good example of a thin-experience environment. I don’t know how many tweets I have read from American conservatives gloating about Macron’s troubles. I think the impulse, here, stems directly from the simple idea that Trump hates Macron, and Macron hates Trump. Thus, Macron must be a liberal. And, consistent with this conclusion is the conclusion that the protest against Macron must be Trumpist, i.e. must be somehow part of the right.
In fact, of course, the mixed sources and ideologies of the Gilets Jaunes protests are blurred beyond recognition by this perception. There are definitely rightwing GJ, and there are leftwing GJ. However, one of the reasons that the gas tax annulment and the 75 centime an hour raise in the minimum wage – that weird raise, which seems to come out of the worker’s prime, making it less a wage hike than a transfer of funds – has not calmed the GJ is that the demand that Macron abandon his core policy of supply side tax cuts for Capital has been ignored or refused by Macron.
It is at this point that the clued in observer goes, aha, or eureka, or something. We’ve found a mismatch! But the clued in observer is deluding him or herself if she thinks that she has found a god’s eye perspective on what is really happening. A mismatch can actually bend reality to it. Report that the GJ are right wing populist long enough and you will produce a culling of left wing GJ, producing exactly the result you falsely deduced before. This is one of the commonest dynamics in politics. The interest of those news organizations both inside and outside France in leading to some pre-figured ideological conclusion is not just a matter for media criticism. It has a performative effect. In France, Macron is trying to stigmatize his opposition as either extreme or violent. Call it the politics of the mismatch. This plays on the notion, familiar to all advertisers, that you move the parity products by cementing some connotation with them that is attractive, or you cement some connotation with the competition that is disgusting.
Sometimes, it doesn’t work. But even if it doesn’t, it very often, most often, exhausts an opposition if it plays the game of explaining itself over and over to an audience that has an interest in misunderstanding it. In this way, a situation that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its failures can go on a long, long time.