Saturday, September 10, 2011

Prospect theory and the presidency

Barack Obama, many say, has no chance for re-election. This may be accurate, gauging by his approval ratings and the erosion of his base as his message of hope wears thinner by the day, shading into despair for more and more who lose homes, lose jobs, lose health care and lose educational opportunities.

His only hope in this snapshot moment--which will change, no doubt, over the coming 18 months before the next election--is what psychology researchers call the prospect theory, that is, our alternative may not be perfect, but it's far better than the near certain disasters which will occur if we choose any of the other alternatives. Yes, it's far more technical and complex, but this is one rudimentary application of the theory to political reality and messaging. As theory co-founder Daniel Kahneman puts it, "people hate losing much more than they like winning," adding that people can also be "delusional" about chances for victory--which he also describes as "the emotional tail wags the rational dog," which is the countervailing force, of course.

At this time, a Democratic primary opponent of serious challenging consequence and a truly threatening third party candidate seem outside probable consideration, though that could change. We are left to wonder how Obama would most effectively frame a campaign against his Republican opponent, who might be Perry or Romney, based on what has occurred to date--again, subject to wild revisions over the next period.

Romney poses the most serious threat to Obama from the prospect theory standpoint, since they each can employ it against each other, but neither is likely to gain a huge advantage solely with that approach.

But Rick Perry, clearly radically different than Barack Obama in so many fundamental ways, would almost mandate such an approach and Obama's campaign would either succeed in that way or prove to the world that America is losing its grip on reality, losing its status as a nation interested in human rights, and becoming just another theocratic, retributive regime with its limbic system wagging it cognition.

Big advances toward a peace system under this scenario are unlikely at the national level. While weighing in at that level is always valuable, it seems to me that our biggest opportunities for systemic change will be at the local and state level for some time to come.

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