We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for presidential debate season, both campaigns are calibrating their messages for different audiences: diehard partisans, regional voting blocks and specific immigrant communities. But these constituencies often respond very differently to the message — and the messenger. Howard Ross argues that subconscious biases profoundly influence the way we see politics. He joins Kojo for a look at our electoral subconscious.
- Howard Ross author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney enter debate season, both campaigns are fine tuning their messages and aiming for different audiences, diehard partisans, regional voting blocks and specific immigrant communities. But those different constituencies likely responded very differently to last night's presidential debate. And the reasons aren't always obvious.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn fact, they may very well lay in each person's subconscious. Although we'd like to believe we make our decision on Election Day based on rationally weighting the merits of each candidate, our hidden biases may be more of a factor in the voting booth than we'd like to believe. We thought we'd talk to our expert on bias in general and hidden bias in particular, Howard Ross. He is the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." He's also the principal of Cook Ross. Howard, always a pleasure.
MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo. Good to see you.
NNAMDIGood day to talk to you. First, what stood out most to you in the presidential debate last night in terms of how the candidates presented themselves?
ROSSWell, I think it's a great example, Kojo, of the fact that we're often looking for the wrong thing when we, you know, analyze what happens. I think it's -- you know, there's an old story, I think it comes from the Sufi tradition, a story of a guy who walks up to a street corner and sees a guy on his hands and knees on the street corner looking for something. He says, what are you looking for? He says, I'm looking for my keys. And so the guy gets down and starts to help me. At some point he says, where'd you last seem them? He says, I dropped them in the ally down the street. The guys says, why you looking here? He says, the light's better here.
ROSSAnd I think that to a certain degree, you know, you can see that in some of the analysis. People are saying, well, what did they say, but I don't think what they say is really the issue. I mean, most studies show that about 70 percent of a reaction to people is from body language, the way people present themselves physically, energetically we might say, about 22, 23 percent from voice and only about 7 percent for content. And I think that that...
NNAMDISo the people who were listening to this on the radio may have had a totally different impression than people who watched this on television.
ROSSWell, absolutely. Although obviously people get energy from people's voices as well, but there's no question that you didn't see that. And I think that that what Governor Romney was able to do last night was he was able to appear forceful. He was able to appear certain. And Americans love certainty. We love people -- I think it's kind of a throwback in a way, and I really mean this seriously, to the cowboy culture. You know, this sort of Marlboro man culture, which is people who are definitive and certain are the kind of people who appeal to us.
ROSSAnd the president came across as much more halting, energetically smaller, if you will. And I think that that really is what surprised people. And it sort of pulls the plug out on this notion of Governor Romney as an ineffectual effete aristocrat who's sort of bumbling because he looked much more presidential last night.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation with Howard Ross, call us at 800-433-8850. Did the presidential debate last night confirm what you already thought about the candidates, or did something change in your mind and opinion? 800-433-8850 or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. A huge theme over the past few weeks has been Mitt Romney's comments at a fundraiser writing off the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay taxes, yet Obama did not mention that 47 percent at all last night.
ROSSYeah, it's hard to know why. I mean, obviously we don't know what's going on in the backroom. I mean, it could very well be that they felt like he was ready for that answer, ready to be challenged on that. They probably figured, you know, they came up with some zinger to respond to is or something so maybe the Obama campaign figured it wasn't there. It felt to me at times in watching the president that he felt a little bit nonplused by some of Romney's responses because they were so different perhaps than what we've heard before from Governor Romney.
ROSSAnd, by the way, just for transparency, I wanted to acknowledge that I'm an Obama supporter. So I try to watch my own biases towards looking at the two of them.
NNAMDIA lot of people felt that Obama held back and was on the defensive most of the night. But going on the attack might be, in the view of many people, a tricky thing for Obama in particular because he has to deal with that angry black man stereotype.
ROSSYeah, it's interesting. I think this is something that obviously, Kojo, you know, that black men deal with all the time in our culture, and that is...
NNAMDIHow would I know this?
ROSS...that there's -- that the way we're perceived in particular emotional stage is quite different. I mean, the same is true often for women in business environments for example, that they have to be very careful -- or feel they have to be very careful not to be seen as too emotional because a woman being emotional is perceived differently than a man being emotional. I think this is a very similar thing.
ROSSAnd for many African American men in particular or men who've lived in this country for their whole lives, that perception that being seen as an angry black man is a dismisser is something that will diminish how they're seen can become almost embedded in their personality as they move up the chain of success. And so at some point, it's not so much that it's a conscious action in his part to do that. It's not so much he sits there and says, oh, I can't say this because of that. It's more that it's a fundamental part of his personality is to maintain that even keel. And at some point we lose access to those emotional expressions that we've sort of suppressed for a long time.
ROSSNow, all of this is speculative, of course. I mean, we're not -- we don't have a -- I don't mean to be putting the president on a couch or anything like that. It's not that, but that's not unusual at all to see. And it's one of the reasons, by the way, that things like hypertension are so high in the African American community because of that suppression of that emotion that people have to deal with all the time. It literally has a physical health impact.
NNAMDIRomney, on the other hand, had some strong criticism for the president, but he did it without being disrespectful, something that we're going to talk about a little more later in this conversation. Americans love certainty. Can you talk about how each candidate looked in terms of showing confidence last night?
ROSSSure. I mean, I think when people get -- Governor Romney, you know, he comes out, he's strong, he's standing tall, he's looking straight out. He didn't hunch over the lectern. When he was speaking he spoke directly at the president, looked direct -- you know, the entire time he looked at him. It was almost like, I'm talking to you, that sense of confidence that says I'm your equal. I'm not secondary to you in this conversation. You know, all of that was present in his physical way of being.
ROSSOn the other hand, President Obama tended to look down at the lectern a lot. He was, it felt, a little hunched over. One of the things that I -- and you folks know that better than I do, you know, because of positioning of the cameras and this is your world more than it is mine, but it occurred to me at some point that because Governor Romney was looking at President Obama, they tended to focus a lot more on the camera behind the president when they were looking at Governor Romney so that they could catch him looking in that direction. And from that angle it made the president look smaller physically.
ROSSWhereas President Obama, when he was speaking, was looking at Jim Lehrer and -- or in to the camera. So he's looking directly into the camera so you didn't get very many shots from over Romney's shoulder. Now, actually they're both the same height, but as you know, this is not an insignificant factor. Because over the last 60 years, there've only been two presidential elections in which a shorter candidate won. We have an association of height and size.
ROSSI mean, for example, John McCain is 5" shorter than President Obama and yet you don't see anything written in any of the postmortems about the last election that called that out as an issue. And yet, you know, two elections out of 60 years is pretty compelling data.
NNAMDIWould one of those two be John Cary and George W. Bush?
ROSSThat's correct. John Cary and George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford are the only two times that...
NNAMDII also seem to remember that in the debates between John Cary and George W. Bush, Cary was the one who seemed to be on the attack more in those debates. But they didn't seem to make that much of a difference at the polls.
ROSSWell, I think that that -- he did get a bump from the debates. I mean, he was seen as -- at least that's my memory -- that he was seen as having won those debates, especially the first one if you remember. But I think that there -- you know, he still lost obviously just by a small -- relatively small margin. Who knows whether that worked or not? But I think in this particular case it was so dramatic. I mean, I don't know about you, but I saw the CNN study this morning -- the CNN poll rather this morning. It said 67 to 22, I think 67 thought that Romney won and 22 thought that the president won. And my response was who are these 22 percent?
ROSSI mean, 'cause whether you like -- even somebody as a supporter of President Obama you've just got to acknowledge he got beat last night.
NNAMDIHere is Matt in Crownsville, Md. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTThanks a lot. You know, one of the things that really struck me was not necessarily either candidate, but it was Jim Lehrer. I really, really was shocked by some of the abbreviated sentences, stammering, sort of a desperation to get a word in edgewise. And I'm wondering if that also really influenced the way that we perceived what happened yesterday evening? And I'd just like to find out what you think.
NNAMDIJim Lehrer last night was not the great interrupter that Ted Koppel used to be, but...
ROSSYeah, there's no question that he seemed somewhat ineffectual. He certainly lost control and I think that -- you know, it felt a little bit like, you know, when I was a kid I used to watch wrestling on TV, you know. And every once in a while, you'd have a wrestler and, you know, they would ring the bell and first would charge across the stage like instantly like they were out of starting blocks. And everybody was a little bit surprised by the suddenness of it. And I felt a little bit like that with both Jim Lehrer and President Obama yesterday, that Romney came out of the blocks so hard and so strong right from the start.
ROSSAnd of course, he very clearly was not going to let Jim Lehrer control the action and so he just kept talking over him, would not allow himself to be stopped. And so he -- in that sense it contributes again to this notion of, you know, I'm in charge. And this is not a bad image for somebody who's running for president to communicate to an awful lot of people. This is somebody who's, you know, willing to take charge. That -- we like that in leaders. For good or for bad, by the way, we like that in leaders.
NNAMDIAnd I think, to some extent, Jim Lehrer tended to lose control of the discussion from time to time.
NNAMDIHere is -- but of course, when you've got two very -- two pretty assertive candidates on stage...
NNAMDI...it's always hard to maintain control. But here is Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEYes. I'm a lifelong Republican, voted for McCain in spite of his vice presidential running mate. And I was, you know, all set to vote for Romney but last night's debate really made me do some soul searching and I'm going to vote for Obama.
NNAMDIThere's one of your 22 percentile.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Steve. Why?
STEVEWell, what I found in the debate was I found an aristocrat, a one-half or one-quarter percenter, a bully. He talked over Jim Lehrer. It's like I have this power that I'm going to thrust upon the American people. And he wasn't the real Romney. The real Romney's who we've seen. This was like a Hollywood makeup, a stand-in almost. He was -- it was staged and it seemed to me to be fake in all of his points. And I could see him in -- like in a business office, you know, selling this is why we want to move this company to China. And all of this came to me and then of course the revelation of, you know, I can vote for a black president because I think he is the proper person to run our country.
NNAMDISteve, thank you very much for your call. You raised some interesting questions because in terms of substance, Steve, Romney was seen by most people as returning to his moderate roots last night in terms of substance, in terms of style. He certainly was the more aggressive of the two persons on stage and that apparently was the turn off for Steve.
ROSSRight. Well, and Steve's view is not isolated. In fact one of the things that they were saying last night as I was watching CNN and they were doing their analysis, and as you know they show -- they have people holding buttons and pressing them as different things. But all kidding aside, one of the things that they found was that when Governor Romney was assertive -- particularly assertive his support among men actually generally went up, but with women went way down.
ROSSAnd so that was an interesting impact to the strategy because clearly the gender gap right now is one of the big issues that he's facing, this enormous gap of women who are supporting the president. And it may very well be that that could backfire over time if he's seen as being a bully, as Steve is saying. But I'm sure there are a lot of people who see that. I mean, they probably would say that he won this debate but nonetheless I was turned off by him.
NNAMDIAnd that's what Steve seems to be saying. A huge focus of the analysis of this presidential campaign is understanding the undecided voter. What is at work in an undecided voter?
ROSSWell, there are obviously a broad range of undecided voters and we can't look at them as a homogenous group. I mean, you've got some people who are just turned off to the political system in general and say, what does it matter anyway? The political system's a bunch of nonsense. And then you've got some people who come from say the Ron Paul edge who say that all politicians are in the wrong direction. They're all in one boat. We need something radically different.
ROSSI think that largely though a lot of undecided voters, particularly in this election, are not issue voters so much because the issues are pretty clear in this election. We've -- it's been a long time since we've had an election where it's been so cleanly divided. And of course the people have been writing and talking about this (word?) in the press. I think that for a lot of undecided voters what they're left with is do I feel comfortable with this person as president?
ROSSAnd that's where these -- excuse me -- visceral determinations come into play. You know, is there somebody I can trust. Is there somebody I feel is authentic? I mean, I think we heard it in Steve's voice, you know -- in Steve's comments rather when Steve says, you know, this guy came across to me as an aristocrat. He came across to me as a bully, somebody who's sort of a power monger, you know, who just feels like he can dominate everybody. It turned Steve off, therefore he decided to vote for Obama. And that's what's still up in the air. I mean, we don't know long term how this will play out.
ROSSI do think that, as I said earlier, this notion that's been cast particularly over the last month of Romney as this sort of bumbling aristocrat who keeps saying dumb things sticking his food in his mouth is going to be hard to get back in the can after seeing last night.
NNAMDIAnd then there are those undecided voters who may not know the issues or understand them all that well. You say last night was a real blow for Obama in terms of those folks.
ROSSYeah, yeah, absolutely because -- well, one thing is, you know, Ingalisa your producer and I were just talking about this and we were saying that, you know, you looks at Bill Clinton who has a remarkable capacity to break down wonkiness in a way that people can understand it. He talks about facts and figures in ways that people can really get it because his style is direct, it's clean, it's appealing. He touches on all the body language stuff. He touches on all the verbal intonation stuff. It feels like your neighbor who just happens to be smart enough to talk about this kind of stuff in a way.
ROSSI think the problem with the president last night and often is that he tends to be more what they call professorial. He tends to be a little bit more halting in the way he talks about it. And it was hard to pay attention last night to both of them when they got into the weeds with that kind of information. And so as a result of that I'm reacting to what I'm feeling and that's where the unconscious comes into play. And we've got some really interesting stuff. You know, in the research it shows that people do respond to politicians in that way. They respond more viscerally.
ROSSFor example, there's a guy named Alexander Toteroff (sp?) who's an NYU professor who did a study back in 2004. He took photographs of all the Republican and Democratic candidates for congress, senate and gubernatorial races. And he showed these photographs to people for one second and then he asked people to rate the competence and trustworthiness of each candidate after one second of exposure. And based on one second of exposure these people chose the winners 70 percent of the time.
ROSSNow obviously that has nothing to do with content, nothing to do with what they're talking about. It's a complete visceral reaction to what they're seeing and what they're reacting to. And that's where these energetic communications become so much more important. So today when you see people like David Axlerod (sp?) this morning -- I happened to catch on the news this morning -- was talking about how, well you know the president said this and Romney said this...
ROSS...getting into substance and content. You know, there's an old saying that no amount of what you don't need will make you happy. If I'm reacting to energy and you're giving me substance I don't even hear what you're saying because you're not speaking to my concern. I think personally that the Obama campaign would've been far better served to handle it like a good baseball manager does when their team gets trounced 15 to 1 and say, you know, we had a bad night. What are you gonna do, and onto the next instead of trying to spin it.
ROSSI think it would've been a much cleaner break for them if they would've said, look we had a bad night. The president was a little surprised by Governor Romney coming up with some new ideas. And so admittedly he was a bit nonplused. It was a bad night. We'll come back next time.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. If the lines are busy go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there Send email to email@example.com. Did you change your mind after seeing last night debates? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Howard Ross about the invisible election, unconscious bias. Howard Ross is the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance. He's also the principal of Cook Ross. And while we're on the topic of election 2012 we should alert you to a new service being offered by WAMU 88.5, our WAMU Voter Guide. The guide takes your address and gives you a list of the races that will be on your ballot come November, not just the presidential or senate races but local school boards and local referenda.
ROSSIt'll also allow you to compare their positions and policy proposals side by side. You can print them out, do your homework and take them with you to the polling booth. Lot onto wamu.org/elections and learn a little more about the issues affecting your community. The middle class, Howard, is a phrase that's in almost every talking point of both candidates. How did that play last night?
ROSSWell, it was interesting. I mean, I think it's hard to know how people resonate with it. I mean, clearly this is the Obama Administration's main talking point, which is that, you know, he wants to built the economy from the middle out. And Governor Romney wants to build it from the top down. And, you know, the whole campaign we've been hearing, you know, sort of that messaging. And I think clearly Governor Romney tried to -- whether he was successful or not remains to be seen -- but he tried to claim that space more for his own. He was trying to diminish this notion that he was only out to cut taxes for the wealthy.
ROSSAnd I think more than anything else -- and again this gets back to more energetic, body language and tonality than even what he was saying because I don't think there was anything particularly substantive about, you know, the this or the that from either side relative to middle class other than the same platitudes we've mostly seen. But he did consciously seem to come across more as a compassionate conservative type, more middle class issues where the elderly was concerned, where teachers were concerned, where all of these issues that are considered to be sort of the heart of the Democratic conversation, and much more so than he has been.
ROSSIt seemed up 'til now both in the primaries and in the campaign he's mostly been more oriented towards his base which tends to not focus so much on those issues. But last night it felt like he was shifting his energy more towards developing that sense of compassion and conservatism in his delivery.
NNAMDII'd like to hear what -- you hear when I read these two emails. The first from Susan, second, a comment posted on our website from Paul. The email from Susan, "I was not surprised at all by Romney's certainness, calm, poise and content knowledge nor his presidentialness. He's a hard working industrious person who has handled great responsibilities in his life. It shapes character. I was also not surprised by the limited range of ideas and responses offered by the president."
ROSSAnd this comment on our website from Paul, "While watching the debate, I saw President Obama as the more presidential figure showing restraint when the moderator spoke or wished to move on while Romney pushed almost too far over the moderator. Obama, at one point, smiled at Jim Lehrer while Romney pushed his voice further and further as if acknowledging Lehrer's frustration with how overtime the candidate was."
ROSSWell, look, I mean, first of all, I want to be really clear when I said that -- described Romney as appearing more presidential, I was talking about the listening that most people have towards this notion of the firm hand, you know, the person who's willing to assert themselves. I was -- I think I may have shared this with you once before, Kojo, but I was in India about six years ago. And a woman there who we met told me this story. She said, you know, we have a joke we tell about Americans, but Americans never get the punch line. And I asked her what the joke was. She said, the joke is what do you get when you ask an American a question? And the punch line is the answer.
ROSSBecause, you know, in the East, of course, in the eastern traditions this sense of definitiveness, yes, no, right or wrong is not nearly so much as it is for us here in this country. But here we like people -- I mean, you look at people like Chris Christie who, you know, one can easily say comes off more as a bully than anything else in his interactions, especially with reporters. And people love that. People love that, you know, kind of gun slinging kind of side to it.
ROSSThere's no question that for whether people thought he won the debate or lost the debate, whichever candidate you're talking about, we're going to still tend to support the people who we like. I mean, people who support President Obama last night could feel like, well, I still 100 percent support him, but I just don't think he had a good night. And on the other hand people who support Governor Romney are obviously going to be very happy that he did well.
NNAMDIAnd that's what you heard (unintelligible) right there.
ROSSThat's right. Exactly right.
NNAMDIHere is Katrina in Laurel, Md. Katrina, your turn.
KATRINAHi. Thank you, Kojo. I just really want to hear more about one of the moments I think was the worst moment for Romney in the debate, which is when he talked about -- referenced his sons. But he didn't say the word sons. He said, I have five boys and he was using that in conjunction with something that the president was saying. And I think that there was some racial overtones with that. And I'd really like to hear more about race.
KATRINAI think Obama's best moment was when he called Romney out and said, you want to replace Obama Care, you want to replace this that and the other, but replace it with what? And I think that was the best moment, which to me Obama won because he had substance and he provided some meat on the bones and on the plate with regards to what he intends to do. And Romney didn't do that. And...
NNAMDIWhy -- well, Katrina, I'm really intrigued. Why did you think that Romney's reference to his sons as five boys have some racial connotation?
KATRINABecause he said, you can say something over and over again, but that doesn't make it true. And he was referencing the $5 trillion comment that the president said regarding Romney's tax rate...
NNAMDIWell, Howard will explain more of it, but as a parent of boys myself, I can tell you that a whole lot of what they say over and over and over and over again is often an indication that it's not true, okay.
ROSSNo. Well, I mean, I understand what -- the point that Katrina's making which is that the reference a boy is certainly something in the history between white men and African American men that's historically there.
NNAMDII have heard that also.
ROSSAnd then -- and I can hear how you might hear it that way. I didn't interpret it particularly that way.
NNAMDINor did I.
ROSSI mean, I have four sons who range in age from 18 to 43 and I often still refer to them as my four boys. But I do think in the heart of what you're saying, Katrina, there was something that I do think was conscious, which was I do believe that by referring to his children in that way and then saying my children lie, therefore that it was a very conscious attempt to diminish the president and to make the president seem like he was acting childlike by doing that. And it's a debating tactic that people do use sometimes. Whether it was racially motivated or not obviously is hard to determine either consciously or unconsciously.
ROSSBut I do think it was a diminishing tool by saying look, you know, my sons lie and now you're lying. It's sort of like you're acting like a kid when you do that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Katrina. We move on now to Leslie in Fairfax, Va. Leslie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LESLIEHi, Kojo. Well, I hope that Katrina is not right. That'll just add another reason for me personally to hate Romney. But the reason that I called...
NNAMDIWhy do you hate Romney?
LESLIEOh, I mean, I just dislike him for so many reasons. I mean, I could -- probably could talk to you for an hour about why I dislike him. I mean, just basically he has such disdain for the average working class American. And he -- it's just as he said about the foreclosures, that...
NNAMDIWell, are you voting or it would appear -- are you supporting President Obama because you dislike Romney so much?
LESLIENo, no. I'm supporting President Obama...
NNAMDIWell, hold on for a second because I'd like Howard Ross to talk about this because, Howard, even if we, you know, like a candidate, one of the points you'd like to make is that we can be passionate for a candidate without having to demonize our opponent. Why do you think that message seems to have become lost?
ROSSWell, I think that we're in a place in our society right now where there's a very disturbing trend in the long term for our political system. And, I mean, a lot of us remember times previously in our history -- I grew up during the Vietnam War era and I remember, you know, there were very strong feelings about those kinds of issues. But you had more moderate Republicans who were antiwar, Paul McCloskey comes to mind. Some of the other sort of what would've been called -- what we may call in those days Rockefeller Republicans.
ROSSYou had conservative -- the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party who were pro-war. And so you had sort of a bell curve where in the middle people could be whatever and then on the ends. Now we have more of a dumbbell curve where you've got the two edges on the end and almost nobody in the middle. And there's actually some data around this. You know, when CNN opinion research asked people do you consider yourself a strong partisan in 1998, 41 percent -- or 43 percent of Democrats said yes. In 2012 the number was up to 62, 40 percent of Republicans said yes. That number was up to 63. Those are pretty dramatic changes over a short period of time.
ROSSAnd David Wasserman (sp?) Cook Political Report last December did a study what they call the Whole Foods Cracker Barrel dynamic. And this is...
NNAMDII was going to get to that later but...
ROSS...yeah, which is another one that's fascinating, which is, you know, they noticed that there's certain -- if you look at the people who cluster around -- live around Whole Food markets that they tend to be more liberal. And those who live around Cracker Barrel restaurants tend to be more conservative. It's one of the most identifiable predictors geographically. Well, when President Clinton ran against President Bush the first time in 1992, the differential between them was about 20 percent. Clinton carried about 60 percent of the Whole Food areas versus 40 percent.
ROSSIn 2000 that number was up to 32 percent differential up from 20 percent. And last time it was up to 45 percent differential. So these are really dramatic shifts in tonality and they're occurring -- and I think one of the reasons is because of what we're seeing as the change in the media. It used to be we would all watch the same media, ABC, CBS and NBC and we would have our various interpretations. But the media itself was -- you know, there really wasn't much of a difference between Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley.
ROSSWhen Walter Cronkite came out against the war in Vietnam very passively, act very quietly it was earth shattering if he'd even shown any inclination. Now of course one group watches MSNBC and the other group watches Fox News or whoever and we have pre-interpreted news. We actually see things differently. So what we've entered into is this domain in which it's customary to demonize people.
ROSSAnd then of course you throw in all of the books that are written, whether it's Ann Coulter's book "Demonic" about liberals or Michael Savage "Liberalism is a Mental Disorder," or Glenn Beck or Bill O'Riley "Pinheads and Patriots," or Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" or "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," Al Franken's book. And I could go on and on, but we see these books coming out by the droves now which sort of feed this frenzy. And it's all fear driven and that's the key. I mean, I think that's the thing to really look at is that politics has become increasingly fear driven.
ROSSIt's not that there are no precedents for that, but it's become the mother's milk of politics today that -- rather than the issues. And the more we have the media, the more we're presenting in front -- and, you know, we were just talking about this at the break, Kojo, when people see people on television they tend to focus enormously on image rather than substance. We tend to focus -- because we're seeing soundbites -- short soundbites of what people are saying on a clip in the news and this feeds the frenzies.
ROSSSo if we look at on the Republican side taking the soundbite of President Obama saying you didn't build this, taking that out of context. But similarly, you know, if we really look at the context of some of the things that Governor Romney has said, that they've been taken out of context as well. I mean, let's face it, you know, all of the folks on the Democratic side who get enraged when people say President Obama is not a good patriot. He doesn't love this country or he hates this country don't seem to mind when people on the left say about Governor Romney, he hates poor people or he doesn't care about poor people. Well, you know, both of those are inaccurate in their context.
NNAMDISeen through the viewfinder of partisan media the opposition are demons because -- the opposition seem like demons because, well, they are.
ROSSThat's right and it feeds on itself. And so it becomes a repeating loop.
NNAMDII'm sorry, Leslie, please continue your point.
LESLIEYeah, because I listened to the debate yesterday on the radio and I -- so I really...
NNAMDIOh, by the way, good for you.
LESLIEYeah, I'm much more of a radio person but see, I was able to concentrate exactly as the guest was saying. But this is what I noticed. I noticed that because -- I feel and I think I'm not alone obviously in feeling this, but that President Obama is so intellectually superior, but he's also considerably more of a moral man than Romney. And I think that the president -- to me, it came over as the president was more confounded by Romney because as an intellectual and it's how do you have a meaningful debate with somebody who panders and lies as much as Romney does. So that's what I wanted to say.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call.
LESLIEThank you, Kojo. Okay, bye-bye.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Here's Howard.
ROSSYeah. I mean, look, I mean, that -- I mean, my sense was, and I -- I did watch on TV, but I do think that there's something to be said, as Leslie was saying, for listening on the radio, because it does eliminate some of these cues, and we do have to listen more carefully to what's being said. We hear more of the language because we don't have the visual cues to distract us, and I think that that's the case. I also personally felt that it looked like the president was a bit dumbfounded by what Governor Romney was saying.
ROSSBut one of the other things about this that's kind of interesting is there's some really fascinating researching now being done, particularly by Jonathan Haidt at NYU, about the various different ways that liberals and conservatives see the world. And what we're finding is the research is that we actually see certain things and don't see others depending upon our focus. There's a phenomenon the psychologists call selective attention.
ROSSIt's the phenomenon that has pregnant women see pregnant women everywhere, or if you're thinking of buying a new car, it seems like every time you turn around you see an advertisement for that car. Our brains are oriented to see certain things and not others, because exposed to millions of pieces of information at any one time, and we can only perceive about 40 or 50. So we see things that resonate with us. So we will tend to, by our nature, listen to hear things that are important to us, or that we resonate with, and not hear things that we're not.
ROSSSo for example, what they've discovered is -- a couple of University of Nebraska professors discovered that when viewing photographs, conservative eyes unconsciously linger 15 percent longer on unpleasant images, which suggest that conservatives are more attune than liberals to evaluating potential threats to them. That conservative students, when tested at -- another NYU professor, John Jose (sp?) found that conservative students have more cleaning and organizational items in their rooms, whereas liberal students tend to have more books and travel-related and novelty-seeking kind of items.
ROSSAnd so we've got two very different world views. One is much more fixated on we might call group loyalty, hierarchy, purity, you know, it's kind of right and the conservatives tend to be more focused on those three aspects, where the other aspects, which are psychological bases of morality are harm and pain or fairness in equity, and liberals tend to focus more on those, you know. Do no harm, don't hurt people, take care of people, and make sure people are treated fairly.
ROSSAnd so if we look in the bigger perspective, if we were to really take a healthy look at a bigger perspective, kind of like when we're in a relationship, you know, we can go back and forth with each other, and then occasionally, if we've got a healthy relationship, we pop our heads out of the water and we say all right, we're kind of getting caught in our stuff here. Let's look at the bigger picture, which is the long-term benefit of our relationship. If we were to look at the long-term benefit of our society, we can see that there's actually a place for both.
ROSSThere are actually places where that conservative mindset, security, dependability, structure and hierarchy, all these things can be really helpful. For example, if you're in a sailboat in a storm, it's not the time to say let's get everybody together and see what they think, you know. You want somebody who's willing to take control. On the other hand, we know that too much of that can end up being dispassionate and hurtful to people, and that's where we also need the other.
ROSSBut the challenges we've now become bipolar in terms of this -- in terms of our societal structure, and so it's more of an either or, rather than seeing a way that both can work together.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Howard Ross about the invisible election unconscious bias. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. Did the presidential debate last night confirm what you already thought about the candidates? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Howard Ross is here. We're talking about last night's debate and the election in general, and how unconscious bias affects how we view those things. Howard Ross is the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." He's also the principal of the firm Cook Ross. We got an email from Sylvia who said, "The debate went much as I expected. As a supporter of the president, I did not watch it. I'm wondering, however, the president not making the points we all wanted to hear during the debate actually worked in his favor, since now everyone discussing the debate seems to be making those points for him?"
ROSSWell, to some degree, although as I said before, all of that assumes that content is the issue, and we know that -- we know that -- and that assumes that the rational mind is what makes our choices, and we know that the rational mind doesn't make our choices, that, in fact, it's our emotional reactions that make most of our choices, and this is what all the new brain research is showing.
ROSSAnd we see it, by the way, in ways outside of candidates, you know. For example, back in 2010 when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still being debated, CNN and Opinion Research...
NNAMDII was about to get to that, yes.
ROSSYeah. CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation did a survey, and they asked people a question. They said, do you think people who are openly gay or lesbian should not be allowed serve -- should or should not be allowed to serve in U.S. military, and about 78 percent of people said that they should be allowed to. Then they asked the question, do you think people who are openly homosexual should or should not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military, and the positive numbers by over 11 percent. Now, I don't know what people thought gay meant, but ...
ROSSYes, exactly, I guess. But, I mean, how irrational is that. You know, you ask people the same exact question with just a different determination and, you know, I just came over here, I serve on the External Diversity Advisory Board for the Human Rights Campaign, and we were just talking about the marriage equality campaign, and it's the same -- it's the same thing, you know. If you call it gay marriage, the numbers drop. If you call it marriage equality, the numbers go up.
ROSSSo a lot of it is the visceral reaction we have to the different coding that's used, the different words that were used, and I think in the case of the campaign, this is a little bit of what we're seeing.
ROSSA lot of what we're seeing.
NNAMDIEven if we don't believe we're biased, we're -- we all like to believe we're open minded. We seem to carry a great number of internal stereotypes. How do those affect how we view things?
ROSSOh, dramatically, and we see those in lots of different ways, and we now have ways to test for those stereotypes. There are a number of tests, the most well-known, of focus, is the implicit association test which was created at Harvard, University of Washington, University of Virginia, which, by the way, our listeners can take on their own if they Google implicit association test. It's a free test that will give you feedback as to what some of your unconscious reactions to different groups are. Which ones you tend to lean towards, or which ones you tend to lean away...
NNAMDIYou can find a link to that on our website, kojoshow.org. But talk more specifically about how it operated in the case of Shirley Sherrod who had been forced to resign her position from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because video excerpts...
NNAMDI...from and address that she had gave.
ROSSGood. So the way the mind works is that we see something and immediately we go back to, you know, our amygdale reacts, our fear center of the brain reacts to something, we see something, it's like a startling alarm, and then we immediately go back to our limbic system, the autonomic functions of the brain and very quickly try to sort that out and figure out what it reminds us of. And in most cases, that's how we make our decisions. Now, occasionally we pop up to the prefrontal neocortex, which is the part of our brain that helps us think about thinking.
ROSSSo when we say, for example, what made me think about that, that's our moments more of consciousness. So the challenge is this. We have very little capacity for prefrontal neocortex thinking. If you think of that, the capacity of the prefrontal neocortex is like a small watermelon. The limbic system, or the automatic thinking is more like the Milky Way. So -- because it takes energy, it takes effort. So we do that occasionally, but not often.
ROSSSo you take something like Shirley Sherrod for example, and Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger, sends out the quote from Shirley Sherrod that, you know, she was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and she was faced with having a white person help save their land, et cetera. And not only do conservatives respond to that and say, oh, this is terrible, but even many liberals. In fact, she ended up resigning from her post because in the government...
ROSS…this wasn't an acceptable thing to say. Why? Because it fit the narrative of what somebody like Shirley Sherrod would think. We only find out a week later, of course, that she went on to say that working with him made me see that it's not really about race, but it's really about poverty, and everybody said oops, you know. But the fact it happened, not just because of what Breitbart did, but because he spoke into a narrative that made that make sense to people. And similarly, we see as we look at our candidates, as we look at each other, we look at people in a way that makes sense.
ROSSAnd so we know for example that then people look at images of African Americans that they tend to more easily associate them with danger in various ways, with anger in their face, with anger in their gestures, with crime, with hostility, all of these kinds of things that we tend to more easily associate those things and not so much with white people, and a lot of that has to do of course with stereotyping and all the things we see on TV that we know that...
NNAMDIGiven the amount of grief that Mitt Romney has taken for strapping his dog to the top of his car, if a video surfaced with Mitt Romney kicking a dog, would unconscious bias cause a lot of people simply to believe it?
ROSSWell, absolutely. We tend to build a case in our minds for these kinds of things.
NNAMDIEven if it was photoshopped and built from something else?
ROSSExactly right. We collect data that affirms our point of view. At a very simple level, think of this way. You're driving behind somebody in a car. They've got long hair, you start saying, oh, women drivers, and then you go to pull around a person and you find out it's a man with long hair. Most people then say oh, I was wrong. They usually say, well, there's an exception to every rule. Women drivers are still bad. We tend to hold onto that which we believe.
ROSSJohn Kenneth Galbraith, the great economist, once said that most human beings, given a strongly-held point of view and evidence to the contrary will very quickly go about refuting the evidence.
NNAMDIHere is Shonda in Waldorf, NY. Shonda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHONDAHi, how you doing?
NNAMDII'm well, Shonda.
SHONDAI just wanted to say, you know, I wanted to hear almost like if I come in your house and I tell you that I'm going to fix it, you ask me for specifics. What are you going to do, how are you going to do the roof, not I'm going to get with my crew and then I'll let you know after you hire me for the job, and that's sort of what I felt like was going on with Romney. He didn't give any specifics on what exactly are you going to do to reduce the deficit. What plans do you have in mind, and that was the one thing that turned me off, his lack of giving specifics, other than just saying that he was going to get together with people and figure something out.
SHONDABut you're asking me to vote for you based on what you say you're going to do, but you're not saying you're going to do anything, and that really turned me off.
NNAMDIBut Howard was also making the point that when they get into specifics as opposed or compared with Bill Clinton, the eyes start to glaze over.
ROSSWell, there's that, but there's something else that Romney did last night, and I think he actually -- I think he actually did it brilliantly, you know, even though like I said, I don't support him, but I think he did it brilliantly, and that was, he spoke non-specifically in a very specific way. In other words, you know, here's my five-point plan, point one, point two, point three, point four, point five. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Now, if you listen to each of those five points, really didn't say anything, but by doing it in that way, it sounded very specific and orderly. For a lot of people it feels like this guy knows what he's doing. He's got a plan.
ROSSAnd I think he's -- he was exactly speaking to -- I think that was very much part of the rehearsal. He's very much speaking to this criticism that Shonda was referring to, and a lot of people have been talking by the way, what's he going to do anyway. Now, the president tried to bring it back to it, and every time, if you remember, what Governor Romney did was went back to his, here's what I said I'm going to do I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this.
ROSSSo he -- so the specificity lived in his energy and the way he laid it out, more than in the content, but since most people don't listen for content, they listen for energy, a lot of people probably came away saying, oh, he's got a plan.
NNAMDIWell, before the debate occurred and President Obama seemed to be forging ahead in many of the swing states, a lot of people on the Republican side began to question media bias in polls, saying that the way the media were polling indicated that the media in the tank was in favor of President Obama, and then there's this from Sam in Washington DC. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMHi Kojo. I, you know, what I took away from the -- as far as body language and the underlying messages, after the debate, and I watched the debate on NBC, I noticed how forlorn all of the media folks were, like -- and I think part of it was, you know, that they were surprised because it was unexpected that Obama would flounder. I'm an independent voter, and I'm leaning towards Obama. I'm going to vote for Obama because quick fixes are generally not long-term fixes.
SAMBut in any event -- but what struck me was -- as far as biases go, and even -- and I'm going to call you out, Kojo, when you opened up the show, you said, what went wrong. And there is this like underlying -- and I don't want to attribute it necessarily to -- I don't want to attribute it necessarily to, you know, you're an Obama supporter, but you wouldn't give credence to anything that, you know, the opposing party would have to say, and that's exactly why I'm independent, because I think there's good points on both sides.
NNAMDIWell, if -- as they say, context is everything. If you had paid attention to the preceding line, it said that Obama's handlers essentially are probably going over their strategy right now trying to figure out what went wrong.
SAMOkay. Well, well, what I caught you say was what went wrong.
SAMAnd so forgive me if I misquoted you.
NNAMDIWell, they say context is everything. But go ahead.
ROSSBut I do think, Sam, that what you're saying -- this is Howard. I do think that what you're saying has got some legitimacy to it. Not about the Kojo statement, but about the media, and that is that we've got very few media sources today, or media representatives who are really seen as, you know, nonpartisan. One of the reasons Jim Lehrer ended up doing the thing was because he was the only person they could agree on.
ROSSAnd after all of these years, I don't know if anybody even knows what his politics are, which is pretty remarkable given how long he's been around. But most media people today, you know, certainly you have the extremes, some of the MSNBC folks and some of the Fox folks who are more pundits than they are news reporters anyway. But I think generally speaking you have a tendency to see what the tilt is, and so depending upon the station that you watch, you will get support or derision of a particularly candidate.
ROSSAnd you can see it also for example when the 47 percent tape came out, when Romney's 47 percent tape came out. On NBC it was a continuous loop for three days. There was nothing else that they virtually talked about for three days, whereas on Fox News, it was talked about for about four minutes and then passed on. I mean, so, you know, I think when you watch -- this is one of the reasons why I think it's so important that we consciously force ourselves to watch alternative media sources and not to just watch one media source.
ROSSAnd I know sometimes for myself it's painful, but it's really critical if we're going to be good citizens.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on now to Lauren in Washington DC. Lauren, it's your turn.
LAURENYes, hi. I'm just calling in because in all of the debates I've ever watched, I have never felt so 180 degrees out of step with the general sentiment. When I got to the last moments of that debate, the honest thoughts in my head were, hmm, I don't really like the guy's sentiment -- the guy's politics, but poor Mitt Romney, he just got trounced. And what I was responding to was, we've had these series of contentious ads back and forth, and people keep saying, you know, explain, explain, do more explaining, and I was watching Romney and I kept feeling like he was a teenager who had up cramming for the exam and got out and there and just wanted to spit all the facts out without really digesting them as quickly as possible before he got them.
LAURENAnd I watch Obama thinking oh, my God, finally he's standing on his faith and he's explaining some things to us. And then in a sense, you know, he was giving us what it seemed like people were saying they wanted more of and the response is...
NNAMDIWe've -- we've...
LAUREN...that no (unintelligible)
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time, Howard Ross, but I guess that has a lot to do with the notion of we've gotten used to instant post-analysis of people telling us what we just saw.
ROSSWell, there's that, and also I think it depends where we listen from. I mean, if -- and obviously, you know, Lauren knows herself, but if Lauren's somebody who's very thoughtful and really listens carefully to what people are saying, and really likes explanations, then she would perceive it that way because that's how her listening is, and I could very easily see that. But unfortunately, that's not the way most people listen.
NNAMDIHoward Ross is the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." He's also the principal of Cook Ross. Always a pleasure.
ROSSYeah. It was great, Kojo. Thanks.
NNAMDIThank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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