ideas42 Affiliate Series: A Talk with Adam S. Levine

Aug 10, 2015 in Blog


ideas42’s network of academic affiliates represent some of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral science. With the ideas42 Affiliate Series, we invite them to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

Our third interview brought one of ideas42’s newest affiliates, Adam S. Levine of Cornell University, to our New York office. Adam’s research focuses on political communication, and how the language used to describe policies, social problems, and American politics more generally affects people’s attitudes and their willingness to engage. He is the recent author of “American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction”, which posits that arguments intended to mobilize individuals—asking them to devote money or time to politics—remind citizens of their economic fears and personal constraints, leading to undermobilization and nonparticipation. After giving a talk to the ideas42 team, Adam was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on behavioral science:

What drew you to the field of behavioral science?

I studied a lot of economics and psychology in college, and that turned me on to interdisciplinary work in general and, in particular, the broad field of behavioral science. My interest grew once I realized how useful it could be for offering new and fresh explanations for otherwise puzzling phenomena.

What’s one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior?

Humans constantly face new or unfamiliar situations in which they don’t have ready-made scripts to rely upon. This means that their decisions can be extremely sensitive to information that is made salient in the moment (and, conversely, not sensitive to potentially-important information that is not made salient). The result is that variations in communication can powerfully impact people’s attitudes and behavior, such as why they do or do not become active in politics.

Tell us about your new book. How can understanding self-undermining rhetoric inform approaches to more inclusive political participation?

Building a more inclusive politics is an extremely common goal. For many, this means starting with a problem that is not currently on the political agenda and trying to mobilize people around it. It could be a problem that people are already facing in their personal lives, such as rising health care costs or college tuition. Or it could be something that threatens to affect them in a big way, such as climate change. Or it could be some attribute of the political system that worries them, such as campaign finance. And so on.

In each case, the natural first step is simply to start talking about those problems. This is something that we see politicians, candidates, and other political organizations do all the time.

Yet there’s a potential problem with this approach, and it’s one that I investigate a lot in my research. A “politics of problems”, especially personal problems, can be really difficult to achieve. The mere act of talking about problems can actually reduce people’s willingness to spend cognitive effort, time, and money on political activity that might address them. The crux is that such rhetoric can be self-undermining — talking about people’s problems makes those problems salient and can, for a variety of reasons, reduce people’s willingness to get involved. So the rhetoric itself presents a unique set of barriers to inclusive political participation because it undermines the very purpose it is trying to achieve.

In my book, I investigate this in an especially important context: the politics of economic insecurity. I start with a puzzle: Why haven’t we seen a lot of large-scale political pressure to stem growing economic insecurity in the United States? I argue that the very rhetoric that is used to try to mobilize people around these issues — rhetoric that inherently reminds people about financial constraints that they face in their personal lives — reduces their willingness to spend money and, in some cases, time on politics.

It’s important to underscore how this reminder is only impactful because people often don’t have ready-made responses when asked to donate time or money to a political cause. They often decide in the moment. Moreover, thanks to decades of research on mental accounting by people like Dick Thaler, we know that being reminded of other things on which you need to spend money — things that you might not otherwise be thinking about — can impact whether you subjectively perceive that you can afford to spend money (or time) on something in a particular moment. Thus what drives my main results is a combination of the power of communication and a few powerful attributes of human decision-making.

So, from a theoretical point of view, one of the key messages of my book is about how political rhetoric can be self-undermining, and how this creates barriers to inclusive political participation. Once we recognize this, the question is what to do next. The first step is to change the nature of the conversation. Many conversations about the barriers to political participation focus on either relatively immutable attributes of individuals, or they focus on the mere presence or absence of mobilization. Yet, adopting a communicative point of view means paying attention to how rhetoric can change the kinds of considerations that are salient and, as a result, affect people’s decisions to get involved in politics. The second step is, once we’ve changed the conversation, to focus more carefully on how to craft mobilization appeals that are not self-undermining.

What have you learned in applying behavioral science that has changed the way you work?

In my work I advocate for a new way of explaining attitudes and behavior that combines well-known insights about human decision-making as well as communication and persuasion. My book focuses mostly on political settings, but self-undermining rhetoric can certainly arise in nonpolitical domains as well. It is a broadly-applicable concept rather than just an argument specific to the economic insecurity context.

For many people it seems natural to explain people’s attitudes and behavior, or whether they are paying attention, by focusing on preferences or attributes that are thought to be relatively immutable (such as: a general lack of interest, efficacy, money, time, information, etc.). While I agree that all of those factors can have incredibly powerful effects, I also believe that subjective perceptions of each one — for example, whether you feel like you can afford to spend time or money at a particular moment, or whether you think it is worth it to focus on a particular stimulus — can be highly context dependent. This is why focusing on features of the decision-making context and what kind of information is being supplied by credible sources is so important.

People’s attention, time, and money are very scarce commodities. Political elites are constantly fighting for it, as are businesses, organizers, friends, family members, bosses, etc. I would argue, however, that they often do so in ways that are self-undermining because their persuasive appeals make salient considerations that undermine the very purpose they’re trying to achieve. In my current research I am identifying these ways in a variety of issue domains such as climate change, campaign finance, and income inequality.

How do you use behavioral science in your daily life (or recommend that people use behavioral science in their daily lives)?

The short answer is that I should probably be using it more than I do! But, with that caveat in mind, there are two major ways in which I try to apply it in my daily life. The first way refers to how I communicate with others. I try to be mindful of the ways in which my own rhetoric can potentially be self-undermining, and to try to avoid that as much as possible.

The second way is that, given how much I know that my own decisions can be sensitive to contextual information (especially in new or unfamiliar contexts), when making decisions I try to run counterfactuals such as: Would I make the same decision if the options were presented in a different way? Why are certain kinds of considerations salient right now and not others? Would I make a different decision if other kinds of considerations were salient? I’ll fully admit that this is a lot easier said than done, as it requires not simply relying upon more automatic processing, but it’s something that I try to be mindful of as much as possible.