Heuristics in Politics?

In my American politics class we study a unit about public opinion and discuss how unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans are often too politically uninformed to form any educated opinions on things like policy. The lack of their political knowledge means they do not actually have any underlying ideology that they are true to or that they can rely on to exercise judgment about current events or policy activity.

One concept that the past couple of lectures in this politics class have focused on is the idea of costs and benefits, in reference to the way people express opinion on potential policies based on how much it will cost or benefit them – essentially self-interest. However, sometimes people are unable to assess how a certain policy would actually affect them, so people make assumptions and rely on cues from people like government officials they may have come to trust over time in order to develop “opinions.”

The more we studied these ideas, the more I realized this is exactly what social psychologists are trying to get at when they are talking about heuristics. Thinking back on when we studied social cognition and low-effort thinking, I realized assumptions people make about political parties are perfect examples of schemas, and that using these schemas to make fairly reliable political judgments is a perfect example of using a heuristic.

One kind of assumption nearly everyone in this country probably makes at some point in time, is that they most likely agree with whatever their political party has to say about the issue. If you are a democrat, and you have no idea how the United States intervening in Syria’s civil war might affect you, you are likely to to take on the traditional democratic view point of war involvement, and be opposed to supporting possible airstrikes. Similarly, if you have no idea how you how feel about this topic, but know you’ve agreed with most of Obama’s opinions on completely unrelated things like healthcare and education, you are likely to assume you agree with him on this too and assume whatever opinion he seems to have on the issue.

This is precisely how automatic, low-effort thinking works in the realm of politics and public opinion. It is clear that certain concepts of social psychology translate directly into other fields of study and academia, and the more I look into it, the more I realize how very applicable social psych actually is to many other both academic, and non-academic, realms.




Leave a Reply