Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Obama Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the term used in psychology to describe the conflict that exists when there is discrepancy between the beliefs and behaviors of an individual.  Many times the discrepancies seem to be driven by the differences in our brains.  Our brains operate in two spheres-an emotional or reflexive mode and an analytical or reflective mode.

Most decisions are made reflexively as this is the part of the brain that insures survival.  It is focused more on the here and now without careful thinking and analysis.  After all, if a wild boar started chasing your ancestor as he left his cave in the morning, he didn't stop and analyze the situation before starting to run for the nearest tree.  This is reflexive thinking.  There just wasn't a whole lot of reflective thinking done in those caveman days when surviving each day was a major accomplishment.  Your ancestor may have thought he needed to plan for winter by storing up food but it you are hungry right now it is unlikely you are going to let that reflective thought get in the way of tonight's meal.

We see cognitive dissonance all of the time.  The middle age man who knows he needs to save for retirement but spends all his savings on a new big screen tv.  The high school girl who needs to lose twenty pounds before the prom but eats ice cream every night.  The college guy who needs a good grade on his final in psychology to avoid flunking out but goes drinking with his buddies instead.  The woman who says it is important to her to be financially secure but who keeps dating men who are all financial losers.  You get the idea.  It really amounts to a disconnect between belief and behavior.  Knowing what you should do but doing the opposite.

All of this struck a chord with me over the last few days as I watched the State of the Union address last  night and saw several other articles about President Obama in the news.  If there was ever a case of cognitive dissonance, it is readily apparent in looking at the American people's attitudes regarding President Obama.

A few examples.

These are President Obama's job approval ratings on nine key national issues according to a recent Gallup poll .  He is below 50% approval on eight of the nine issues.  60% disapprove of his handling of the economy.  He only has a 31% approval rating on the federal budget deficit.

However, the Gallup survey points to a World Affairs poll conducted in the same timeframe that shows President Obama's overall job approval to be 51%.  How can this be?  I call this Obama Dissonance.  In your head you know he is wrong.  However, in your heart, you just want to believe he is right.

Another example is this article in that profiles the dire warnings of Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff on the urgent need for entitlement reform.  (Note: the emphasis below are mine).

Social Security and Medicare are bankrupting the economy, and the payroll tax needs to be raised four percentage points to keep Social Security solvent, says Boston University economics professor and author Laurence Kotlikoff. 
“The entire country is probably broke,” he tells Newsmax TV in an exclusive interview. “It’s in much worse long-term fiscal shape than any politician is revealing to the public. I’m not even sure they understand the truth. Certainly the president doesn’t sound like he understands.”
Social Security is 31 percent underfinanced, and Medicare “by itself can probably run the country broke,” Kotlikoff says.
 “Generationally this is a zero-sum game,” he says. The president doesn’t seem to understand that.”
Asked his reaction to President Barack Obama’s opposition to an increase in the Medicare eligibility age, Kotlikoff says, I think he’s a person who doesn’t care about the future of the country.”

It sounds as if Professor Kotlikoff has really thought this through with very precise analytical reasoning.  As I am reading this I am wondering how the good Professor voted in last November's election.  After all, he lives right in Mitt Romney's neighborhood.  What do I find but another case of Obama Dissonance as I read on.

Kotlikoff hastens to add that he voted for Obama. But, “I can’t think a responsible adult who gives a damn about his children would look at this situation and come up with that kind of a statement,” he says.
He voted for Obama and yet this is the way he thinks?  It gets even better.

So what happens if we continue to do nothing about these problems?
As the budget deficit remains huge and the Federal Reserve keeps printing money, inflation “takes off,” Kotlikoff says. China and others sell our bonds, and interest rates go up.
“Then we become like Greece,” he says. “We have to cut benefits or raise taxes dramatically.” 
And it’s young people who will suffer the worst of that, Kotlikoff says. “This is fiscal child abuse. The president is the country’s leading fiscal child abuser."
That's right, Professor Kotlikoff admits that he voted for the country's leading fiscal child abuser.  What is he thinking?  He is thinking right.  However, his behavior belies his beliefs.

The final example occurred during last night's State of the Union address that I watched on the Fox News Channel.  Fox partnered with Bing to develop a pulse poll to monitor real-time reactions to the President's speech.  It allowed viewers to register their approval of the speech second-by-second from a positive score of +100 to a negative score of -100.  A neutral score would be 0.  Obama's overall score for the entire speech was -54 out of 12.9 million votes cast when I checked the results on Bing last night.

I watched the entire speech and I only saw the pulse line hit 0 once all night.  That is when he spoke about bringing the troops. When he spoke about climate change legislation and gun control legislation, the pulse line almost hit the -100 bottom.  This clearly could be a skewed sample as the people participating in the pulse pol most likely had smartphones, iPads and other devices fired up at the same time they were watching the SOTU.  However, I think it is instructive nevertheless.

I also found it interesting that when I went back to pull the data in writing this post that the overall score of -54 was no longer on that site.  The graphs shown above were also altered to make it appear that "Positive" above was a Score of 100 when in reality it is a "Neutral".   In effect, the graphs above are just showing various shades of negative.  I guess it might have been a little too much for the Microsoft staff in Bellevue to realize that there were no positives when people were viewing President Obama second-by-second.  Yet another example of Obama Dissonance.

What does this all mean?  It simply means that most human beings are driven more by style than substance.  Cool over competent.  Today over tomorrow.  Heart over head.  Easy over hard.

However, style changes, cool turns cold, tomorrow does comes and you need to start using your head to survive.  Hard today will look easy tomorrow when that day comes.  We all need to start reflecting on that.  It is time to start overcoming Obama Dissonance before it is too late.

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