March 19, 2012

Core beliefs

The most insightful political-marketing observations I’ve seen in some time come from a New York Times article by Jonathan Haidt that, unsurprisingly, turns out to be excerpted/adapted from a whole book on the point. It argues that an essential aspect to political belief are the stories tribes tell themselves.

When I put it like that, it sounds straight out of Seth Godin. But Haidt says it in a different — and to me more compelling — way (emphasis mine):

Self-interest, political scientists have found, is a surprisingly weak predictor of people’s views on specific issues. Parents of children in public school are not more supportive of government aid to schools than other citizens. People without health insurance are not more likely to favor government-provided health insurance than are people who are fully insured.

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation.

Haidt then goes on to cite detailed explications of the core stories of the US Left and the US Right, and to back up his claims with a couple of examples from very recent politics:

It’s one thing for the government to insist that people have a right to buy a product that their employer abhors. But it’s a rather direct act of sacrilege (for many Christians) for the government to force religious institutions to pay for that product. The outraged reaction galvanized the Christian right and gave a lift to Rick Santorum’s campaign.

It’s one thing for a state government to make abortions harder to get (as with a waiting period). But it’s a rather direct act of sacrilege (for nearly all liberals as well as libertarians) for a state to force a doctor to insert a probe into a woman’s vagina. The outraged reaction galvanized the secular left and gave a lift to President Obama.

It would be interesting to try a similar contrast of stories for central IT vs. web-company hackers, or for relational hardliners vs. NoSQL fans. They might come out just as different-sounding as the liberal-vs.-conservative comparison in Haidt’s article.


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