Viewpoint

Candidates manipulate voters with vagueness

Do you think that this is a profound statement? "Intention and attention are mystery's manifestation."

What about this one? "Hidden meanings transform unseen beauty."

Both statements are a kind of verbal smokescreen, designed to suggest depth and insight but actually vague, vacuous or meaningless. As we'll see, an understanding of pretentious-sounding gibberish and its frequent power tells us something important about contemporary politics. But we need a little social science first.

A team of researchers investigated how people react to "pseudo-profound" nonsense. As an initial test, they presented 280 undergraduates with 10 sentences that consisted, like the two sentences above, of vague, randomly chosen buzzwords.

The researchers asked students to use a 5-point scale to rate the profoundness of each statement, defined as "of deep meaning" (which was entirely absent from all of them).

The average rating was 2.6, meaning that most people agreed that randomly chosen buzzwords were closest to "fairly profound." In a follow-up study, some people were even willing to say that completely vacuous statements were at least somewhat profound.

The researchers also investigated the individual characteristics that lead people to regard baloney as profound. They found that people are more receptive to it if they do less well on measures of analytical thinking. They also found that people are more open to this stuff if they also hold paranormal beliefs, endorse alternative medicine or accept conspiracy theories.

These results are not simply a measure of the piffle radars of undergraduates. In its various forms, the same kind of thing can be readily found in academic circles.

As the researchers note, some kinds of nonsense are also common in the political domain, usually in the form not of ambiguity or vagueness. Donald Trump on health-care reform: "Repeal and replace with something terrific." Bernie Sanders on the Paris attacks: "Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS."

Pseudo-profound statements work when they make people feel that they are being given access to a deep secret. The vagueness of the statement isn't a problem; what matters is the favorable emotion that it produces.

The problem with this stuff is that it doesn't treat people with respect. It's a lot like a lie; it's certainly a form of manipulation. Sometimes it works, in which case voters can be taken in, at least for a while. But they deserve better than that, and in the end, majorities tend to demand it.

Whether or not that's so, one thing remains quite clear: A good column is like a silent breeze on the mountain's sightless peak. It does not ebb; it saunters.

Cass Sunstein, a Bloomberg View columnist, is director of the Harvard Law School's program on behavioral economics and public policy.

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