By Chris Blose

With an election coming, Georgetown McDonough researchers analyze America’s brand of democracy.

Every day as we approach November, “I endorse this message” campaign ads become more prominent and prevalent on national television. Political pundits ramp up their rhetoric. The 24-hour news cycle fills with campaign stops and candidate quotes. The pollsters ready their daily data. Polling places roll out the red, white, and blue bunting.
All of these signs mean it is time for Americans to do what they do every four years: vote for the president.

The decision — along with the election of national, state, and local candidates — holds real import. The outcome will affect the country’s policy direction for the next four years, if not longer. Such a subject deserves serious, rigorous thought, and not just by the voters making decisions.

With the 2012 election looming, faculty at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, be they steeped in philosophical ethics or the habits of consumers, offer their own insights on America’s brand of democracy.

How to Vote Well
You have a moral obligation to vote. Every vote counts. If you do not vote, you cannot complain about the state of politics.
Or so most people say. However, Assistant Professor Jason Brennan calls these common assumptions into question through painstaking philosophical analysis. His book The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press, 2011) tackles taboo topics and challenges dogma, but do not mistake his challenge for disdain of democracy. If anything, Brennan thinks voting is far too important for people to get it wrong.

“Why do we say to people, ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about politics’?” Brennan asks. “‘It doesn’t matter if you understand very basic economics. The important thing is that you vote.’”

To Brennan, the important thing is not that you vote but how you vote. By that, he does not mean which candidates you choose, but how you go about choosing them. With that in mind, he puts commonly held beliefs to the test.

Voting is a moral obligation and an act of civic virtue. You have no doubt heard this before — from a parent, a colleague, a friend, a teacher. The sentiment is filled with good intention, but is good intention enough to make it true?

The idea of voting as an obligation is tricky because of the statistical insignificance of one vote. Yes, Brennan notes, every vote counts, but not for much. Any one of us is more likely to win the lottery than change the outcome of an election. Because of this, Brennan focuses on how that one vote relates to a group-based sense of ethics.

“It’s about how we describe our ethical duties in cases where we’re part of a group that’s doing something good or bad,” he says, “but our individual actions don’t seem to make much of a difference.” For example, you might drive a hybrid instead of an SUV because you feel an obligation to protect the environment. However, your action on its own will not make a dent in pollution.
A more appropriate analogy might be taxes. People who evade taxes — what economists call free-riders — get the benefits of public services such as roads and schools without providing any of the funding. So when it comes to taxes, it is morally and ethically important for all people to pay their fair share.

It would be easy to jump straight from taxes to voting. One could say that if you do not vote, you are a free-rider because you are not contributing to good governance. There is a key difference, though, Brennan argues. There is only one way to pay taxes, but there are many ways other than voting for citizens to contribute to the common good.

“When we think of civic virtue, we think of being involved in politics and voting,” he says. “I argue for a more egalitarian concept of civic virtue, where you can exercise it through pretty much any aspect of your life: Owning or working for a business. Making art. Volunteering your time. You can exercise civic virtue even if you disengage with politics.” Many of those activities contribute more tangible results to society than a single vote.

However, just because Brennan rejects the idea that voting is a moral obligation does not mean he takes voting lightly. In fact, his alternative thesis is this: If you do vote, you have a moral obligation to do it well. You must do it with competence.
“You don’t have an obligation to be a surgeon,” Brennan says, by way of comparison, “but if you are going to be a surgeon, you have a duty to be a competent surgeon. You don’t have an obligation to be a parent, but if you decide to become a parent, you have an obligation to be a competent one. I think the same holds true for voters.”

What does it take to be a competent voter? Brennan argues a competent voter forms his or her political opinions in a rational, scientific way. Good scientists form their beliefs by carefully examining the evidence. They accept a conclusion only when they have sufficiently strong evidence to warrant the belief and lack strong evidence to counter it. Voters should do the same. In contrast, Brennan says, many voters form their beliefs about politics in a highly biased way. If they look for evidence at all, they only look for evidence that tends to confirm their pre-existing views, and they ignore evidence that tends to undermine it.
Brennan uses another analogy. He asks, what does it take for a jury to decide a criminal case competently? They hold the defendant’s life and liberty in their hands. They should not decide out of ignorance, impulse, malice, or wishful thinking. Rather, they should seek out the best information they can get, overcome their biases, and choose in a careful, rational way.
Voting well does not mean you never make mistakes. It does not require that you be correct — which would be difficult to define when it comes to an election. It does require that you go about your voting competently. It requires you to set aside the “team” view of politics, where the major parties might as well be the Yankees versus the Red Sox, and make an informed decision.
Brennan offers helpful guidelines for voting well in the afterword to his book: Do not be quick to label yourself. Challenge your own beliefs by reading information from another perspective. Do not stick to your guns in the face of strong counter-evidence. Talk to the opposition — and be polite about it. (Read more on that under “How to Keep It Civil” below.)
None of this is easy, but to Brennan, all of it is necessary.

“Clearly, politics matters,” he says. “We’re not just voting for favorite colors or the national anthem. We’re making decisions that affect life and death, peace and war, prosperity and poverty, justice and injustice.”

How Will the Swing Voters Swing?
Associate Professor Kurt Carlson has devoted much of his research to consumer choices. He has created intricate models that predict what products people will pick based on the information they seek.

As it turns out, Carlson’s work extends beyond Coke or Pepsi, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. It applies — with a high level of accuracy — to Obama or Romney. More important, it applies to the highly coveted undecided voters who can put one candidate or the other over the top.

Carlson’s consumer research focuses on the concept of “leader-focused search.” At its most basic, leader-focused search refers to the idea that consumers search for specific kinds of information in a way that reveals their preferences for one product over another. He and colleagues outlined the concept in the 2011 paper “Leader-focused search: The impact of an emerging preference on information search” in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

In this study, the researchers gave people a set of product choices. They then asked study participants what type of information they wanted to read about those products. Later, they asked the consumers which product they were leaning toward.
Much consumer research has focused on the predictable behavior of consumers who have a strong preference. Carlson is more interested in a different type of consumer, or in this case a different kind of voter. He focuses on people with a weak preference, people who — consciously or not — are leaning one way or the other.

People with a strong preference will go out of their way to avoid information that challenges that preference. In the case of voters, they will avoid the opposition viewpoint and surround themselves with like-minded perspectives. In the case of consumers, they will avoid any ­information that might sway their product choice.

People with weak preferences behave differently. “They are willing to gather negative and positive information about their preference,” Carlson says. “In fact, they actually prefer negative information about the preference about three to one over positive information.”

Why is not exactly clear. Carlson has a hunch that people seek negative information about their preferred product because they are trying to “shrink the uncertainty around two alternatives.” The easiest way to do that is to seek negative reviews about the leading product, even if they then tend to dismiss those reviews or bend the information to favor their preference.
The why barely matters, though. What matters is that with one question — What type of information do you seek? — Carlson and colleagues could predict a person’s product preference with an accuracy rate as high as 70 percent to 75 percent.
It works for more than products, too.

“Does this work in politics?” Carlson asks. “The answer is yes. Knowing there’s a linkage between the kinds of information people want to read and their political preference, can we use that to infer how undecided voters are going to vote? The answer is also yes.”

Carlson ran an experiment similar to his consumer work during the 2008 election in both the presidential election and two senate races, with an equally impressive level of accuracy. Again, the most interesting results did not relate to hardline Republicans or Democrats, but rather to those who identified themselves as undecided. By asking these undecided voters what type of information they sought — specifically if they wanted a negative report from an unbiased think tank about either John McCain or Barack Obama — the researchers could predict which candidate that person preferred nearly three-quarters of the time.

He is running the same experiment during the 2012 election cycle. If the results hold up, he will have a brand-new tool to offer people who wish to predict exactly how swing voters will swing. The tool also might be more accurate than the traditional polling on which major media outlets and survey companies rely.

“All we need to do is ask one question,” Carlson says, “and we get a better prediction.”

How to Keep It Civil
Few people would call our current political climate “civil.” In fact, true or not, the general sentiment seems to be that politics in America are as polarized as ever.

That’s where Associate Professsor Christine Porath’s research comes into play. Porath has previously studied the cost of bad behavior and incivility when it comes to a business’ bottom line. Now, she wonders, what is the cost of similar behavior to our democracy?

Just as Brennan offers guidelines for politely seeking opposing viewpoints, Porath stresses the damage incivility does to our discourse. Incivility is nothing new, of course. In The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It (Portfolio, 2009, with co-author Christine Pearson), she traces historical discussions of incivility from Socrates to Machiavelli to America’s founding fathers.

Porath believes today’s politicians could learn a thing or two from the latter. “America’s Founding Fathers lauded respectful behavior as serving one’s own self-interest,” she writes. And, quoting Benjamin Franklin, “Remember not only to say the right things in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
Porath’s book and past research has focused on incivility in the workplace, but, this being Washington, D.C., she has fielded endless questions about how it applies to politics. To her, there are clear lessons — for those campaigning for office, as well as for the people creating ads for them, working for them, and interacting with potential voters on behalf of them.
“One of the things our research has shown is that people don’t like people who disrespect others. To me, this suggests that if there are campaign ads that go beyond negative and become disrespectful, they will tend to hurt candidates rather than help.”
When people see another person behaving badly — especially a leader — that behavior negatively affects their opinion of the whole organization or brand. Case in point: When Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord treated reporters and stakeholders very rudely during a conference call — then subsequently yelled an expletive at a fellow executive when he thought the call was over — and when all of this information went public, the company’s shares dropped 20.7 percent in one day, the worst drop in the company’s history.
Replace share percentage with polling numbers, and you get the idea of how Porath’s work applies to politics. Anytime a politician has a “hot mic” moment — one when he or she thinks the mic is off and utters obscenities about perceived enemies — the incident makes the news, and his or her approval numbers take a hit.

The need for civility may be greater than ever these days, Porath says. A candidate running for office will be scrutinized without mercy. No gaffe will go untweeted. Everything a candidate says will get posted online. The more inflammatory remarks may even get the most page views.

“You’re always on,” Porath says of candidates. “Whether it’s press on the campaign bus or you speaking at a campaign stop, you and your employees are going to be judged.”

That last part is important. Candidates are judged on their own behavior, but also on the behavior of those associated with them. Rough security guards at a town hall event, rude handlers dealing with the press, overzealous volunteers handing out campaign material — any and all of these can have a negative effect on the candidate.

Ultimately, though, the leader’s behavior matters most. Based on her research, Porath suspects that during a debate, for example, a candidate who strays into the territory of incivility will pay a price. It is one thing to attack a policy or disagree on the finer points of governance. It is another thing entirely to be snarky, sarcastic, or personally insulting.

“People make snap judgments based on your tone,” she says. “Some people will agree with you, but many more will think negatively of you.” In other words, highly partisan pundits and true believers may cheer when a candidate gets off a particularly mean zinger, but many more voters — particularly independents — may be turned off entirely by snark.

This is true after an election, too. “In Congress, when you see the fits people throw, it takes others off track, including their fellow legislators,” she says. “It shuts people down mentally.”

In fact, Porath’s research has shown that such incivility makes people uncomfortable, affects their ability to concentrate, and even makes them less likely to remember things. Those outcomes are counterproductive to good government, and forget about forming across-the-aisle alliances after such a fit.

The same behavior holds you back when you are campaigning for votes.

“I just wish people recognized how much they shut people down when they are uncivil,” Porath says. “I think that’s one of the most important messages I’d like to get out there for politicians: By delivering your message rudely, on the floor of Congress or during a campaign, you’re only shutting people down. You get the exact opposite of what you were seeking.”

New School Year, New Perspectives

The start of each school year has always been my favorite time on campus. In a university setting like ours, perched up on the Hilltop, it embodies new hope, growth, fresh starts, and a view for new perspectives. This fall is no exception. We are already planning to welcome back our undergraduate alumni to the university’s Reunion weekend May 30–June 2 and setting the stage to hold our graduate reunions for the MBA classes of 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, 2003, 2008; MBA-EP class of 2008; EMBA classes of 1998, 2003, 2008; and EML class of 2008 on Oct. 4–5, 2013. We hope you will join the celebration and volunteer as a Reunion Class Committee member to help us plan this milestone event. Alumni who want to give their time, talent, or treasure to Georgetown McDonough also can sponsor events, serve as class representatives and regional alumni leaders, and recruit prospective students to our esteemed undergraduate and MBA programs.

We appreciate your continued investment in the McDonough School of Business and your input, particularly through the March 2012
Alumni Survey. Several thousand alumni told us what they would like to see from our office. Resoundingly, the No. 1
area for improvement was streamlined, timely communication. As a result, the Office of Alumni and External Relations has merged its INfoNews enewsletter with Georgetown McDonough’s ENews. This enables our alumni to stay apprised of developments, events, and upcoming programming across the school, regardless of the program you graduated from within Georgetown McDonough.

Without question, the most significant request from our alumni to our office was for more regional events. Our team is hard at work identifying, scheduling, and producing high-quality business-focused events around the world. We are planning 12 events through June 2013, culminating in our undergraduate class reunion. Our Georgetown McDonough events will give alumni the opportunity to “network up,” engage with our faculty, and learn something of value while catching up with classmates. We recognize our alumni have busy schedules, so we want to facilitate future business success by maximizing every engagement opportunity with each other.

Justine Schaffner
Office of Alumni Relations

Look for Georgetown McDonough alumni events in the following cities in 2012–13:
• Boston
• Chicago
• Hong Kong
• London
• Los Angeles
• Mexico City
• New York City
• San Francisco
• Washington, D.C.

Read more about how to get involved at

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