Double-Standards & Justification in Political Decision-Making

Posted February 13, 2009 by Barbara Drescher

This entry has been in the works for a while, collecting bits here and there. I will do my best to put it together coherently. Please feel free to skim and skip around; I won’t be offended by comments that show you didn’t read it all…

Justification refers to the act of explaining one’s behavior post-hoc. This is usually unnecessary, and is usually not the true reason for the choice.

In the past year, I have noticed a rash of this behavior. Otherwise reasonable, intelligent, people give justifications for their political decisions and offer excuses for unacceptable statements made by their favorite candidates.

It happens on both sides of every campaign.

For example, at least a dozen friends who are atheists or otherwise strongly oppose the joining of church and state, but supported Obama in the presidential race, answered my complaint that all of the viable candidates for president and vice president expressed strong religious beliefs with, “Oh, I don’t think that he believes that, but he has to say so in order to get elected.”

Several friends and colleagues for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration said the same thing about Obama and Biden’s opposition to gay marriage, especially those who were very vocal in opposing Prop 8, the proposition to ban gay marriage in California that was passed in November. When Biden used the word “tolerant” in the V.P. debate in reference to same-sex relationships, it was brushed off in the same manner, using the same wording.

On the other side of the political spectrum, otherwise intelligent and reasonable people use double standards to judge Sarah Palin. Experience was a big problem for Obama in the primaries, but not a problem at all for Palin in the V.P. spot. “She can learn on the job!”

Although I do not condone the unfair criticism she received from the media, it is difficult to determine how conservatives would have responded to the hypocrisy of Palin’s “I know how to restore family values” stance in the face of her teenage daughter’s pregnancy if the shoe were on the other foot. We have no way of finding out, but do you think the same standard would be used to judge Biden?

Recently, I asked a number of college students to describe their political views. The results were interesting. I expected college students to identify most with the Democratic party, given that they are college students and we live in southern California. This was indeed the case. Approximately 70% reported being registered Democrats and 25 out of the 30 who voted (83%) cast that vote for Barack Obama. I am quite certain that I would see similar inconsistencies (that I am about to discuss) in a group of conservatives, so please do not assume that I am criticizing the parties in this case – I am not. The point is not for whom these participants voted. The point is that the choice is probably not based on the issues, despite the average person’s belief that they have made a rational choice.

When asked why they voted for the candidate they chose, the most common answer (given by 42% of voters) was “promise of change”, which was the only rhetorical option. The others included concrete reasons, such as “his plan for economic recovery” and “his choice of running mate”.

I also asked them to indicate which quality they believed was the most important for a court justice given the following options:

  • Experience
  • Objectivity
  • Empathy
  • Commitment
  • Other – fill-in option

The results?
Of Obama supporters who voted:

  • 36% chose “experience”
  • 56% chose “objectivity”
  • Only 1 (4%) indicated “empathy”

The two McCain voters were split between objectivity & experience.

Obama has stated repeatedly that he will be looking for Supreme Court Justice nominees who are empathetic to the needs of various groups of Americans whereas McCain has indicated objectivity and experience, (in addition to the conservative agenda, such as “will not legislate from the bench”) as his priorities.

In addition to this survey, participants were asked how they would vote on 11 bills and resolutions which the congressional voting records show the front-runners (Obama and McCain) differed in their votes. On each, McCain voted “yes” and Obama voted “no”.

The average number of “yes” votes in my sample was greater than 6, indicating a conservative lean in actual political attitudes.

My conclusions? It is certainly a small sample and not a representative one, however, it serves as an illustration that many vote for reasons that they do a not fully understand.

This Howard Stern clip ( also illustrates the problem. Although his staff only interviewed African Americans in Harlem, this has been done by others (whose clips I could not quickly find) and middle-class white folks do the same – no matter who their preferred candidate is, so I am not agreeing that this is a race issue.

I think the AARP had it right when they released this video:

AARP Don't Vote Commercial 1 @ Yahoo! Video (

The bottom line is that we have strong feelings about our choices and we often defend them at the cost of our own rationality. This is apparent in the literature. There is a well-known study by Tversky and Shafir (1992) in which they presented the following decision task to participants:

Imagine that you have just taken a tough qualifying examination (that you must retake if you did not pass). It is the end of the semester, you feel tired and run down, and the results of the exam will not be out for 2 days. You now have the opportunity to purchase a very attractive 5-day Christmas vacation package to Hawaii at an exceptionally low price. The special offer expires tomorrow. What would you do?

  1. Buy the vacation package.
  2. Not buy the vacation package.
  3. Pay a $5 nonrefundable fee to extend the offer 2 days

Another group was given the same task, with a slight modification:

Imagine that you have just taken a tough qualifying examination. It is the end of the semester, you feel tired and run down, and you find out that you passed the exam….

And a third was given:

Imagine that you have just taken a tough qualifying examination. It is the end of the semester, you feel tired and run down, and you find out that you failed the exam and must take it again in a couple of months — after the Christmas holidays….

There was virtually no difference in the proportion of participants who chose to buy the package between those who were asked to imagine that they passed the test (54%) than those given the “failed” scenario (57%). However, of those given the original — no score yet — 61% chose to pay $5 for the option to buy later. Only 32% chose to buy at that time.

It seems that we feel the need to justify our choices as if a different situation would result in a different choice. Unfortunately, we are rarely in a position to know if our justifications ring true as we rarely have a counterfactual to compare.


Alex on February 25th, 2009 at 13:33

Excellent post! I run into this a fair bit too, and even without provocation.

One thing I will not apologize for is laughing at Sarah Palin when she lost. God, I’m glad that woman is far away in Alaska right now.

Administrator on February 25th, 2009 at 15:21

Alex: I can certainly understand that. She kinda looked like a teenager who’d lost the lead in the school play…
McCain, on the other hand, was quite gracious (and I think a little relieved). The jobs for which they were applying seem to suck the life out of people. Maybe that’s why so few people run who are capable of doing it right.

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