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The Psycho-Logic of Political Gaffes, and Debate Falsehoods

11/02/2012 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2013

By Arie W. Kruglanski & Anna Sheveland

"Stupidacio!" exclaimed a waiter at the Rome restaurant where one of us was dining recently. No, he wasn't impolite -- at least not to me. Rather, he was referring to the outrageous gaffe by Mitt Romney (yes, the news rocked even this eternal city!) about the 47 percent of the people who will vote for Obama "no matter what" and "believe that they are victims, entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it..."

To be sure, Romney isn't unique as far as gaffes go, something that recent presidential races illustrate amply. Whether made on the campaign trail or outside of it and gleefully dragged into the conversation by the opposition, the inappropriateness of such remarks is shocking. Take, for instance, Newt Gingrich's comments on Spanish as 'language of living in a ghetto.' Or consider George Allen's macaca mega-gaffe, which cost him his Senate seat in a loss to his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb.

Political gaffes aren't the exclusive province of Republican politicians. President Obama himself has put his foot in his mouth in a major way on a number of occasions. Most will recall that the famous "you didn't build that" statement he made at a recent campaign rally in Roanake, VA - one that he has surely lived to regret. The "I built that!" response immediately resounded as a rallying cry for Republicans. No less offensive was Obama's "psychologizing" comment during the 2008 presidential campaign about rural Pennsylvania voters who allegedly "cling to guns or religion" in response to economic travails.

A kissing cousin of political gaffes are factual errors that political candidates often blurt during debates. At the October 16 debate, Mitt Romney falsely accused President Obama of having quadrupled the regulations, and at the October 3rd debate that he doubled the deficit. Obama for his part falsely accused governor Romney for calling the Arizona law a model for the nation, etc.

These unfortunate slips are as incomprehensible as they are politically damaging. None of the politicians who commit them are exactly stupid or ill informed. Nor is it likely that they suddenly lost their competence, or were afflicted by a temporary loss of reason. This begs the question, "If they are so smart, how can they be so stupid?" In other words, what went wrong?

The explanation lies in the power of the situation that the science of social psychology never tires of emphasizing. Remember that gaffes and the utterances of falsehoods typically occur in a particular context: A speech before a specific audience whose mentality the speaker intuits. Because the speaker panders to the audience he or she is motivated to give the listeners what, presumably, they want to hear, or what in their eyes makes her or him look good and victorious. That is what psychologists refer to as "cognitive tuning": communicators' sensitivity to audience's preferences and an according adjustment of the communication. In fact, politicians' intuitions in this regard are generally correct, as attested to by the applause with which the comments are typically met. In that sense, what later might be classified as a horrendous gaffe, ironically, might have seemed quite rational -- a "good idea at the time," as it were.

You may ask: if they are so smart and intelligent, why can't politicians transcend the local context and peer beyond its narrow horizons? The answer, again, is in the psychology of the situation. Here is how it happens: the locally "good" idea comes to the speaker's mind quickly; it is activated automatically by a sheer confrontation with a certain audience. Under the considerable stress, time pressure, and fatigue of relentless campaign schedules, the speaker may "seize and freeze" on that initial idea and acts upon it without further thought. They "see something" with the eye of their mind, and immediately "say something," blurt a comment which on further thought would have been recognized as disastrous in the long haul, and hence to be avoided at all costs.

Can psychology, beyond merely explaining where gaffes and errors come from, offer a remedy for preventing them? It can! By inducing self-awareness of one's propensity for cognitive tuning, and cultivating vigilance to its potentially damaging consequences, speakers can mitigate their own tendency to "seize and freeze" on seemingly good ideas that pop to mind, and consider the big picture beyond the narrow here and now. Speakers owe it to themselves and their causes to take this seriously. After all, these gaffes do not always reveal the politicians' "true colors;" instead, they often distract the debate from issues that truly matter, due to the powerful psychology of the situation, which can -- and should -- be taken into account and counteracted.