Our Brains, Betrayed By Political Flip-Flops

The human brain craves predictability, according to neuroscientists, and when politicians appear to flip-flop, our brains don't like it. Often, we feel betrayed. NPR science correspondents Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel and Shankar Vedantam talk about why we're hard-wired to appreciate consistency.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is off. Flip-flopper, it is one of the most common attacks that candidates level at one another during campaigns, and it sets up the notion, in at least some voters' minds, that politicians all too frequently betray their core convictions for a short-term political gain.

Or maybe not. Maybe a change in position is no flip-flop but rather a reasoned evolution in a leader's thinking, pragmatic decisions made slowly and carefully over time. We get to change our minds, right? Can't politicians do the same thing?

Well, the way you answer that question, how you spot and measure inconsistency, may depend less on what the politician said and did than on you, on how your brain is wired, what group you think that you belong to.

There's a bit of science in play here, and you will be surprised by what it suggests when we hear from NPR science correspondents Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel and Shankar Vedantam, who explored some of this earlier today on MORNING EDITION, and there is a link to that piece on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, women, birth control and the Catholic Church on The Opinion Page. But first, Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel and Shankar Vedantam join us here in Studio 3A. It's nice to have all of you here.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

DONVAN: And Jon, we're going to begin with you. You say that consistency is almost a built-in appetite that lives in our brain, that we're hard-wired.

HAMILTON: That's exactly right. The brain, at a very basic level, really doesn't particularly like inconsistency. And to kind of understand why that is, you have to look at one of the major things that the brain does, which is it makes predictions. And this is from every simple thing - if I pick up a baseball, and I throw it, my brain is making a prediction about where it's going to go. Is it going to go through that glass window? Is it going to go - is it going to be a strike across the plate.

And then it's measuring whether those predictions come true. And this process is how we learn things. It's also so important to the brain that our brain actually gives us a little shot of a feel-good chemical called dopamine when we get predictions right. And when we get them wrong, it takes that dopamine away, we don't feel so good.

So you have that process at work, and you also have the fact that we are incredibly social creatures. Our brains are really interested in what other brains and other people are doing. And we are not only predicting what we do with baseballs, we're predicting what other people are going to do all the time.

And so when we make a prediction about what a person is going to do, and we get it right, we get a really big reward. When we get it wrong, we feel really bad, and we may even feel betrayed. And that's how we often feel when we feel like a politician has flip-flopped on us.

DONVAN: So - but this is all operating on an unconscious level.

HAMILTON: Yes.

DONVAN: We just have a sort of general feel-good, and at some level in our body, we're registering I like what just happened, and I don't like what just happened.

HAMILTON: It's a little bit like gambling. You couldn't - it's not a conscious thing, like I'm going to feel good because I just won, but you sure do.

DONVAN: And can the effect wear off? In other words if you're betrayed time and time again by something, somebody, the baseball that doesn't drop to the ground? Do you stop trusting gravity, for example? Do you stop...?

HAMILTON: You change your predictions. When I said it was tied up with learning, what we learn is not to predict that, you know - if you throw a baseball, you know, five times, and it goes up every time, our brain will stop predicting that that ball is going to fall to the ground.

DONVAN: All right, so that's the brain's view of what happens when a politician flip-flops or goes back on his word. I want to turn now to Alix Spiegel. You look at this, and you did this morning on MORNING EDITION in a different way. Your picture is bigger than what's happening in the brain.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: Well, yes - no, I - this morning I covered an experiment, which was done by this guy named Jamie Barden, which it was an experiment which looked in a really clean way at exactly the question that you raised at the beginning of the broadcast: When do we see inconsistency as hypocrisy, and when do we see it as growth?

So essentially what this guy, Jamie Barden did, was he got this group of students, and he said: OK, your job is to evaluate the behavior of this political operative named Mike. And then he gave them two pieces of information. The first piece of information that he gave them about Mike was that Mike had thrown this kind of elaborate political fundraiser, he got a little drunk, then at 2 AM, he drove home and wrapped his car around a telephone pole.

And then the second piece of information that the students got about Mike was that he, a month later, went on a radio program, much like this one, and went on a screed about how nobody should ever drive drunk. OK so now the question is: How do we interpret this behavior? Is he a hypocrite, somebody whose private and public behavior is inconsistent? Or is he somebody who, like, had a really bad experience with, you know, drunk driving and went on the radio to kind of talk about that.

Now, half the time, Mike was presented as a Republican, and half the time he was presented as a Democrat, and the students were either Democrats or Republicans, and what he found was that when the party of the student agreed with the...

DONVAN: The political party, you mean.

SPIEGEL: Yeah, when the student reading it was a Democrat, and Mike was a Democrat, it was very, very rare that they saw him as a hypocrite. Only like 16 percent of the time. But if he was the opposite, from the opposite party, then they thought he was a hypocrite.

And essentially what this shows us is that our interpretation of what is inconsistent and what is consistent is hopelessly clouded by our social allegiances, even though most of us, and most of the people listening, believe that when they draw some kind of conclusion, they are responding to facts, they are responding to realities.

In fact, most of the time - a lot of the time, at least, they are responding to the fact that they're aligned with them or not.

DONVAN: It sounds like if it's your guy, it's very, very hard for your guy to give you the feeling of being betrayed. You'll zigzag all over the place with him if he zigzags.

SPIEGEL: That - I mean, that is what this - that is what this research that I covered this morning would suggest, yes, exactly.

DONVAN: And does it ever snap? I mean, is there any evidence for you - it comes to a point where the zig is too far, or the zigzags too frequent that it just breaks?

SPIEGEL: Oh, I'm sure. Like Jon was saying, I mean, Jon might be able to talk about that a little bit better than me. But yes, certainly.

DONVAN: OK, well, we're going to ask you to join this conversation, our listeners. What we want to ask you is: have you experienced the feeling of being betrayed by a politician whom - in whom you put your trust and your faith and your belief? And what was it that actually caused that to happen? And what we want to do is not necessarily gauge whether you're right or wrong about the politician. We want to have our three experts talk about maybe what's happening inside your head and give you a little bit of an insight to why you experience it that way.

But now I want to turn to our third member of the panel, and Shankar Vedantam, also an NPR science correspondent, what's your take on this consistency issue?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, John, so here's how we divided things up. So Jon Hamilton looked at the role that the brain plays in determining whether people are consistent and why we care so much about consistency. And Alix looked at the fact that we are inconsistent in the way we perceive consistency.

And I wanted to take a slightly different tack. What I did was I said: People say they care about consistency. Voters say they want politicians who are consistent. What happens when voters get what they want? In other words, what happens when you get a consistent politician? What's the consequence of getting somebody consistent or inconsistent?

And I looked at the research of this psychologist at the Wharton School whose name is Phil Tetlock, and he has essentially divided the political world into two groups of people whom he calls foxes and hedgehogs. Now, this is based on an ancient Greek aphorism, which says the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

And Tetlock says there are some leaders who behave like hedgehogs: They know one big thing. They have one big world view that organizes their thinking on whole bunches of different issues. And these leaders are highly consistent. So if you ask them to explain all manner of things, they will bring up their single world view to explain, you know, why health care is the way it is or why governments work the way they do or why foreign policy is the way they do.

So somebody who is a free-market hedgehog uses the lens of the free market to understand all manner of different things. Somebody who's a fox, on the other hand, has a variety of perspectives on a lot of different issues, and many of those perspectives are inconsistent with one another. So hedgehogs tend to be very consistent. Foxes tend to be very inconsistent.

And Tetlock, in this massive study he conducted over 20 years, looked at what happens and how accurate foxes and hedgehogs are in making political predictions and predicting what the future was going to look like. And he found that, over time, foxes tend to be much more accurate than hedgehogs.

So the politicians who are inconsistent tend to be much better at making political forecasts about the future, and as a result, they tend to be much more effective when they're in office because they're able to adapt to a whole variety of circumstances.

And he found that hedgehogs, they have a pretty bad batting average, but there's a curious thing about them: When they are right, they can be spectacularly right. So when you think about Winston Churchill, classic hedgehog, you know, he was able to see the threat of Hitler long before anyone else.

But he was also spectacularly wrong on a whole bunch of issues, and that's the other thing that hedgehogs do: They can be spectacularly right as well as spectacularly wrong, but foxes on average tend to have, you know, a much better batting average.

DONVAN: So have you thought about why that is, why foxes would be better at prediction? Is it simply that they're so not stuck in their position that they can smell what's in the wind more easily?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think that would be one way of saying it. The other way of interpreting the result is to basically say the world is a complicated place, and the world doesn't lend itself very easily to being reduced to a single world view. So if I'm a Marxist hedgehog or a free-market hedgehog, or the world view that unifies my thinking is a religious world view, this isn't really sufficient to deal with the complexity of the world that politicians and leaders actually have to deal with.

And foxes, because they actually are not constrained by that single world view - they're inconsistent, they go from one position to the other - they're much better able to deal with the vagaries of this complex and unpredictable world we live in.

DONVAN: In general, is it your experience that it's actually difficult to box anybody who's out there on the political scene, past or present, in either of these categories, to call somebody - to say that somebody is an inconsistent politician? Jon Hamilton?

HAMILTON: Yeah, it absolutely is, because as we've been saying, so much of this is kind of an eye-of-the-beholder thing. Also, like from a biological point of view, you could define the consistency of a person in very different ways. So if somebody - if you - if the consistency you're looking for is, well, that person is always looking out for the security of the nation, that might one day lead to a decision to declare war, another day to be an isolationist.

And you could say well, you're inconsistent about your world view there, or you could say no, you're consistent in this other way. So it becomes - it's sort of how you look at it.

DONVAN: So inconsistency is not necessarily a liability except to the extent, John, that you say it gives us a little bit of a dopamine drop.

HAMILTON: It's a liability if you are perceived as being inconsistent.

DONVAN: All right, ah, which is why it's such a good campaign slogan, to call your opponent inconsistent.

SPIEGEL: Right.

DONVAN: All right, so we're going to rejoin in a few minutes with the three of you to have you listen to what viewers - our listeners have said has gone through their minds when they've experienced this moment of betrayal, and maybe you can talk a little bit about what's going through their minds that they haven't actually seen.

So we want to have you join us. Our number is 800-989-8255. Or you can join us online at npr.org. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. If you were by your radio this morning, you may have heard three NPR science correspondents on MORNING EDITION talking about flip-flopping politicians. Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel and Shankar Vedantam looked at why our brains hate inconsistency and the political consequences of flip-flopping and what we mean when we use that term.

You can find a link to their story at npr.org, and all three of them are with us here in the studio today. We also want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when a politician whom you trusted changed his or her mind. Did you see it as a betrayal? Or did they do the right thing? The number is 800-989-8255. You can also email talk@npr.org.

And we're going to go now to callers and go to Steve(ph) in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania. Hi, Steve, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

STEVE: Hi, how are you?

DONVAN: Good, thanks.

STEVE: Thanks for taking my call. The incident that I most vividly recall of a politician going back on what I thought was a pretty firm commitment was the first President Bush who famously said: Read my lips, no new taxes. And then during his presidency, he supported increasing taxes.

DONVAN: That sort of is, seems to be the symbolic flip-flop. I think the term preceded that, but it certainly was accelerated in popular usage at the time. And how did it hit you?

STEVE: Well, I guess you've used the word betrayed, and that certainly is an accurate word. I mean, taxes are one of my core issues. I like - I assume most people have any number of issues that are important to us, and not everyone's going to agree with us on all of them. But I have some basic core issues. I'd call them my big three. Taxes is one of those, and when - you know, I supported him because of his stance on, in part, on taxes, and when he did a complete reversal, yes, I felt betrayed.

DONVAN: There's no question that it was a 180 or very close to a 180. But one of the questions we were asking also is whether it's possible for you to look at what he did and say, well, he learned something new, or the circumstances changed, and therefore, it's not quite a betrayal. What is your take on that, Steve?

STEVE: Well, yes, that is certainly possible, and I guess - one of your panelists said that we tend to give the benefit of the doubt more to people who basically agree with us than those who basically disagree with us, if I'm paraphrasing that accurately.

The first George Bush was one who basically agreed with me more than, say, Bill Clinton would have. Yet on the other hand, to me that was a core issue, a complete reversal, and it's not my recollection - and of course we're a number of years away from that now - but it's not my recollection that the events as they changed between the time he made the pledge and time he broke the pledge warranted that reversal.

DONVAN: All right, Jon Hamilton, that seems like clear-cut sense of betrayal.

HAMILTON: Yeah, and it is really interesting, the language the caller was using. He talks about core values and a core issue. And interestingly enough, that's exactly the same wording that the neuroscientist I talked to for my story, who's a guy named David Linden at Johns Hopkins, and he repeatedly said: When you get to the stage of betrayal, it's because we believe that person has not only been inconsistent, but they've been inconsistent about something that is at their very core.

And when we define it that way, we feel like they've been inconsistent, forget it, you're done. However, there could be other people who would say, well, maybe the tax thing wasn't a core value. You know, maybe being an economic pragmatist was, and maybe, you know, they were faced with circumstances they couldn't possibly have foreseen when they made that promise of no new taxes, and so it was not a betrayal of a core value.

SPIEGEL: And I think it probably also depends on how closely identified you are with the person who has done the inconsistent behavior. Like this - in the course of reporting this story, I came across this other work by this guy named Drew Westen, who's a psychologist, psychiatrist, I guess, down at Emory.

And he did this study with people who were kind of rabid partisans during the 2004 election. And he had them look at, like, very clear inconsistent behavior in Kerry and in Bush. And they were just unable to see it as flip-flopping because they - and they were totally, they were really closely identified. So that's probably another element in what makes us see something as...

DONVAN: But Alix, what I found interesting in Steve's call - and Steve, thank you for your call - was that he seemed to be saying he was a George H.W. Bush guy. And that didn't protect him from feeling betrayed.

SPIEGEL: Right, but - well, he said he agreed with him more than he agreed with Clinton, as opposed to like the guy that Drew - the population that Drew Westen was looking at were people who were just - you know, they were going door to door. They were doing all that kind of thing. So that might also affect things.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Matt(ph) from Syracuse, New York.

MATT: Yep.

DONVAN: Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MATT: Hi, I was a liberal student and helped campaign for Obama, and as time went on, I ended up feeling somewhat betrayed and disenchanted after a lot of the things that I expected him to do, he wasn't able to put into practice. But over time, I've actually come to view it as less of a betrayal and more of just a cost of having to make compromises. So I started out feeling betrayed, but I don't feel that way anymore.

DONVAN: And did - in the terminology that Shankar gave us of a fox or a hedgehog, where do you put Obama?

MATT: That's kind of hard. I would actually put Obama as more of a fox. I feel like he has a lot of different perspectives on different issues and is willing to adapt to the changes in politics and world events.

DONVAN: So Shankar, is there such a thing as a fox that only looks like a hedgehog, and a hedgehog that only looks like a fox?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Well, I think the research seems to suggest that because hedgehogs do so much better during campaigns, and foxes do so much better when they are in office, the most effective leaders are indeed foxes who can disguise themselves as hedgehogs so that they govern like foxes but that they campaign like hedgehogs.

But both Steve and Matt are raising a really interesting point that actually is at the intersection of something that Alix and Jon just talked about, which is that on the one hand, we are much less likely to notice inconsistency when it's people on our side. But it's only the inconsistencies of people on our side that we really perceive as betrayal.

So in other words, we don't feel betrayed when somebody from the other side breaks their word and starts agreeing with us...

DONVAN: Because that's an "I told you so."

VEDANTAM: Yeah, we think they've come to their senses. It's only when, you know, someone on our side, who promises us something that we care deeply about, that we perceive it as betrayal. So there's an interesting sort of tension here between being able to perceive consistency in people on our side or another side and then feeling betrayed by the consistencies of people on our own side.

DONVAN: Matt, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Andrew(ph) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Hi, Andrew, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDREW: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi. You're on the air.

ANDREW: Yes, the - I love that you guys are talking about this inconsistency amongst politicians. I think that this is a subject that isn't spoken about even in the - you know, the main political realm that we speak about, even as it's important this time of age.

I think one of the worst things that I think that I've seen when it comes to inconsistency is when Obama campaigned throughout his entire 2008 race against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now he wants to lay claim to the end of the Iraq War, when it's really just been the policy of George Bush that has been in place before he even left office. So it's like he's riding on the policies of something that was going to end just to make himself look good for history.

DONVAN: To put things into Alix Spiegel terms, are you an Obama guy in the beginning or not?

SPIEGEL: I was just about to ask that question.

ANDREW: Oh, I - no, I didn't really believe him in the beginning. There were certain ways in which I was - you know, I always hoped that he was going to change stuff.

DONVAN: So does the word betrayal then apply? Do you have that awful feeling that...

ANDREW: I think it was a very deceitful betrayal. I don't know if adding that word makes it any better or worse.

DONVAN: Jon Hamilton?

HAMILTON: Yeah, the other question I would ask you is: Would you say there was a time when you felt like you trusted Obama?

ANDREW: As somebody who obviously is of a different pigment, that kind of just brought it about as like, I mean, I don't think we - I still think there's a little bit of racism. Maybe some people will call it that, or not call it that being...

HAMILTON: But you yourself, did you trust him?

ANDREW: Would I trust him? Not anymore, no.

HAMILTON: But you did at one point?

ANDREW: Well, because he was new. I think this is - I think this is probably one of the biggest things that we have these days is when we have somebody new that comes along, we can't have the room of whether we trust them or not until they actually get into office. I think our minds are evolving very quickly right now. So we're beginning to pick up on how soon...

HAMILTON: Let me just mention one other area of research that maybe talks a little bit about what is going on with you is that a lot of the research on trust has been done in what they call trust games, where you have a situation where you have to trust other players, maybe fictional, maybe real, in order to make money together. Usually there's an incentive.

And what's interesting is that initially, people have to take a leap of faith and trust. But after that, as you play consecutive rounds, trust is based on reputation and what you have perceived that other person as doing. And you can actually see changes in the brain reactions, if you look at people's brains, where they either are - there's a trust growing because somebody's acted consistently and done what they said, or the trust is diminishing because they maybe took all the money and ran with it.

ANDREW: That's why I'm a Ron Paul supporter now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAMILTON: There you go.

SPIEGEL: There you go.

DONVAN: Andrew, thanks very much for your call. Well, it helped him make a choice. Something else, Jon, you mentioned in the morning program that the pain of betrayal is nearly physical.

HAMILTON: Yeah. That comes from - there's a line of research where people have looked at how, you know, we speak in metaphor about when we're hurt by, you know, a heartache or, you know, we talk about betrayal as hurting as if we had broken an arm or something. And what's interesting is that when you look at the parts of the brain that respond, actually many of the same exact areas that would respond to physical pain respond and light up with emotional pain.

DONVAN: Let's go to Janice(ph) in Holly Pond, Alabama. Hi, Janice. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JANICE: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

SPIEGEL: Hi.

JANICE: Well, my moment is that Richard Shelby was elected senator from Alabama as a Democrat and immediately switched to Republican.

DONVAN: Was he a fox or a hedgehog when he was running for office?

JANICE: I think he was probably a hedgehog.

DONVAN: So he outfoxed you is what you're saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JANICE: Yeah. I consider him a snake now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPIEGEL: Just to get one more animal in.

DONVAN: Yeah, getting into some zoology. Shankar?

VEDANTAM: You know, I have to say one of the really interesting psychological theories I've come upon is something that psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. And so both, you know, when Janice is talking about Richard Shelby and Andrew talked about Obama a second ago, you know, when a politician changes his or her mind, one of the things that we have to do is to try and understand, well, what's going on in the politician's mind? Why did they change their mind? Did they change their mind because they were a snake all along, or did they change their mind because the context changed?

So as far as Janice is concerned, you know, Richard Shelby is a snake. And as far as Andrew is concerned, you know, Obama is extremely untrustworthy. But here's the interesting thing and here's what the fundamental attribution error comes about. Psychologists say that when it comes to the behavior of our own behavior and the behavior of our friends, we're much more likely to see changes in behavior as being driven by context.

And when we see our opponents, our political opponents changing course or changing their behavior, we're much more likely to see it in dispositional terms. So we're likely not to say Richard Shelby had a number of issues that he was dealing with, or Obama has a number of issues that he's grappling with, and he's adapting. These politicians are adapting to what they're going through. We're much more likely to say this person is fundamentally a bad person. This person is fundamentally untrustworthy.

DONVAN: Janice - oh, go ahead, Alix.

SPIEGEL: Oh, no. Right. Which helps explain kind of the work that I covered this morning in my story. Essentially when it's you, it's context. When it's another person, it's character. I mean, when it's your enemy, it's about character.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Janice, in terms of Richard Shelby, I mean, do you - because of that particular act, did you consider it a betrayal because you had given him your vote as a member of one party? Was it his party identification that mattered to you?

JANICE: I'm not so sure that it was his party. It was just that he had been elected as a Democrat. And to me, Democrats stand for one thing, much more liberal causes. And then Republicans are much more conservative as them. And so I really think that he switched parties because it was very hard at that time for a Republican to get elected in Alabama, and so that's what a lot of people thought.

DONVAN: So - but what's interesting there is that you are making the effort to go into his mind and understand why he did it.

JANICE: And I actually recognize that he's done some good things for the state as a senator, but I still felt very betrayed when he switched parties immediately.

DONVAN: Did you experience it almost as a physical pain, as Jon Hamilton was saying we almost might feel it? It was that rough.

JANICE: No. It wasn't that bad of that, it was more like, oh, yes, can't trust a politician.

DONVAN: All right. Well, thanks - oh, Jon Hamilton.

HAMILTON: Yeah. I was going to say that what Janice is talking about brings up one other area of research, and that has to do with how we evolved to be in groups. And, you know, we now live in very, very large groups, although we divide ourselves in, you know, by politics and so on. But, you know, long ago, thousands of years ago, we were in relatively small groups, and it was extremely important whether somebody was in your group and would therefore be trusted or in another group in which case you didn't trust them at all. And to have somebody switch groups is going against thousands of years of evolution.

JANICE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: All right. Janice, thanks very much for your call. Is - based on - oh, go ahead, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Well, I was just going to say that both Janice and the previous caller had also raised a really interesting issue, which is that in both Richard Shelby's case, as well as in the case of George H.W. Bush, the reason we perceive their inconsistency is because they did something very, very, very specific. So in George H.W. Bush's case, he basically said read my lips, no new taxes, and then he raised taxes. You know, and in Shelby's case, he switched parties. Now, politicians have become very skilled at making statements that allow them wiggle room, that, you know, you can't perceive if they're actually being consistent or inconsistent because they have what they call plausible deniability that they can actually say, you know, that's not actually what I meant to say, but this actually highlights the importance of actually, I think, asking politicians to be specific in what it is that they are advocating.

DONVAN: But voters are somewhat onto that, I think, when they watch somebody do a very contorted backpedal and literally parse out what they said the first time and how it wasn't exactly the same the second time. I'm not sure that that covers you from the betrayal charge. I don't know. So we've got some listener email I'd like to share: Not only are the politicians hedgehogs and foxes, but the populace are hedgehogs and foxes. I certainly consider myself a fox. Your caller who was so disappointed by George Bush's no-new-taxes-pledge break is clearly a hedgehog. Interesting point. Anybody want to take that up?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. No, I think...

DONVAN: Shankar.

VEDANTAM: ...I think that's certainly the case that that listeners and voters are clearly foxes and hedgehogs as well. And if you look at the betrayal statistics, I suspect that hedgehogs are likely to be the voters who are likely to feel the most betrayed because they have a worldview. They support a leader with the same worldview. That worldview gets challenged or is inconsistent in some way. That's much more likely to feel like betrayal compared to a fox who says, well, I think smaller government is good in this situation but actually I'm a fan of government in that situation. It's much more easy, I think, for a fox to perceive changes in positions as contextual than it is for a hedgehog.

DONVAN: Another one that actually kind of goes directly to your point: Do we want politicians that don't listen to us? Can someone really listen to another without being willing to change? That's the ultimate fox voter, actually.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. And so the curious thing is, of course, when you ask voters do you want politicians who are completely consistent and who are unable to change their views, most voters say no. We want people who would be able to adapt to the complexities of office. But when politicians change their minds, voters get upset. So really what I think voters want is they want a politician who will consistently agree with them.

DONVAN: Everybody seems to want that. I want to thank our guests, Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel and Shankar Vedantam for joining us on this discussion about consistency, inconsistency, flip-flops, hedgehogs and foxes.

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