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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
During the many debates this campaign season, you may have noticed there's been a lot of talk about inconsistency.
RICK SANTORUM: Now he's changed his position. I understand...
NEWT GINGRICH: A president who changes his opinion every day.
RON PAUL: And you have admitted many of the positions where you have changed positions.
SANTORUM: That to me is not a consistent principled position.
HERMAN CAIN: Inconsistencies in the president's decisions.
SANTORUM: I mean, you guys complain about Governor Romney flip-flopping. I mean, look at what's going on here. I mean, the bottom line...
MONTAGNE: That was Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. We wanted to know why inconsistency is such a big deal in politics and what it really says about candidates and voters. In the next few minutes, science reporters Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel and Shankar Vedantam will look closely at flip-flopping from three different vantage points. Here's Jon, who starts us off thinking about a coffee cup.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The problem with flip-floppers is that they are, by definition, inconsistent. They're unpredictable. And David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, says our brains don't like that. Linden says that to understand why, it helps to consider how the brain looks for consistency and predictability in even a mundane event.
DR. DAVID LINDEN: Like moving your arm to pick up a coffee cup.
HAMILTON: Long before your hand reaches the cup, your brain starts making predictions. So it might predict: this latte will be delicious.
LINDEN: And then use sensory information as it comes in to compare the prediction with what actually took place.
HAMILTON: You smell. You taste. If the coffee's good, your brain declares victory. If not, it tries to figure out what went wrong.
Of course, coffee forecasting is pretty low stakes. But we have lots of brain circuits that are making predictions about all kinds of things, every second of every day. And Linden says the brain pays special attention to other people.
LINDEN: We're extremely attuned to the veracity and the predictability and the group spirit and the motivations of those around us.
HAMILTON: That's probably from thousands of years living in groups. To stay alive, we had to know if the person who helped us yesterday might hurt us tomorrow. Linden says prediction is so important our brains give us a chemical reward when we do it well.
LINDEN: We are intrinsically wired to take pleasure from our predictions that come true.
HAMILTON: Get it right and you get a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine. Get it wrong and dopamine levels dip. So Linden says imagine what happens when we hear that a person we trust has been inconsistent in some fundamental way.
LINDEN: If we have a sense that there is a mismatch between our prediction and their actions, that is something that sets off neural alarm bells.
HAMILTON: And if the inconsistency involves something really important, those alarm bells are signaling betrayal.
LINDEN: When we feel deeply betrayed, either by a leader or by someone in our social circle or by our beloved, that pain really is similar to physical pain.
HAMILTON: We're hardwired to suffer from the inconsistency of flip-floppers. No wonder we don't like them.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: I'm Alix Spiegel. So we know we don't like flip-flopping, but it turns out that this flip-flopping thing, it's really in the eye of the beholder. Let me introduce to an expert on this subject.
JAMIE BARDEN: Jamie Barden at Howard University.
SPIEGEL: See, in 2008, Barden did a study which found a really clever way to look at how people made judgments about inconsistent behavior in politics. Barden gathered a group of students - both Democrats and Republicans - and told them that their job was to evaluate the behavior of this hypothetical guy named...
BARDEN: Mike, the person they'll be judging.
SPIEGEL: So the first piece of information the students got about Mike was this. Apparently during a political fundraiser Mike had organized, he'd had too much to drink. Got a little wild, then at 2 A.M...
BARDEN: He drove home, crashes his fender into a telephone pole while swerving to avoid a car that he didn't see.
SPIEGEL: In other words...
BARDEN: Mike drove drunk.
SPIEGEL: The students in the experiment then learned that a month after that crash Mike went on the radio and delivered a screed about the dangers of drunk driving...
BARDEN: I'm not going to drive drunk and no one else should either.
SPIEGEL: So, what to think of mike's inconsistent behavior?
BARDEN: There are two possible interpretations for Mike's behaviors.
SPIEGEL: The first interpretation, of course, is that Mike is a hypocrite. Then there's the second interpretation.
BARDEN: We could see that Mike has actually sincerely changed.
SPIEGEL: Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew. So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth? What Barden's study demonstrates is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened than on tribe. You see, half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students as a Republican and half the time he was described as a Democrat. And here's the important part.
BARDEN: When participants were making judgments of Mike, who was from their own party, only 16 percent judged him to be a hypocrite. Whereas when Mike was from an opposing party, 40 percent judged him to be a hypocrite.
SPIEGEL: In other words, our judgments about what is inconsistent and what is not are clouded by our social allegiances. Really, if you look at the research - hopelessly clouded. And there's a whole bunch of other research that shows that though we can often see this bias in our opponents, we usually see ourselves as different. We believe that we are earnestly making judgments based on fact, on reality.
So during this campaign season, watch the way you watch. Are you seeing hypocrisy where there's growth? Are you seeing growth where there's hypocrisy?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I'm Shankar Vedantam. Alix and Jon have looked at where our strong feelings about consistency come from. I talked to a psychologist who's studied what voters can expect when they get the consistent leaders they want.
Philip Tetlock, at the Wharton School, has a shorthand to describe consistent and inconsistent leaders. It's an analogy.
PHILIP TETLOCK: The analogy goes back to the Greek warrior-poet, Archilochus: the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
VEDANTAM: The hedgehog has one goal: it doesn't want to get eaten. Foxes, on the other hand, are crafty. They have lots of strategies to catch a hedgehog. Tetlock thinks consistent leaders simplify a complex world into a few big ideas. They're like hedgehogs.
TETLOCK: There are many different types of hedgehogs. You could be on the left or the right. You could be a free-market hedgehog, or you could be a Keynesian hedgehog, or even a socialist or Marxist hedgehog.
VEDANTAM: Leaders who are foxes don't have a single agenda. They have lots of contradictory goals. They support government spending in one case, they oppose it in another. They compromise.
TETLOCK: Foxes on average are more likely to be neither extreme boomsters nor extreme doomsters. They're less likely to be on the extreme left or the extreme right.
VEDANTAM: Now, consistent hedgehogs and inconsistent foxes both claim great results, so Tetlock put it to the test. He asked a large number of hedgehogs and foxes to make specific predictions about events. Over 20 years, he's collected more than 28,000 predictions about issues in 60 countries.
The results are in: foxes make the right calls more often than hedgehogs. If you want to know where the economy is headed, ask a fox.
But hedgehogs have a curious quality. The upside is when they're right, they're spectacularly right. Think of Winston Churchill, who saw the threat of Hitler before everyone else. The downside is hedgehogs are also more likely to be spectacularly wrong.
TETLOCK: Churchill had a low threshold for seeing threats to the British Empire. I mean he saw Gandhi as a terrible threat also, and he actually made comparisons between Hitler and Gandhi; comparisons that now we would regard as historically embarrassing.
VEDANTAM: Tetlock's work and other research shows inconsistent leaders do better in office. But consistent leaders do better during campaigns. The best presidents, Tetlock says, may be foxes who disguise themselves.
TETLOCK: They campaign like hedgehogs and they govern like foxes.
VEDANTAM: So the next time you hear a politician with a clear, consistent message, ask yourself, is this a hedgehog, or a fox in hedgehog's clothing?
MONTAGNE: And that was Shankar Vedantam and before him, Alix Spiegel and Jon Hamilton - three different ways of looking at the science of inconsistency. On our website, take a quiz to see if you can match the flip-flop to the presidential candidate. That's at NPR.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.