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Social Desirability Bias in Three Speeches

Summary:
I just rewatched Election for the first time in twenty years, and it was even better than I remembered.  And this time around, I had better conceptual tools to understand it.  Most notably, the movie features three election speeches that elegantly exemplify Social Desirability Bias – and its absence. First, the front-runner, Tracy Flick, delivers a classic firehose of SDB: Poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I cannot make my days longer, so I strive to make them better.” With this election, we here at Carver also have an opportunity to make our high school days better. During this campaign, I’ve spoken with many of you about your many concerns. I spoke with Eliza Ramirez, a freshman who said she feels alienated from her own home room. I spoke with sophomore

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I just rewatched Election for the first time in twenty years, and it was even better than I remembered.  And this time around, I had better conceptual tools to understand it.  Most notably, the movie features three election speeches that elegantly exemplify Social Desirability Bias – and its absence.

First, the front-runner, Tracy Flick, delivers a classic firehose of SDB:

Poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I cannot make my days longer, so I strive to make them better.”

With this election, we here at Carver also have an opportunity to make our high school days better.

During this campaign, I’ve spoken with many of you about your many concerns.

I spoke with Eliza Ramirez, a freshman who said she feels alienated from her own home room.

I spoke with sophomore Reggie Banks who said his mother works in the cafeteria and can’t afford to buy him enough spiral notebooks for his classes.

I care about Carver, and I care about each and every one of you.

And together, we can all make a difference.

When you cast your vote for Tracy Flick next week, you won’t just be voting for me. You’ll be voting for yourself and for every other student here at Carver.

Our days might not be any longer, but they can sure be better.

Thank you.

Notice the hyperbole.  Notice the Will to Power thinly masked by maudlin anecdotes.

Then the second candidate, Paul Metzler, delivers some incompetent (and incompetently delivered) SDB:

As many of you know, I broke my leg pretty bad this year, and the experience has made me reevaluate what I want to do with my life, and that is help people.

When you think about it, a school is more than a school. It’s our second home, where we spend all our time and grow as individuals in the community.

But is our school everything it could be? I want our school to reach its true potential.

That’s why I’m running for president.

I know what it is to fight hard and win, like when we almost went to State last fall and I threw the fourth quarter pass against Westside for the touchdown that won the game by 3  points.

I won’t let you down like I did then, and I promise we can all score a winning touchdown together.

Vote Paul Metzler for president. Thank you.

“I won’t let you down like I did then” – do not put that in your power-seeking speech.

Finally, the third candidate, Paul’s sister Tammy Metzler, deliberately spurns SDB in favor of cold, hard truth:

Who cares about this stupid election?

We all know it doesn’t matter who gets elected president of Carver.

Do you really think it’s gonna change anything around here, make one single person smarter or happier or nicer?

The only person it does matter to is the one who gets elected.

The same pathetic charade happens every year, and everyone makes the same pathetic promises, just so they could put it on their transcripts to get into college.

So vote for me because I don’t even wanna go to college, and I don’t care.

And as president, I won’t do anything.

The only promise I will make is that, if elected, I will immediately dismantle the student government so that none of us will ever have to sit through one of these stupid assemblies again!

Or don’t vote for me!

Who cares?!

Don’t vote at all!

I totally forgot about this speech.  When I heard it again, I cheered for Tammy.  (And so did the whole high school, but that’s another story).  The speech doesn’t just replace hyperbole with candor; it blows the whistle on politics’ thinly-veiled power hunger and careerism.  Indeed, she openly calls for the abolition of her own position.  Literally speaking,  of course, the school won’t let her abolish student government immediately… or ever.  But if you interpret “promise” as “promise to try,” you can hardly doubt Tammy’s honesty.

At this point, I can hear David Henderson in my head saying, “Would you want a U.S. presidential candidate to deliver Tammy’s speech?  How would that improve policy?”  Well, it would largely prevent policy from getting worse.  But yes, if an intricate status quo of bad policy already exists, brutal honesty isn’t enough.  You need extreme candor to clear the air.  But then you have to build on it with a steely program of liberalization.

Still, out of the three candidates, only Tammy is persuadable to accomplish anything good.

P.S. Watch Tammy’s full brilliant speech here.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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