Big Data Deserves Big Skepticism
What if all the hype about big data isn’t justified? What if there’s a better alternative? There’s a new David in town using political psychology to take on the big data Goliath, whose size distracts from its costs, downsides, and vulnerabilities.
Big data – the collection and analysis of ultra-massive data sets to find patterns and correlations – has received a great deal of attention over the past few years thanks to its prominent role the 2012 presidential campaign and the growing number of companies using it to market and sell to consumers. It has become conventional wisdom – particularly inside the Beltway – that big data will revolutionize business and politics.
But there has been far too little critical coverage in the press of big data’s costs, downsides, and vulnerabilities – of which there are many. Big data…
- is massively expensive and time consuming to use,
- needlessly duplicates findings that already have abundant academic support,
- contains potential errors and biases that are not easily detected,
- cannot replace good decisions or genuine leadership,
- objectifies human beings by reducing people’s lives to mere statistics,
- intrudes upon privacy and is ripe for abuse, and
- may soon be rendered useless to political strategists.
In light of these issues, political psychology represents a superior alternative in terms of cost, accessibility, reliability, ethics, and most importantly effectiveness. Political psychology is the study of politics, voters, and political leaders from a psychological perspective – emphasizing the unconscious factors that motivate and influence people. From personalities to generations and from social influences to cognitive ones, political psychology puts human nature front and center in our conversations about politics because human factors establish the range of political possibilities and are the key to social and political change.
In contrast to big data, political psychology…
- offers effective, accessible, low cost solutions that political strategists can use,
- is protected from potential bias and error by replicability and peer review,
- emphasizes leadership and good decision-making,
- elevates human beings, relationships, and communities,
- follows rigorous ethical and methodological guidelines, and
- will continue producing strategic breakthroughs even as big data faces potentially debilitating legal and regulatory challenges.
None of these points will likely convince any data scientists to retreat from the political battlefield. But political strategists and consultants should be aware that big data isn’t the only way to analyze and influence political attitudes and behaviors. For most political organizations and campaigns, political psychology is a far better alternative. If you aren’t convinced, just compare big data to political psychology. The contrasts are stark and overwhelming.
PROBLEM: Big data costs big bucks.
Most campaigns and organizations don’t have access to the financial or technological resources necessary to take advantage of big data. Using data analytics means hiring a small army of coders, statisticians, and analysts. It means building an expensive, not to mention time consuming, IT infrastructure to support their work. It means purchasing data from third party vendors and/or hiring people to collect it. It means training employees to understand and use the data. It means constantly updating the system to reflect changes in the political landscape. And it means safeguarding the information and systems from unscrupulous employees, competitors, and hackers. Any one of these would cost a small fortune. Unless all of these costs drop precipitously, only a handful of top tier political organizations and campaigns will ever be able to invest in big data.
SOLUTION: Political psychology is affordable, accessible, and effective.
Most psychology research comes to us from academia, which means it’s virtually free. Political psychologists have been studying voter attitudes and behavior for decades. From the origins of ideology to the tools of social influence, political psychology has a pretty solid grip on what makes leaders and followers tick. Sometimes all it takes is a trip to the library to find incredibly effective tools and solutions. With just a little research, you can uncover powerful techniques that leaders, organizers, fundraisers, and lobbyists can use and benefit from every single day.
PROBLEM: Big data reinvents the wheel.
One of the key findings made by President Obama’s analytics team during the 2012 campaign was that political messages have a greater impact when they come from your friends, family, and neighbors (as opposed to coming directly from a campaign). Big data enthusiasts hailed the finding as a major breakthrough, but there’s just one small problem. Using different methods, political psychologists made this very same discovery decades ago! Had anyone on the Obama campaign raised the issue with a political psychologist, it might have saved the campaign months of effort researching the question as if no one had ever asked it before, not to mention millions of dollars in expenses.
SOLUTION: Political psychology already has the answers.
Few strategic challenges in politics are completely new, especially when it comes to motivating and influencing people. Political psychologists have been asking the toughest questions you can ask since the days of Sigmund Freud, and using innovative methods to figure out how and when hearts and minds can be won. The bad news is that most of their solutions are locked away in obscure academic journals. The good news is that you only need to hire one good researcher who has broad exposure to political psychology to find the answers you need. To its credit, big data has produced some genuinely original insights. But far too often, neither the number crunching guys nor their clients realize they’re just reinventing the wheel.
PROBLEM: Big data may have hidden errors and biases.
Depending on the type of data, its source, and the collection methods, any given data set may or may not be a truly representative sample – and often there’s no way to know for sure. As a result, the findings from data analysis may only apply to only one specific, very unique set of people or circumstances. But biased or bad data isn’t the only problem. Because most big data is proprietary, the data itself, the analytic methods, and the findings produced by data analysts never receive the kind of third party scrutiny normally applied to academic studies and other forms of published research. If the data, the analytics, or the findings do contain errors or biases, neither the analysts themselves nor their high paying clients will ever be the wiser.
SOLUTION: Peer review protects political psychology from error.
We all make mistakes. But over time, peer review and third party scrutiny protects political psychology against bias and error. Unlike big data, most of the findings, theories, and methods in political psychology have been replicated across a wide range of people and settings. They’ve withstood the test of time. Replicability and peer review make political psychology more reliable.
PROBLEM: Big data can’t replace good decisions.
Analyzing data is one thing. Understanding what it means, getting it into the right hands, and using it to make decisions are each entirely separate matters. As research published in the Harvard Business Review warned, “Investments in analytics can be useless, even harmful, unless employees can incorporate that data into complex decision making.” It turns out that people with strong critical thinking skills – who take an informed skeptic’s view of big data – ultimately make the best decisions. That’s because even when big data gets it right, making good decisions requires context and independent judgment.
SOLUTION: Political psychology helps you make better decisions.
When it comes to decision-making, political psychology is light years ahead of big data. In fact, decision-making is an entire branch of psychology, whether the focus is on how voters decide, how leaders decide, or how to steer people toward the decisions you want them to make. In politics, nearly everyone has an agenda, and agendas create biases and blind spots. Political psychologists know how to spot these and see beyond them. Cognitive psychologists have cataloged every bias and heuristic under the sun that can lead you astray, while organizational and social psychologists have learned how to turn good choices into good outcomes.
PROBLEM: Big data distracts and detracts from leadership.
There’s a certain style of leader – found in alarming abundance on the Democratic side of the aisle – that will postpone and avoid making decisions when faced with ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk. Counter-intuitively, more data makes these obsessive-compulsive personalities even more risk-averse and even less likely to lead. After all, why make a difficult decision when you can just wait for more information? While evidence-based decision making is something we’ve come to admire in the modern world, technocratic leaders often have a hard time explaining their actions in terms of the beliefs and values, the emotions and experiences that regular people can relate to. There’s a real risk that the rise of data science could further atrophy the already-weak leadership and communications abilities of the technically sophisticated.
SOLUTION: Leadership is a central part of political psychology.
No data scientist will ever come up with an equation for leadership that trumps the human equation. Most people most of the time are moved by people, not data or evidence. This is why human nature belongs front and center in our strategic conversations about politics and leadership. And it’s why political scientists, strategists, and statisticians, public policy entrepreneurs, experts, and advocates all do themselves a disservice when they forget or ignore the human factor in their work. Political psychology has much to offer those who want to become leaders or become better leaders. For instance, various psychological instruments and profiling techniques can help leaders guard against their own deficiencies and harness their strengths for maximum advantage. These same techniques can also be deployed to help target and persuade potential allies and take down opponents.
PROBLEM: Big data reduces human beings to statistics.
Big data reduces living, breathing human beings to the sum of our purchases, clicks, and votes. Data analysts can only speculate about the qualitative facets of human nature – the root causes and subjective judgments that actually drive our attitudes and behaviors. Indeed, big data renders individual lives utterly inconsequential; our memories, our dreams, and all the things that give us meaning are reconstructed as objects to be counted, analyzed, and manipulated. When we lose sight of the people behind the data, we lose sight of the human factors that are the key to motivating and influence people.
SOLUTION: Political psychology elevates people, relationships, and communities.
It is possible to take advantage of the data sciences without losing touch with our humanity. The best way to do so is to counter-balance and contextualize big data with robust humanist perspectives. Political psychology, for instance, is uniquely suited to help make sense of individual people, relationships, groups, and communities. Psychologists have been examining individual, social, and mass behavior for over a century, but their findings remain unknown to most people working in politics. In short, no organization should ever hire a team of data analysts without also hiring political psychology experts as well.
PROBLEM: Big data is turning into Big Brother.
Privacy hawks have already started sounded the alarm about the dangers of big data turning into an Orwellian nightmare. Disclosures about the NSA’s surveillance programs have demonstrated how information on billions of people can get vacuumed up into an intrusive data collection dragnet without anyone’s knowledge or consent. In business and politics alike, the potential for abuse and misuse is enormous. For instance, there was the incident where Target’s data analytics program accidentally revealed a teenage girl’s pregnancy to her father before he even knew about it. Imagine the response if a politician had been the one responsible! The practice of selling and trading customer data has become so prevalent that industry analysts anticipate significant legal restrictions in the next few years.
SOLUTION: Political psychology has a bright future – big data may not.
Data science and political psychology have one thing in common: they both reveal things that people may not even know about themselves. But the professional, academic, and legal standards for psychology require informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, and that no harm be done to study participants. In a way, political psychology’s strict ethical guidelines protect it from being regulated out of existence. Big data only exists as an industry because the there are so few laws and ethical norms governing the use of personal information. Sooner or later, rules will be put in place giving consumers control over how their personal information is used. As a result, most big data sets will quickly become biased toward those who don’t mind having their information shared – rendering the samples unrepresentative and useless for political purposes. When that happens, political psychology will still be there with a vast supply of strategic insights into the human factors that produce social and political change.
In the age of self-driving cars and social media IPOs, most of us naturally get excited about what technology can do to improve our lives and make our work more efficient and effective — in politics as much as in any other industry. Yet novelty can sometimes blind us to the hidden weaknesses, costs, and downsides of the latest inventions.
Consider that radio empowered FDR…and Hitler. Television brought news into our living rooms, but simultaneously turned political communication into a one way medium. Direct mail helped many low-profile causes raise money and build momentum, but also produced an entire class of grifters and scam artists only interested in making a quick buck. Any new technology that transforms politics comes with significant benefits and significant downsides. Big data will be no exception.
Political psychology isn’t a technology, at least not in any conventional sense of what we mean by technology. It’s a way of looking at the world that places human nature front and center in our conversations about politics. Because politics is ultimately about people and decided by people. The upsides and downsides of political psychology are already baked into the cake of what it means to be human. Time and again, psychology demonstrates that our human qualities are far more determinative of political outcomes than any of the latest technological and methodological advances. The only question is how much attention we pay to the hardware and software that nature invented for us.
Big data can play a positive role if it is contextualized within a larger analytic and decision-making framework and if it stays focused on the people behind the statistics. But it won’t do either alone. Regardless of its merits, right now big data is simply to big to be used by most political campaigns and organizations. It’s a Goliath. And it’s sheer size distracts from its many vulnerabilities.
If you’re looking to analyze and change political attitudes and behaviors, political psychology is clearly the superior alternative.