What is the Purpose of Holding & Expressing Political Beliefs?

The late Clay Christensen, IMO one of the relatively few business academics whose books/articles contain ideas that are genuinely thought-provoking and useful, discussed the ‘job’ for which a product is ‘hired.’  An example: milkshakes, sold by a restaurant chain which wished to increase its sales of that product line.

The chain’s marketers segmented its customers along a variety of psychobehavioral dimensions in order to define a profile of the customer most likely to buy milkshakes. In other words, it first structured its market by product–milkshakes–and then segmented it by the characteristics of existing milkshake customers….both attribute-based categorization schemes. It then assembled panels of people with these attributes, and explored whether making the shakes thinker, chocolatier, cheaper, or chunkier would satisfy them better.

Marketing 101 stuff. But it didn’t yield much in the way of results.

A new set of researchers came in with a different approach–to understand what customers were trying to get done for themselves when they “hired” a milkshake. They spent an 18-hour day in a restaurant and recorded when the shakes were bought, whether the customer was alone or with a group, whether he consumed it on the premises or drove off, etc. Surprisingly, most of the milkshakes were being bought in the early morning. After analyzing the data, the researchers returned and interviewed the customers. Evidently, these were people who faced a long, boring commute and wanted something to eat/drink on the way. Milkshakes were superior to alternatives because they didn’t get crumbs all over (like bagels) or get the steering wheel greasy (like a sausage & egg sandwich.)

The most important thing is that the same customers, at different times of the day, would buy milkshakes in other circumstances/contexts…and the desirable product attributes would be different. For example, they might come with their kids after school. And whereas the same person in his role as a commuter might want something that is relatively slow to drink (thick shake, large container), when he reappears in his role as a parent he might want something that goes down relatively fast (less viscous shake, smaller container, maybe even a larger straw.) What matters is not just who the customer is, but what he is trying to do.

OK, the idea of milkshakes for breakfast is not something I find appealing, but then I don’t need to combine breakfast with driving.  Some people do.  More importantly, Christensen’s insight generalizes beyond the milkshake field, and I’ve wondered what applicability it might have to politics.

So, why do people have political opinions?  What ‘job’ are they hiring the opinion to do?

Is the opinion based on their analysis of which policies/politicians will benefit them, and/or benefit people they care about?

Is it based on their impression of which opinions they had better express, if they want to keep their jobs–friends–boyfriends–girlfriends–spouses?

Is it the ‘job’ of the opinion to make them feel better about themselves?  Is it to get virtual revenge against people in their past–parents, employers, Mean Girls, school buillies?

Is it based on a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance by not contradicting views that they have held previously?

What other reasons do political opinions get ‘hired’ for?…bearing in mind that several factors may influence the hiring of a particular opinion…and what are the implications of this angle on things for practical political marketing?  (if any)

(Christensen story is from his book The Innovator’s Solution, co-authored with Michael Raynor)

10 thoughts on “What is the Purpose of Holding & Expressing Political Beliefs?”

  1. “So, why do people have political opinions? What ‘job’ are they hiring the opinion to do?”

    People are really like sheep. They want to be like each other and not stand out from the crowd. So the better dogs, understanding this, herd them by keeping them in some turmoil from imagined threats, and offering them a way to deal with these imagined threats, by being more like each other.

    Its an ancient scam.

  2. In a real democracy, people might express political beliefs to drive governmental actions in a direction they want to see. In the kinds of fake Party-dominated factional “democracies” we see in the West, policies don’t matter. People almost genetically inherit their Party loyalties from their parents, same as their eye color. Voting is emotional, not logical; a statement of their self-perception with no connection to reality.

    There are a minority of people who do vote for specific purposes or do not vote at all — the Contingent Voters. But they are an ignored minority.

  3. Gavin is right, though I disagree about source of the problem. The media doesn’t get into voter preferences on issues or priorities. The stories are almost exclusively about which candidate has name recognition from previous years, which has a large “War chest” from donors, how high each is in the polls, who has endorsed whom, what’s the latest gaffe or scandal, whether the generic “party” polling trends favor the local candidate, whether the candidate will or won’t “debate” and how often…

    Discussions of regional / district interest — say the construction of a hyperloop or power line or reservoir — get buried among slogan-exchanges about guns and abortion and global warming. Policy questions about civil asset forfeiture and no-knock federal warrants and IRS / FEC financial oversight are, to our professional journalists, boring. If at all, the journalists want to ask the candidate about restricting dog breeders from selling pit bulls…

    The MEDIA is much more to blame for the degradation of our democracy than our voters, extremist or otherwise.

  4. This topic always makes me think of what Henry Adams has a character say in “Democracy”–that voters can’t expect their representatives to be more honest and upright than they themselves are as citizens.

    OTOH, does the gap have to be SO enormous?

    And Pen Gun’s comment reminds me of Bierce’s cynical take on organized religion (which IMO applies to all kinds of groups):

    By ancient analogy we are told
    How first the church became the fold.
    The sheep into the fold are steered,
    Protected from the wolf–and sheared.

  5. Personally, I look at the price of food and drive by oil fields – I know what I want. I want those fields to be bustling with people, the smelly refineries doing their business, and the rest of us tasting the joy of productivity and getting to define our lives by hard work we’ve chosen to do.

    That attitude came after I went back to teaching after selling my business and thought about how hard my workers worked and how much academics put their hands out. I loved grad school, I loved talking about books and ideas; still, looking over the ballot for tomorrow, I tend to choose city council/mayor/judges who aren’t academics. that may sound like a bitter person, but it is amazing how reading laffer and Friedman and Sowell and.. . . makes one so much more optimistic. Why I’m thinking that in retirement more than when running a business is I guess a sign of how much can go around me and I not notice. But when it is, you really don’t worry that much about politics.
    The product I want is limited government. (Is nothing something, limited a policy – I’ve noticed the left doesn’t think it is. I do.)

  6. “What other reasons do political opinions get ‘hired’ for?…”

    Going back to the milkshake thing, what variances are at play in the political opinion choice?

    Is the “political opinion” a distillation of multivariate influencers, the “variable overlapping center” of a Venn diagram, each segment having different influence based on particular conditions at the time?

    For example, in Ginny’s comment (above) does her desire for “limited government” have equal value under all circumstances? “Limited government” in the area of taxation, or building department red tape, may be a stated goal, but in the area of policing and crime control does “limited government” carry the same weighted value? Or does the concentration of value shift based on circumstances, just as the milkshake purchasers’ did? They “all wanted milkshakes” but different milkshakes at different times under different circumstances. Would having different drink / packaging choices on the menu have driven different purchases? At what expense, on each end? Would purchasers have chosen, say, a “toothpaste tube of creamy chocolate” (as in ‘very early astronaut food’) for consumption while driving were it to be offered but a liquid drink while in the restaurant? Or, greater preference for a ‘law and order’ candidate in downtown Philadelphia but a ‘low taxation’ candidate in rural Idaho?

    Where’s the core value, how does one find it and address it? And, is it stationary?

  7. Applied to politics: most parents of young children, living in areas with bad schools, would like a candidate who would do the ‘job’ of improving their kids’ education, either by (somehow) fixing the schools or permitting & enabling alternatives. This category of people cuts across race, ethnicity, and sex. Political marketing implication: figure out which specific areas have the most families in the above category, and launch appropriate targeted marketing campaign.

    and regarding Energy: figure out what people have a high need to use gasoline (or diesel))..maybe they have long commutes, maybe they have powerboats…and have incomes that are not so high that the expense is trivial. Again, launch appropriate targeted campaigns.

    Maybe some of this kind of thing has been going on, but I haven’t seen much of it. Far more shotgunning of catch phrases.

  8. David F: “Maybe some of this kind of thing has been going on, but I haven’t seen much of it.”

    That is because we need to remember the primary job of most elected politicians — Securing their own re-election!

    Hence the politicians focus their attention on what the big donors want, to ensure lots of campaign contributions. They are much less concerned with what the actual voters want. Thus we find a world on the brink of global thermonuclear war over a hopelessly corrupt undemocratic junta in the Ukraine — and the big issues are instead abortion and alleged Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. The fact that political contributions can end up in the pockets of those surprisingly wealthy elected politicians does not hurt either.

    If we really wanted “democracy”, we would return to the Ancient Greek practice. Leaders would be elected for one year only, with great barriers against re-election. At the end of that year, the leaders would be intensely audited, and if they were believed to have used their offices to enrich themselves, they would be expelled from the city.

    Of course, that is not going to happen today because it would be against the vital interests of our current elected politicians. Not until after the coming Collapse, anyway.

  9. Gavin…”That is because we need to remember the primary job of most elected politicians — Securing their own re-election! Hence the politicians focus their attention on what the big donors want, to ensure lots of campaign contributions.”

    Doesn’t do much good for re-election to get big campaign contributions if you don’t employ those contributions effectively to get actual votes.

  10. When I was a teenager, I was a Democrat. My parents and almost everyone we knew was a Roosevelt Democrat. I went to college and took an Economics course. It turned me into a Republican and I voted for Nixon in 1960, outraging my parents. I doubt that an Economics course today would have a similar effect.

    I grew up in Chicago, which defined political corruption but which was relatively benign. My college was in Los Angeles, where I first encountered honest policemen. The city government was pretty honest, as best I could tell. All that has changed. I now live in Arizona, which is about to elect another Republican Governor and, I hope a GOP Senator.

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