When everyone thinks alike

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When everyone thinks alike


When I saw the first television commercials of ruling Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye and opposition Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in, I thought of some behavioral economists. The first was Daniel Kahneman, who said that we find familiar things good and true. Another was Cass Sunstein, who argued that in a group where members have similar ideas and beliefs, they serve as an echo chamber and their convictions or concerns are amplified and reinforced.

The television ads are an indication of the capacity of the campaigns. And the first round of commercials may be their best. At least, the campaign’s organizers have the view that these were their best appeals to the public.

Unfortunately, people outside the election camp are likely to disagree.

Park’s television commercial is about the incident on May 20, 2006, the day during which she would later say she was born again. That day, she was attacked by an assailant with a utility knife. If the assailant had aimed a little bit differently, she would have been killed. Both of her parents were assassinated, and she also suffered a terror attack.

Her supporters felt sympathetic, but right after the surgery, she asked, “How is Daejeon?” Her remark changed the Daejeon mayoral election, and the then-ruling Uri Party suffered a disgraceful defeat. Park and her supporters may remember it as a moment of powerful victory.

But how will general voters, especially those who feel distant from the Saenuri Party, feel about this historical flashback? The election was turned around after Park’s attack, and the losing end may not have many fond memories. It was not an appropriate memory to raise for a candidate who claims to be dedicated to national integration. But Park may not have any understanding of the sentiments of people who don’t already support her.

Moon’s commercial is, in contrast, predictable. It features a lyrical tune and portrays him as an average citizen. He promises to represent the working-class people. These are themes used by the liberals for more than a decade. Of course, they added some variation: Moon is sitting barefoot in a designer armchair. But the barefoot bit is not entirely new, as it was already used by Ahn Cheol-soo in his book “Cheol-soo’s Thoughts.” At any rate, this commercial was faithful to the grammar of the liberal camp.

Self-complacent attitudes by the candidates are not limited to their television ads. Both camps have been routinely satisfied by the internal rhetoric of their campaigns. While Moon pledges to be the “first president opening a new era,” he repeats the logic and actions of former president Roh Moo-hyun, the last of the old era. He divides the people into common people and aristocrats, the “old powers” and the “future powers,” as his former boss did. And Moon neglects the generation that is responsible for the country’s industrialization. He claims to repent the mistakes of Roh’s administration, but in the end, he says that Roh was not at fault.

Park has been criticized for lacking communication with those outside her solid support group, and she doesn’t change. A recent television debate illustrates how stubborn she is. She talked about what she wanted to, and the issues that citizens are genuinely curious about - such as her historical perspective and her ideas on so-called “economic democratization” - were ignored. Still, the Saenuri Party thinks the debate was a success.

The candidates are surrounded by people with the same ideas and beliefs. In such groups, even a slightly different idea is considered foolish and absurd. They get upset about criticism. Behavioral economists call it “cognitive bias” or “biased assimilation.” As Park Geun-hye’s camp makes decisions based on Park’s psychology and the Roh Moo-hyun supporters skillfully attempt to take power, they grow distant from the citizens.

Sunstein said it is a misjudgment to think that a group will reach the truth or make a logical decision. For that, it needs to seek people with different stances. Are the presidential candidates making such efforts? They say they are bringing in people with different perspectives. But the new figures don’t seem to be playing major roles in the decision-making process.

An election is a relatively open period for politicians, for individuals and for ideas. When they are so close-minded now, what will they be like after the election? Will they keep their word and make fair appointments? For that, I already feel that we have to delay our hopes for five years later.

* The author is the deputy editor of political and international news of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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