It’s political season. That’s not just the case nationally in presidential, senatorial, and congressional races. It’s also political season in organizations like black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs), and no race is more hotly contested than the one who decides which member gets to sit in the head seat, who gets to have everyone stand when they walk in the room. Such a description sounds facetious, because it is. In many ways, each successive national head is part of a long line of men and women who have steered these organizations to great heights and through troubled waters. However, increasingly, four problematic aspects of these campaigns and administrations have emerged.
First, the campaigns are generally not based on anything substantive. They are, and I hate to say this, popularity contests. Who has the nicest suit or shoes? In fraternities, who is most manly or exhibits the strongest hetero-normative behaviors? Who gives the best speech, peppered with lines from appropriate fraternity/sorority poems? Who has held the most past offices? Who has the nicest campaign literature? Now if you say this to most BGLO members, they would push back and contend that their decision as to who they will vote for is based on logic and reason—i.e., what’s best for the fraternity or sorority. However, as I wrote, a few years ago, in a law review article on Michelle Obama:
Voting is not always based on rational choice; emotions also play a significant role. William Christ, for example, found that emotional responses to candidates accurately predict voter preferences for more than ninety percent of decided voters and eighty percent of undecided voters. Most political advertisements are designed to either inspire voter enthusiasm, by motivating their political engagement and loyalty, or induce fear, by stimulating vigilance against the risks some candidates supposedly pose. Other research shows that political advertisements that provoke anxiety stimulate attention toward the campaign and discourage reliance on habitual cues for voting; in other words, advertisements of this type can induce crossover voting. Likeability also affects voting. One study has shown that disengaged voters who watched entertainment-oriented talk show interviews of Al Gore and George W. Bush were more likely to vote against their party loyalties when they found the crossover candidate likeable. As with most decisions, both passion and reason influence voting, so it is no surprise that emotionally evocative concepts like race and gender impact voting.
Second, and a corollary to the first point, the candidates—and often the national head, once elected—has little to offer in the way of substance. This isn’t hyperbole. Indeed, they try to make sure that national conventions end in the black. They push to ensure that national programs are executed to some reasonable extent. They try to make sure the organization, generally, functions. And they may even execute on some pet project. However, when it comes to the big issues that undermine the future of these organizations—e.g., hazing, membership retention/reclamation/engagement, strengthening collegiate chapters—most national heads are lost. And whatever their efforts are to address these issues are almost always a shot in the dark, throwing random ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
Third, you can’t get better leadership because most members wouldn’t elect leaders that are truly transformational, transformative, and visionary. Why? There are probably many reasons, but among them is that members are emotionally wedded to certain personalities or certain packaging that even when not in the organization’s best interest it is transfixed in the minds of members to be just that. In essence, members see what they want to see when they are emotionally committed to a candidate.
One cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, may help describe what is taking place here. It is an emotion-biased, decision-making phenomenon where decision-makers hold a preferred outcome with regard to an evaluative task. As such, they are inclined to arrive at a particular conclusion about the particular object by engaging in biased processes with regard to accessing, constructing and evaluating information. It was recognized as far back as the 1600s when Sir Francis Bacon wrote:
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, prejudging the matter to a great and pernicious extent in order that its former conclusions may remain inviolate.
In essence, the supporter/surrogate too easily embraces, or may affirmatively search for, positive information about their candidate of choice even if that information is de minimus. They are susceptible to confirmation bias—the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms their own preconceptions. There is a tendency for the supporter/surrogate to engage in selective perception, where expectations about their candidate of choice affect their perception of information about said candidate. Therefore, it is inevitable that the supporter/surrogate tends to be susceptible to the focusing effect, whereby (s)he tends to place undue weight to certain aspects of events, namely those aspects that cast a positive light on the their candidate of choice.
The supporter/surrogate also strenuously resists negative information about their candidate no matter how overwhelming that information is. In part, they may be susceptible to conservatism bias; they are unable to revise their beliefs sufficiently when presented with new evidence. Here, negative information about their candidate fails to alter the supporter/surrogate’s evaluative needle of the candidate. This may be because of the Semmelweis reflex, the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm. In fact, efforts to augment the judgments of the candidate by providing the supporter/surrogate with disconfirming evidence may simply strengthen their beliefs, observed in the backfire effect.
These processes have nothing to do with how well-educated or intelligent the supporter/surrogate is or isn’t. Motivated reasoning is self-deceptive, irrational and lies outside of conscious awareness. As psychologist Ziva Kunda noted:
People do not realize that the process is biased by their goals, that they are accessing only a subset of their relevant knowledge, that they would probably access different beliefs and rules in the presence of different directional goals and that they might even be capable of justifying opposite conclusions on different occasions.
Fourth, efforts to be rational, to encourage members to look at the big picture and the totality of facts is deemed as destructive to the fraternity/sorority and not the myopic devotion given to a particular candidate. Indeed, for many BGLO members, the thought of electing a national head who is, at worse, unethical, and at best, lacking in the abilities to tackle real issues confronting their respective organizations isn’t that big an issue. Rather, the problem, the dark side, if you will, is when the handful of members press the masses to think beyond their emotions, fiefdoms, and subconscious rationales for their allegiances to consider what is needed from leadership to allow BGLOs to truly be transcendent.