Multilateral vs. unilateral

A couple of columns ago I proffered the heretical observation that people are only mediocre predictors of their own behavior, but may be better fortune tellers when it comes to the behavior of others.  

It is heresy because pollsters rely on self-reports as ultimate truth. When voters tell us they will support a particular candidate or consumers report they will buy a product or donors claim they will contribute to a cause, pollsters often take those predictions about an individual’s own behavior as gospel.

Indeed, whether in focus groups or surveys, pollsters often chide respondents for straying into discussions of others’ behavior instead of focusing only on their own.

Yet my earlier column adduced a variety of examples from politics, time management, career choice and charitable giving all suggesting that people often provide more accurate assessments of others’ behavior than of their own.

To the extent that that observation is correct, it can fundamentally alter the way we interpret poll results. For example, reams of data, some of it discussed in this column over the years, purport to demonstrate that Americans are multilateralists, preferring to act in concert with other nations than to operate alone. Even when weapons of mass destruction were implicated, a 2003 University of Maryland poll found that only 39 percent would support military action without U.N. approval.

Fifty-six percent said an attack could only be justified “if they first present their evidence to the U.N. and the U.N. determines that such an action is necessary.”

Despite the apparently profound advantage for multilateralism, Americans doubt their fellow citizens agree with them.

In responses to one survey experiment, conducted in early 2003, 77 percent said the most important lesson of Sept. 11, 2001, was that the “U.S. needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism,” while just 22 percent derived a unilateralist message — the “U.S. needs on its own more to fight terrorism.”

However, when asked to estimate the views of others, respondents predicted the country would divide evenly.

So what does it mean when a multilateral public perceives itself as unilateral? One explanation, offered by the authors of this study — Alexander Todorov and Anesu Mandisodza — is that Americans misperceive their own beliefs, mistakenly believing themselves unilateralists, when we are, “in fact,” multilateralists.

In line with my earlier theory, however, it could well be that we inaccurately assess our own beliefs but are closer to the mark when we are asked to speak for others.

A multilateralist public should have opposed George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, occurring as it did without the sanction of the U.N. and without a broad international coalition. Of course, that is just what Americans predicted they would do. In the study above, only 31 percent predicted they would approve of a presidential decision to invade Iraq without the blessing of the U.N. Security Council.

Other polls produced similar results, with an NBC/Wall Street Journal question typical of the genre. Here, only 29 percent professed support for U.S. military action against Iraq without the involvement of the U.N.  

Yet just after the war began, in clear contravention of the U.N., the action enjoyed the support of 75 percent of American voters, far more than believed they would offer their backing to the president’s policy under such circumstances.

So perhaps a public that perceives itself as multilateralist is actually less so than it would like to believe. Perhaps, in some circumstances, we are better at gauging the reactions of others than we are in forecasting our own. Too often, we assume that people’s predictions of their own behavior are “best evidence,” but that assumption is frequently faulty.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.