Same politics and behavioural science, now all up on the New Statesman website here
This blog has been shortlisted for an award. I’ll find out in November if I’ve won. I’ll also be more settled into the new job by then so afterwards am thinking of returning to the topic of how you need behavioural and economic science to properly understand how politics works.
The hardest part of all of this is thinking of something to write about so I thought I’d leave this form online: if you’ve ever looked at politicians and wondered “why the hell do they do that?” then shove it in the comment box and I’ll have a go at explaining it using either economics, psychology or a bit of both.
See you all in November…
My year of being a student is coming to a close and I’ll shortly have to return to the world of full time work so this may be the last post for a bit. I hope I’ve shown that it’s worth pursuing the idea that politicos have the same biases, emotions and interests as the voters, and understanding them both helps you understand politics.
If you missed any of the series, they’re here:
Democratic politicians face two problems: how to win votes and how to choose the right policies. Some tension between these two tasks is inevitable. Our minds are incredibly good at finding consistent patterns and seeing the links between things because that has allowed us to survive: whether that is recognising a friendly face in the crowd, understanding a warning to look out, or learning the best places to hunt our food. But we’re so good at it, we can end up seeing or searching for consistency, without consciously realising that we are doing so. That creates some predictable biases that have been identified in the laboratory which are especially relevant for people navigating those two different political questions. Here, in no particular order, are five of them.
1. Knocking on doors in the rain.
Much of party political activism involves traipsing around the suburbs of Britain, interrupting people at home to ask them whether they will back your candidate. And, this being Britain, there is often rain. It’s a bit grim and it’s one reason why only a small proportion of party members (itself a very small number of people) get very involved. However, some people do get very involved, and none of the main party’s “get-out-the-vote” operations would work without this group of activists.
Why do some people carry on, even after getting drenched or chased by a dog or sworn at by a pensioner? In experiments, the nastier the process of joining a group is – and nastiness is measured by an electric shock in one version of this – the more we like the group and think that it is interesting. If we’ve put up with pain, that only makes sense if the group we’re joining was worth it… so we believe that it is. That, I think, is why you’ll never meet anyone more ready to extoll the importance of being in government than a Liberal Democrat member in 2014, something that they didn’t seem nearly as bothered about before they went through all that pain to get there.
2. The worst week in politics and the comeback kid
Often in politics one side has a bad week, and the consistent thing seems to be to predict that they’re headed for even worse to come. Then… nothing happens and you’re forced to explain it: is their leader especially tough? Does the public not care? Was it that last-ditch policy announcement that turned the voters around?
Our search for consistent patterns in what we see makes us bad – in experiments and in the real world – at predicting a statistical truth: reversion to the mean. In any process with a bit of luck to it, a very bad result will almost always be followed by a better one and a very good result will almost always be followed by a worse one. That’s just the same as saying that – on average – you should expect to get the average result. It’s this psychological dynamic which, I’d suggest, fills politics with stories about how one action saved the day – whether that’s George Osborne’s 2007 promise to cut inheritance tax or Ed Miliband’s 2013 pledge on energy prices. Of course, they might have made a difference , but that difference has to be judged on top of the expectation that things were going to get back to normal.
3. Things can only get better if you misremember the past
An old but fun experiment had students take a vacuous “study skills” course over three weeks. The course didn’t improve the students’ marks compared to the control group of students who wanted to take it but were told it was full up. The consistent thing after choosing to take the course was to believe it improved your performance… but there was no evidence in for the students to point to.
So what did their consistency-seeking minds do? They changed the past: the students who took the “study skills” course changed their evaluations of how bad they had been before the course so that, from their perspective, it looked like there had been improvement. Revising memories of the past makes us believe we have made more progress, and quicker too. The Major and Thatcher governments were never so cruel as they existed in the collective mind of the last Labour Government, and the last Labour Government was never so profligate as it existed in George Osborne’s speeches back when the economy was stuttering.
4. “Poor but honest” – how nice people think the world fairer
In the consistent world our minds desire, bad things don’t happen to good people. Much research has been done on how that desire leads people to blame the victim of a crime or the economically unlucky for the fact of their misfortune. In our politics, especially but not exclusively on the left, this is frowned upon.
However, there are other ways of making the world seem consistent and just that are much more acceptable around the cafetière: complimentary stereotypes. So, the poor are honest or happy, while the victim has found a new strength after the crime. Psychologists at Stanford have found that these ideas satisfy and reinforce our need to believe that the world is just. One of the silliest vices in today’s politics – especially but not exclusively on the left – is the instinct that the prejudices of the working class are authentic and noble, while the prejudices of the middle and upper classes are self-serving and illegitimate. This belief compensates the poor, at least in our minds, and so makes the world seem fairer. It does this without requiring us to do very much in the way of making poor people less poor.
5. No true Scottish campaign defeat
Politics often involves losing. Yet rarely do you hear anyone, myself included, say “my politics has been rejected, I must find a new one.” Instead we are like the fictitious Hamish McDonald: we believe that our values can’t fail, and when they do, we tend to say “ah, but our true values were not given a fair test, our true values can’t fail.” We have incredible mental tools to counter-argue, to spot biases and criticise evidence… and we apply them incredibly one-sidedly once we’ve committed to a stance. One of the great and scary experiments for people who work in communications gave a balanced set of arguments about the death penalty to a group of people, half of whom already supported the death penalty, half of whom didn’t. The result? Both groups decided that the material they disagreed with was flawed – and both groups became more convinced of their pre-existing view. The party that loses the next election will spend a lot of time – afterwards and perhaps even before – convincing themselves that this was not a true test of our true values or that the defeat wasn’t a true expression of the public’s view. Avoiding these inevitable, painful contortions is reason enough to want your party to win.
Conway, M. & Ross, M. (1984) “Getting What You Want By Revising What You Had.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(4), 738-749.
Gerard, H.B. & Mathewson, G.C. (1966) “The Effects of Severity of Initiation of Liking for a Group: A Replication”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 278-287.
Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1973). “On the Psychology of Prediction”. Psychological Review, 80(4), 237-251.
Kay, A.C. & Jost, J.T. (2003). “Complementary Justice: Effects of ‘Poor but Happy’ and ‘Poor but Honest’ Stereotype Exemplars on System Justification and Implicit Activation of the Justice Motive.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 823–837.
Lord, C.G., Ross, L, & Lepper, M.R. (1979). “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098-2109.
Nickerson, R.S. (1998). “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises.” Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Tversky,A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185, 1124-1131.
Is Peter taller than Paul? How much taller is Peter than Paul? Our minds find the first question much easier to answer than the second. Sometimes these easier ,yes or no, comparisons reveal as much or even more than trying to measure everything individually. Simple tallying heuristics have been found to beat more complicated professional judgements on accurately diagnosing strokes and predicting avalanches.
However, sometimes they get it wrong. Suppose there are two supermarkets: one is very slightly cheaper on 90% of the products, the other is generally slightly more expensive but is a lot cheaper on a few big items like spirits. If you wander through both supermarkets, your mind will find it easier to do lots of small comparisons – beans are cheaper here, bread is cheaper here, toothpaste is cheaper here – rather than noticing that those small reductions don’t actually add up to the big saving the other supermarket offered on a bottle of Scotch. The supermarkets appear to know this – explaining why they have adverts emphasising how many of their products are cheaper than their rivals’ (“frequency cues”), not how much cheaper they are overall (“magnitude cues”).
What has this got to do with politics? Judging prices or heights is a lot easier than judging political positions. So in political decisions, people may rely even more on questions like “Is Ed Miliband more leftwing than David Cameron?” and avoid, even more, questions like “How much more leftwing is Ed Miliband than David Cameron?”
This has interesting implications for politics. Parties want voters to think they occupy a particular place on the ideological spectrum. They do things – make speeches, announce policies and so on – to try and show people where they stand. What this approach suggests is that it’s the number of leftwing policies that you adopt or leftwing speeches you give that matters – not how left they are – for whether you are seen as leftwing or not. If “frequency cues” matter then a party can pursue a madly lefty policy – occasionally – and be seen as quite centrist. Alternatively, a party can be very moderately leftish – regularly – and be perceived as radically leftwing. The same applies on the right.
In campaign terms, it makes overall tone more important than major interventions. Fifty small press releases matter more than a big policy announcement. Both the Conservatives and Labour have sometimes gone for big centrist policy announcements in recent years – for example, Labour’s zero-based budgeting or the Tories’ support for gay marriage – which have done surprisingly little to change the overall perceptions of either party. Perhaps the reason is not that the moves weren’t big enough, but that they weren’t frequent enough – or were swamped by the many minor signals being given out in the opposite direction.
Now where you want to be on the political spectrum is up to you. As a New Labour type, I like this analysis because it helps resolve a big problem for me. I tend to be pretty centrist on most things but on a few issues – immigration or international development for example – I don’t agree with the majority position in the UK. This approach says that taking an out-of-touch view on a few issues isn’t a problem, just as Tony Blair’s pro-Europeanism never really held him back electorally. Because who wants to be “in touch” all of the time?
Alba, J.W., Broniarczyk, S.M., Shimp, T.A, & Urbany, J.E. (1994). The Influence of Prior Beliefs, Frequency Cues and Magnitude Cues on Consumers’ Perceptions of Comparative Price Data. Journal of Consumer Research, 21(2), 219-235.
Chater, N. (2014). From principles to decision making. Principals of Cognition series. Lecture conducted at Warwick Business School, UK.
Gigerenzer, G. & Gassmaier, W. (2011). Heuristic Decision Making. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 451-482.
The number of people in the UK who are members of political parties is roughly the same number as those who say they believe Elvis is still alive and much lower than the numbers who believe Princess Diana was assassinated, the Apollo moon landings were faked or that humans have been contacted by extra terrestrials. It’s very unusual behaviour and it’s worth thinking about the psychological consequences*.
You know how tall you are, right? And you’ve got a pretty good idea of how well that compares with the rest of the world? Perhaps not. In one experiment, participants were shown photos of short people and, afterwards, estimated that they were taller compared to the rest of the population and, subsequently, chose a taller size of rain poncho (a weirdly popular garment amongst behavioural scientists).
Despite being a member of the Labour Party, I don’t always feel like the most pro-Labour person. And if you think about the experiment with the ponchos, that’s not surprising. Because I’m a member of the Labour Party, I see a lot more stuff from the left: tweets, speeches, fundraising emails and so on. Now I like the Labour Party enough to join the Elvis-is-alive-percentile but – out there – are some people who are even more enthusiastic. Like the poncho wearers, I judge where I fit into the spectrum based on my experience and my experience is biased. That’s why it’s sometimes a treat for me to meet a proper True Blue Tory: suddenly I get to be the most leftwing one in the conversation and, while I’m not very experienced in that role, I always enjoy it.
The problem, however, is that when people come together in groups they don’t just conform to the average opinion of the group. People get more certain and the average opinion moves as people become more extreme. In some cases that’s great – people donate more to charity as a group and, even, it has been argued, doctors in groups may spend more time trying to resuscitate patients. Groups tend to suppress doubts and that might be necessary for any decision to be made. Nevertheless, the fact remains: if you bring members of a political party together, they will go home a little more extreme than they arrived. On the big things, parties have electoral incentives not to go too wacky in the long run but on the small things – leafleting in the rain, watching the Daily Politics, tweeting photos of yourself talking to Real People – group members can get more and more distant from the rest.
There’s another odd feature of being in a group. My favourite experiment published this year is from Elizabeth Suhay at the American University in Washington DC. She showed Church-going Catholics one of three opinion poll findings: in one group, she showed them findings that most Catholics were conservative, in another she showed them that most Catholics were leftwing and in the third, and most interesting, case she showed them that most Evangelicals were conservative. Unsurprisingly, Catholics told that other Catholics were on the right tended to give more rightwing answers about their own views, and the opposite happened when they were told that other Catholics were on the left. But when these practicing Catholics were told that Evangelicals were socially conservative, their answers became more socially liberal – as liberal as if they had been told that Catholics are mostly leftwing.
What does this mean? Normally we think that political parties don’t like each other because their views are so different. Suhay’s experiment makes me think that sometimes parties have different views because they don’t like each other. And that goes some way to explaining why parties end up in silly places: how you can often find a leftwinger ready to attack even the most reasonable spending cut or a rightwinger to defend the most egregious business practice. It must look at least as strange as believing the moon landings were a conspiracy by the CIA and little green men.
*I shan’t comment on the psychological causes of joining a political party, other than saying that I’m not sure that getting heavily involved in party politics is a sign that everything is going well in the rest of your life. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I did and that others do too.
References: Gershoff, A.D & Burson, K.A. (2011). Knowing Where They Stand: The Role of Inferred Distributions of Others Misestimates of Relative Standing. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(3), 407-419.
Suhay, E. (2014). Explaining Group Influence: The Role of Identity and Emotion in Political Conformity and Polarization. Political Behavior, DOI 10.1007/s11109-014-9269-1
Sustein, C. R. (2011). Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. OUP: Oxford.
Behavioural economists love talking about risk. Politics isn’t very good at talking about risk: governments have to pretend there’s no possibility that their plans will fail, commentators have to assert that – if only they followed my plan – my party would win a landslide. Bad results are seen as proof of bad ideas and bad character – and rarely of bad luck.
I like thinking in terms of risks so here are three things we have learnt from studying risky decisionmaking that might have some application to politics and elections.
1. Going back to a bad restaurant
Suppose there are two similarly priced seafood restaurants in a town you’re visiting for two nights. For each restaurant you’re interested in two facts. The first one is obvious: what sort of quality can you expect as an average customer. The second fact is how much the quality may vary. It’s particularly true of seafood but, generally, people are more worried about bad risks (food poisoning) than they are about good ones (occasionally the normal chef’s incredibly talented cousin drops by and cooks something special).
When you arrive in town, you assume that both restaurants have an equally good average and are equally variable. You pick one at random but you’re disappointed: your fish is overcooked and the staff are a little rude. Now it’s the next night: which restaurant do you go to? You’ve now lowered your expectation of what the average meal is like at the restaurant you visited. But this bad restaurant has become more attractive in a different way: you now have a better idea of the range of possible outcomes that could happen on a return visit.
After four years in office, some people, probably many, will think that the Cameron Government has been worse than they expected. The Tories weren’t didn’t reveal beforehand the extent of the public sector cuts and tax rises that they later thought appropriate. But the fact of being in government has reduced the variability in the possible outcomes associated with a Tory victory in 2015. This applies to good outcomes and bad outcomes. Opponents would be more worried in 2010 than in 2015 that the Tories would scrap the NHS. Supporters would be more excited in 2010 than in 2015 that the Tories would dramatically reduce taxes. But – as in the case of seafood – bad risks tend to outweigh good ones, perhaps giving Prime Minister David Cameron a small net advantage over David Cameron as Leader of the Opposition.
2. People gamble when things might get worse, not when they have got worse
One of the most important insights of behavioural economics is that people act differently when the choice is getting £1 for certain or a 1% chance of winning £100 than they do when the choice is between giving up £1 for certain or a 1% chance of losing £100. When it’s a choice about gains, people tend to pick the safe option. When it’s a choice about losses, people are more likely to pick the risky option.
What does that mean for politics? If people think the next parliament is about gains then they may be more likely to back low-risk plans or incumbent politicians. That’s true even if they’ve suffered painful losses through this parliament. On the other hand, if people think the next parliament is going to be about either accepting inevitable pain or taking big risks to avoid pain, then they might pick the high risk plans and the insurgent politicians. That’s true even if the last four years have been pretty good for these people.
Now, I’ve warned myself before about dealing in archetypes, but as politics is currently obsessing over small-c conservative, working class voters, these two models made me think of two different caricatures of the same demographic. The caricature of the traditional working class Tory is someone who’s got their own council house and hopes for a pay rise at some point in the future and he or she doesn’t want any gambles.
On the other hand, if the choice is between accepting that your area is going into sustained decline or taking a risky gamble to prevent it, people might well be ready to “set [their] life on any chance, to mend it or be rid of it”. That might be UKIP, it could be an equally immoderate position on the left.
However, just because those two archetypes are equally easy to think up, doesn’t mean there are equal number of voters that get anywhere near the two caricatures.
3. Fears about parties can reappear very quickly
Researchers can teach rats to be scared of a particular sound by repeatedly making the sound and then giving the rats an electric shock. They can then unteach the rats by making the sound without making the shock until the rats start to ignore it. These rats seem to be completely back to how they were before the experiment. But… if the sound and shocks start to coincide again, even just briefly, the rats quickly go back to being scared of the sound.
What does this have to do with human politics? The fears of rats and the fears of people aren’t as different as you might think because our fears are controlled by an old part of the brain – the amygdala – which does the same thing in birds, rats, rabbits, monkeys and humans.
If fears can remain dormant and then be quickly re-awakened, party rebranding will take much longer than it might appear on the surface. In the 2010 election, our internal research showed that some people were still worried about the Conservative Party based on something that happened in 1992: the wave of home repossessions that followed Black Wednesday. For the last few years, there has been no reason to associate repossessions and Conservative-led Governments. But the Tories would be unwise to think that the toxic link between Conservative-governments and home repossessions has disappeared: if rates rise in the next year, and repossessions rise as a consequence, Osborne could be in for more trouble than he expects.
LeDoux, J. (1998). The Emotional Brain, Simon & Schuster: New York.
Quattrone, G.A. & Tversky, A. Contrasting Rational and Psychological Analyses of Political Choice. American Political Science Review, 82:3, 719-736.
Rust. R., Inman, J.J., Jia, J., & Zahorik, A. (1999). What You Don’t Know About Customer- Perceived Quality: The Role of Customer Expectation Distributions. Marketing Science, 18(1), 77-92.
Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5, 297-323.
Immigration has been a big political issue for at least the last fifteen years. That covers William Hague’s “foreign land” speech and Michael Howard’s “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking”, as well as David Blunkett’s comments about schools being “swamped”*. Immigration now beats the economy in YouGov’s regular poll of most important issues facing the country**. If you conduct a focus group in the UK on pretty much any issue, at some point, someone will cautiously link it to immigration – at which point most of the rest of the group will join in.
But… immigration has not been a decisive issue in any UK General Election during my lifetime.
Here’s one way of explaining what seems like a contradiction. In experiments, people are offered two seaside holidays. Spot A has average weather, average beaches, average nightlife and medium temperature sea. Spot B has great weather, great beaches, no nightlife and cool seas. If people are asked which one they would like to go on, they choose Spot B. It’s got great weather and great beaches, right? But a funny thing happens when you put the question a different way: say you have reservations with both holidays but have to cancel one, which would you cancel? Again, people choose Spot B. It’s got no nightlife and you can’t swim there, after all. Somehow Spot B has become everyone’s favourite and least favourite holiday destination.
Immigration is a bit like Holiday Spot B. The same person can feel strongly about not liking people speaking another language on their train and believing that racists are dreadful people. What issue should the government listen to the people more on: immigration or the economy? Immigration. What issue should the government avoid inflaming populist passions on: immigration or the economy? Immigration. More reasons come easily to mind for immigration than for the economy, but those can be reasons to be anti-immigration or anti-anti-immigration.
Related to this is the idea of “evaluability”. A different experiment has people pretending to hire two computer programmers. Smith has written 70 computer programs in the language the company uses and has a Grade Point Average of 3 out of 5. Jones has written 10 computer programmes in that language and has a Grade Point Average of 4.9 out of 5.
The trick here is that Grade Point Average is easy to evaluate: Jones has 4.9 out of 5 (great), while Smith only has 3 out of 5 (middling). How much experience of computer programming is needed is much harder for the participants in the experiment to evaluate. So if the two candidates are examined separately, Jones gets paid more.
However, if you make the evaluation easier by looking at the two CVs together, the situation changes. This is a computer programming job so programming experience takes priority, and now it’s clear that Smith is considerably better than Jones: and Smith gets the higher salary.
Immigration is very easy to evaluate. Helpfully, when They come over Here, They are marked out by having different skin, different accents or, at the very least, funny names***. No one will ever be short of evidence that They (no, the other, They – government) have let immigrants in.
In contrast, the performance of the economy, the character of a Prime Minister and the state of public services are really hard to evaluate by themselves. Is the current growth the UK is experiencing a hard-won victory or the absolute minimum that should be expected? Is the NHS world class or failing? Is David Cameron an impressive leader? Even the expert answers to these questions involve a lot of guesswork.
However, in the run up to an election, you don’t have to evaluate things by themselves. Not “how good is the economy?” but “are Labour or Conservative better for the economy?” And – as with hiring programmers on the basis of their programming skills – I suspect that as soon as the economy, political leadership and public services are easier to evaluate, they become more important than immigration, a midterm issue that dominates midterm elections.
It’s a theory, and it’s one that cheers me up when people on the left or right call for the next eleven months to be filled with politicians talking about immigration.
*Immigration is a strange one for New Labour types like me. New Labour’s impetus was the critique that that old left’s priorities were out of touch and its solutions were impractical. Today, being anti-immigration is deeply impractical and it is also quite popular.
**Though this can be mis-read: people are asked to name the most important issues and the implication is that there are important issues to be named. If the economy becomes less of an issue, something must take its place – so weirdly, good GDP numbers and stories about how much people care about immigration will tend to go hand in hand, even if concern about immigration remains unchanged.
Shafir, E. (1993). Choosing versus rejecting: Why some options are both better and worse than others. Memory and Cognition. 21(4), 546-556.
Hsee, C.K., Loewenstein, G.F., Blount, S., & Bazerman, M.H. (1999). Preference Reversals Between Joint and Separate Evaluations of Options: A Review and Theoretical Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(5), 576-590.
Up until a few years ago, the two main political parties knew what each other was up to. We sent people to each other’s press conferences, monitored the local papers of the other side’s leaders and had geeks like me pore through the policy documents that the other lot chucked out. The proportion of my early twenties that was given in pressing refresh on conservatives.com or reading the latest musings from Iain Duncan Smith must never, ever be calculated. If one of our opponents went off the national message, we wanted to know about it and get journalists to write about it.
Now, because of Twitter mostly and blogs to a lesser extent, there’s no way to monitor everything either side is saying at any one time. The sheer quantity of stuff being said about politics or by politicians has risen exponentially. The wonder isn’t that some people don’t go off message: the wonder is that there is any coherent message at all.
Our amazing ability to coordinate in this kind of situation has fascinated economists for many years. Suppose you and I have to pick a number in secret and if we pick the same number, then we each win a prize. This isn’t a Prisoner’s Dilemma: we aren’t competing and we aren’t trying to trick each other. But it’s hard nonetheless: you can choose from an infinite number of numbers, and so can I. The odds of us both having the favourite number of 3,001 are infinitely small.
And yet, a surprising number of people do win the prize. In one experiment, around, a quarter of the participants choose the number one. In that puzzle, the number one is called a “focal point” because it stands out as the lowest number possible. We can play the same game where we have to name mountains (everyone names Everest) or the side of a coin (everyone names heads). In another example, we have to each secretly decide a time and place in London to meet and only get the prize if we both go to exactly the same place at exactly the same time. Impossible? Seemingly not: most people go for 12 noon as the focal point time and they pick a London landmark (Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus or Buckingham Palace) as the location.
In an era of so much political stuff being produced in such short timeframes, it’s incredibly hard to get a line out to your own side before they comment themselves, much less to monitor what your own side do and ensure they stick to the message. That means that when one of your MPs speaks, they’re in a similar situation to the person guessing the number or the place and time in London – they normally want to say what all the other MPs are saying but only have an imperfect sense of what the precise details of the party line are.
This problem has been solved… by politicians doing the equivalent of meeting in Trafalgar Square at 12 noon. Everyone is largely sticking to the things they know their colleagues will also stick to. Whether it’s Labour’s cost of living crisis, the Tories’ long term economic plan, the line is being held for the most part, and not in a noticeably worse way than in the days when all a prospective parliamentary candidate had was an election address, a few leaflets and unmonitored face-to-face conversations with voters.
In some ways this is an amazing achievement for both sides. The top down model of message discipline and sign off was an enormous pain – the proportion of my early twenties spent trying to get quotes for newspapers signed off by various Labour ministers also does not really bear thinking about. Of course, sign off still goes on for the big things – but if the monitoring and sign-off structure of Party HQ had expanded at the same rate as the content, Labour and Tory head offices would now require most of the office space in Westminster.
The risk, however, is that Trafalgar Square at 12 noon is a rubbish place. It’s crowded and it’s boring. At the start of the parliament, Labour’s focal point was cuts and, though that’s not the party line now, it’s still the spot that many of its politicians return home to. For the Tories, the European referendum and GDP growth are equally good focal points but they are definitely not equally important in the eyes of the voters. These are all positions where MPs are saying exactly what people expect them to say – indeed, they wouldn’t be so easy focal points if that wasn’t the case.
What no one’s quite cracked yet is to get MP’s to naturally converge on somewhere more interesting – the political equivalent of a good pub outside the centre of town. No one’s managed to successfully update the command and control model either. Whichever side solves this problem first will have a significant advantage in the next General Election.
Metha, J., Starmer, C., & Sugden, R. (1994). Focal Points in Pure Coordination Games: An Experimental Investigation. Theory and Decision, 36, 163-185.
Schelling, Thomas C. (1960). The Strategy of Conflict. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
People interested in politics spend a lot of time talking about what will happen in the future. Speculating about the plausibility of different scenarios is a mainstay of political conversation. Looking back at an event after it’s happened, like UKIP’s success in the local elections, we tend to see the outcome as inevitable. We pick out events that lead to the outcome we now know – like Nigel Farage doing well in the debates with Nick Clegg – and we retrospectively assign them greater importance than we would have done before we knew the result. In experiments, people adopt this “creeping determinism” without realising that they have.
Well I didn’t see the extent of this UKIP win coming but that’s not surprising. Most of my knowledge about politics comes from having earned my living as a political hack. When we learn from experience, we tend to underweight unlikely events. Suppose the true probability is that there will be a car crash on my street once every ten years. If I’m learning from experience, I’ve lived here for a few years and I’ve never seen a car crash, so I will think that they are less likely than they really are. One problem that people like me – people who have worked in or write about politics day-in, day out – need to overcome is that we always expect the obvious thing to happen. Most of the time, we’re right about that – but not as often as we predict.
If you learn your probabilities from reading about the situation, you make the opposite mistake. You tend to overestimate how likely an unlikely event is, especially if it’s an exciting, emotionally involving one. If you read that the chance of your aeroplane crashing is one in one million, you will act as if it’s much more likely than that. It’s this tendency, I think, which leads people who comment on politics from the outside or at the beginnings of their career to focus on unlikely possibilities: Labour winning a majority built from the left, Britain leaving the European Union and so on.
Both groups fall for wishful thinking too, of course, but I’ve already done one blogpost on the false consensus effect.
Wherever you put yourself on the spectrum from naïve amateur to blinkered hack, if you’re trying to work out how likely it is that Labour will win the election, or that Nick Clegg will resign or that Michael Gove will become foreign secretary, think about whether you might be overweighting or underweighting rare events. Once things have happened, remember that your mind will try and convince you that it was destiny and that the tell-tale signs were obvious beforehand – that David Cameron was always going to become the leader of the Conservative Party, that UKIP would always prosper when the Tories entered office. Those who over-learn from history may be in just as much trouble as those who don’t learn at all.
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