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.