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.