Uncertainty is the principle by which a lot of politics is conducted. I read an argument somewhere on the FT sites comment zone today as to why people are talking about figures that govern inflation and deflation when it is possible to calculate and mircocalculate down to much finer detail.
Regarding the European Referendum Joe Humphries argues that when faced with a question that combines complexity and uncertainty…
…people unconsciously substitute it with an easier question and answer that one instead.
This proven psychological bias helped to earn psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize for economics. His research into “question substitution” has practical application for sales and marketing but also helps to explain why the referendum debate has been so disjointed.
It may also explain a peculiar phenomenon of this campaign: people frequently saying that the answer they would like to give on Thursday doesn’t match the question they are being offered.
Well, quite. He continues…
“Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy for solving difficult problems”; in fact, he suggests it may be the only strategy. There are so many uncertainties in life that if you waited to calculate all of them you’d be pounced upon by a lion or run over by a truck before you actually made a decision.
But this “shotgun” approach – to use Kahneman’s phrase – has its downside. Like any psychological bias, it “sometimes leads to serious errors”. An instinct, no matter how well honed, can bounce you into a decision you later regret.
Kahneman doesn’t suggest we are powerless over our impulses. Rather, he argues that we have much less control over our thinking than we assume.
And he concludes by citing Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which…
…cites mounting evidence showing the mental processes that govern “most of our behaviour” occur outside of our awareness. For all of us, he argues, “the emotional tail wags the rational dog”. And like Kahneman, he provides pause for thought for tomorrow’s electorate. How many of those going to the polls will actually be voting on the treaty?
How many will look at the ballot paper and unconsciously imagine a very different and much less complicated question before them: “Do you support the Government? Are the Germans trying to bully us? How do you feel about the household charge? Are you happy with your life at the moment?”
That’s not to say these aren’t valid considerations. But if you want to make a decision you’ll be happy to stand over, then you’d better be alert to your uncon- scious biases and don’t lose track of the actual question before you.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty