Thinking, Fast and Slow about politics…

I’m sure you remember 2016. The year of the Brexit referendum, the year when Donald Trump won the presidential election. How well, how accurately, do you remember the campaigns, the slogans? I remember Take Back Control, £350 Million for the NHS, Make America Great Again, Drain the Swamp, and Crooked Hillary, and Lock Her Up. These were all on the winning side; there must have been slogans that the losers used, but they don’t immediately come to mind.

What about the 2019 General Election in the UK? I remember Get Brexit Done. The 2020 US presidential election? There was Sleepy Joe, but Joe Biden’s response passed me by. In the months before election, we heard Electoral Fraud, and afterwards I WON!, Stolen, and Electoral Fraud again.

These phrases are all short and snappy, and significantly, they were all frequently repeated; it’s no wonder I remember them. I know I listened and watched debates, but I can’t recall any great detail from them. This inability to remember isn’t strange; our memories, unless reinforced, decay quite rapidly. If you hear a speech one day, you will remember very little the next day, other than whether the speech was ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Formal lectures are a poor way of getting information across; four facts is the most adults will reliably remember.

The results in the 2016 votes have been the subject of many post-mortems in an attempt to understand how the results came about, for both were unexpected. (While Nigel Farage was very happy, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson looked shell-shocked immediately afterwards, as if they not only didn’t expect to win, but that they didn’t want to win. Mrs Trump, reportedly, was unhappy about the win.) These analyses are on the basis of types of voters and how they thought. I want to look at these three events rather differently, as successful marketing.

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist and economist, renowned for his work in decision making and behavioural economics; he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002*. Kahneman published Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011. Much of this work was done with Amos Tversky who died young. Their work includes cognitive biases, a theory of thinking, and the idea of happiness. The book is 500 pages long; I’m only going to consider the Fast and Slow Thinking aspects.

The basic idea is simple; there are two types of decision making processes in the brain. The Fast type deals with the trivial “decisions” of everyday life. It’s automatic and unconscious. So, when we want to enter a room, we find the door, and knowing how a door works, open it and enter. If we didn’t know what a door was, or how one opens, we would have to use Slow thinking to work it out consciously and deliberately — this has been experimentally confirmed†. This takes time and effort, and if we had to do this for every trivial “decision” we wouldn’t get very far. Fast thinking gets round this. It’s said, though the basis for this isn’t clear, that we make 35,000 “decisions” a day, of which 98% are Fast. Kahneman and others give examples of problems that are usually solved with either Fast or Slow thinking. Typical examples of questions include the following: (The first two are Fast questions, the second two are Slow questions; the answers are in brackets after the question.)

(1) Add 2 + 2 (4)

(2) A child’s bat and ball set costs £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? (10p)

(3) Multiply 17 x 24 (408)

(4) A rope which fits snugly around the Earth’s equator is 40,070 Km long. If the rope is made 2 meters longer, how far above the Earth’s surface will it be? (about 32 cms)

(5) If we repeat exercise (4), but with a rope around a football, and then lengthen it by 2 meters, how far from the football will the rope be? (about 32 cms)

Just to be sure we are all on the same “wavelength”, please do this poll, and then click on the Show Results button:

Correct Incorrect

(1) Answer = 4

(2) Answer = 10p

(3) Answer = 408

(4) Answer = about 32 cms

(5) Answer = about 32 cms

The first question is ludicrously easy; none of us needs to think about that. The multiplication (3) is harder, the answer doesn’t come immediately, and we have to work it out or use a calculator.

It’s not at all intuitive that the answers to the questions about the rope are the same in both cases; indeed, the question is often used as a Fast question, expecting the answers to be a few millimeters, and a meter or two respectively. The given answer for the bat and ball question is incorrect; the ball costs five pence. (The workings are shown at the end of the post.) I have primed you by including ten pence in the description, and Fast thinking has latched onto this to give an answer which seems about right — it has satisficed. For many everyday problems such an answer would be acceptable, even if wrong. Elections and referendums aren’t everyday problems, though.

The following Mind Map shows more detail of Fast and Slow thinking.

It’s quite complicated; take a few slow-thinking moments to study it.

Notice particularly how the Fast system works; it’s automatic, intuitive, but can make mistakes; the solutions are “good enough”. The Slow system needs time, effort and concentration. Notice “What you see is all there is” on the Slow side; it’s like taking things at face value and not questioning them. Fast thinking is easy thinking or cognition, and is used in marketing because it can be induced:

Look at how the inputs can be manipulated; a clear and simple message which is repeated. The inputs do not need to be factual or true. And on the output side, things feel familiar and true, and we happily accept them.

Look back at the slogans at the start of this post. What does Take Back Control really mean? What have we lost control of? How will regaining control actually help us in our daily lives? If we want to Get Brexit Done, what will this mean in practice? Where will we be afterwards?

Make America Great Again sounds as if we want to regain our rightful place in the world order. So, how are we going to achieve this, how will we regain what we have lost? Is this spelled out? What is the Swamp? It’s the idea that Washington is full of corrupt politicians, civil servants, and lobbyists who are all engaged in a massive Deep State conspiracy, with Trump the one who will fight against it to free the US from its clutches, as if he were a Saviour, a Messiah. I hope to write about conspiracies soon.

Does the Crooked Hillary/Lock Her Up pairing remind you of anything? Mull this over; during (some types of) church services, the priest at prayer will ask for intercessions; and the congregation will respond. For example, in the Church of England:

Priest: Lord, in your mercy

All: hear our prayer

Priest: Lord, hear us

All: Lord, graciously hear us

Trump: Crooked Hillary

All: Lock Her Up

Trump: Crooked Hillary

All: Lock Her Up

More recently, we’ve heard of Sleepy Joe. We’re supposed to think that Joe Biden is dementing and barely capable of thought. Are any of you neurologists or geriatricians? Do you really know how dementia presents? What is the likelihood of a man of his age, 78, having dementia? What’s the difference between dementia and the normal processes of ageing? (The risk of dementia at 78 is about 17% overall; that is, someone of that age is much more likely not to have dementia. The risk at 74 is slightly lower.)

Most people get their news and information from TV and newspapers, though circulations are falling. The Flesch and Flesch-Kincaid readability tests indicate how hard or easy passages are to read and understand**. Tabloids such as the Sun are much easier to read than the Financial Times. Easy reading uses short sentences and monosyllabic words. If you’ve watched a TV dramatisation of a classic novel you will have noticed how simplified the drama is; sometimes several characters in the original are removed. It’s simply not possible to include all the “action” of the novel in a few dramatic episodes.

Likewise with TV news; it presents a simplified version of events, one suitable for everyone. Indeed, the content of a TV news bulletin is often less than the content of a single broadsheet page. (As well, TV executives are always striving for bigger audiences; there are more people who are less-well educated than there are people who are well-educated.) Summaries of dense texts are often available for “busy executives” and “study guides” are aids for kids preparing for exams. I mentioned that Kahneman’s book is 500 pages long, about 150,000 words; I simply cannot include all this in a post of this length (1,600 words) nor can I even include all the detail of the relevant parts of Fast and Slow thinking.

Many people are busy enough without having to spend time and energy researching political slogans; they osmotically absorb the messages of the marketeers, the “three word slogans”, after having been primed repeatedly. Their understanding has been induced. And now, Feeling Good about this, it’s going to be very difficult to change their minds. Marketing politicians aren’t going to give up on such a useful tool either.

* Not quite a Nobel; strictly, the prize wasn’t on Nobel’s original list; it was added as a Memorial Prize in 1968.


† In an experiment, students were shown into a room and given a task (which was irrelevant). After completing this, they were told to leave the room by another door. This door had the handle on the same side as the hinges, so that the door didn’t open normally. It took the students several minutes to work out how to open the door.

** The grade level for this post is about 8, meaning that it should be easily understood by 13 to 14 year olds.


(2) A child’s bat and ball set costs £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

bat + ball = £1.10

bat = (ball + £1.00)

(ball + £1.00) + ball = £1.10

2 ball + £1.00 = £1.10

2 ball = £1.10 – £1.00 = 0.10 (ten pence)

ball = 0.05 (five pence)

(4) A rope which fits snugly around the Earth’s equator is 40,070 Km long. If the rope is made 2 meters longer, how far above the Earth’s surface will it be?

Let c = the circumference of the Earth, and

Let r = the radius of the Earth. Thus, c = 2πr

π = 3.14 (or 22/7)

Let x = the distance from the Earth’s surface when 2 meters (200 cms) is added to the rope — the increase in the Earth’s radius which is then (r + x)

c = 2πr

c + 200 = 2π(r + x) = 2πr + 2πx

2πr + 200 = 2πr + 2πx

200 = 2πx

200/2π = x

200/2(3.14) = x

200/6.28 = x

200/6.28 = 32.18 = x = about 32 cms.

You may not remember these calculations, but you were taught them in school. The circumference of the sphere, c, or it’s radius, r, doesn’t matter; the answer is always the same. The 40,070 Km is irrelevant, put there to make things look harder than they are.