Frenzied politics is damaging to us all. We need the Daniel Kahneman doctrine | Rafael Behr


Here is a simple maths problem: together a bat and ball cost £1.10. The bat costs one pound more than the ball. How much is the ball?

It doesn’t take long for most people to answer 10p. And most people get it wrong. If you are in the minority that pauses long enough to realise that the ball costs 5p and the bat £1.05, congratulations, smartypants. If you recognised the question as an exercise in misdirection to expose the foibles of human intuition, you are probably familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, who died last week.

Kahneman didn’t invent the bat-and-ball test but he introduced it to a wide audience, along with many other mental tools for illuminating the difference between conclusions reached in sudden leaps and those found by rumination: two modes of cognition that provided the title to his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Speedy supposition is not all bad. Millennia of evolution have honed the rapid reactions we deploy on gut instinct. You sense danger and run. Those impulses saved enough of our ancestors’ lives for the genetic advantage to be passed down to us.

But our brains have also evolved more sophisticated processes: rational evaluation of probability, abstract reasoning, the self-awareness required to identify unconscious biases and moderate behaviour accordingly.

The two modes of thought are not always in conflict, but the slower process takes more effort and is harder to sustain. That makes it vulnerable to being sidelined by urgent instinct. Gut bullies cerebral cortex into bad choices.

Those insights form the core of behavioural economics, a field where Kahneman is credited as an intellectual godfather. His legacy might yet be more profound in application to politics. The rivalry between fast and slow thinking in the individual mind is analogous to a tension inherent in democracy. A government’s interest in gratifying short-term electoral demands can trump the strategic judgment required to make policy for the longer term.

The loudest call for action is not a reliable guide to what might actually work. But punchy rhetoric that speaks to the gut beats turgid argument, meandering its way to the truth.

Recent British politics is not short of case studies. It takes less than a second to grasp the appeal of diverting £350m from Brussels to the NHS, which is why Vote Leave put that pledge on the side of its referendum campaign bus. It takes a lot longer to explain why the number is false and enumerate benefits of EU membership that are not all quantifiable in cash terms, which is why the remain campaign failed.

There is an intuitive click to warnings that immigration drives unsustainable competition for jobs, housing and hospital appointments. Counter-arguments based on the economic stimulus from infusions of imported workers and the health service’s reliance on foreign-born doctors are less snappy.

Winning by prodding base human instinct is a method as old as politics. What makes the 21st-century iteration unusual and frightening is the combination with communication technology that accelerates cognition down the fast track of fallacy and bias.

It is harder to deploy Kahneman’s slow-thinking corrective when your attention is captured by devices and applications engineered to keep you swiping, clicking and refreshing every few seconds. A platform that profits by selling you balls at 10p has no incentive to let you stop and calculate their real value at half that amount.

The impetus for encoding atavistic mindlessness in social media was commercial. But digital infrastructure designed to maximise impulsive consumer behaviour also boosts political messages that satisfy a craving for instant gratification. Online campaigns favour Candy Crush candidates.

That would be less of a problem if analogue politics wasn’t so clunky. It isn’t simply a question of archaic procedure (although Westminster hullaballoos when Mr Speaker reinterprets the standing orders hardly woo a mass audience). The deeper challenge relates to the necessity of patience with representative democracy.

There are good reasons elections are spaced several years apart: governing is complex; legislation needs scrutiny; policies sometimes hurt before they work. There has to be a buffer between politicians making hard choices and their records being judged. They need the slack to take unpopular decisions that may come good. The ugly, debt-financed trench across green fields needs time to become a railway line serving affordable homes.

The system relies on voters accepting frustration as part of the process. A healthy democracy understands attendance at a polling station as an exercise wholly unlike a click-and-collect digital transaction. There is a quantum of reward from participation even if your chosen party is defeated.

When that culture gets degraded, politics becomes a rolling clamorous plebiscite. Weak leaders seek favour by dancing to an incoherent mix of tunes amplified by whichever channels they think represent available voters. Strong leaders thrive by manipulating the information space to make narrow ideological agendas look like the expression of popular will.

Neither is conducive to government in the collective national interest. British politics feels exceptionally detached from that ethos. A decrepit ruling party palpably craves release from the onerous responsibilities of office. A prime minister appointed for his demeanour of professional sobriety has made himself hostage to a fanatical populist fringe. The opposition, set to win handsomely by default, has no motive to advertise the disappointments it will inflict after gaining power.

It all points to an election conducted in a frenzy of fast thinking – a cacophony of claims and counter-claims to simulate the form of democratic debate while skimming frictionlessly over the substance.

Maybe we should just be grateful to live in a country where power can still change hands by operation of a fair and peaceful ballot. But it is not unreasonable to wish the process would sometimes favour arguments that demand pause for thought. It should not be greedy to crave politics that speaks to the head as well as the gut.

[colabot5]

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