The goal here is to highlight the fallibility of our individual ideas and choices in the crafting of collective actions. Therefore, this article explores six heuristics and biases that influence our choices and decision-making. Ultimately, it invites us to question our own critical thinking abilities in making democratic decisions.
2016 has been a year of significant and apparently unexpected electoral results. They include two referendums plebiscites and a presidential election. First, there was Brexit where UK voters chose to leave the European Union (EU); then Colombians rejected a peace deal that would end more than 50 years of armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); and more recently Americans elected Donald Trump for President.
The effects of these democratic outcomes are so complex and yet uncertain that they will be debated for years to come. So far, their aftermaths have been characterised as surprising and have generated all kinds of emotional responses leading to protests, and polarisation. While we try to make sense of these outcomes and cope with new realities, at least we can agree that they are not isolated events but the reflection of deeper-rooted issues among those societies. They include but are not limited to effects of neoliberalism, growing inequality, corruption, disbelief in the political establishment, and a growing need for change.
Of course, there are many economic, political, and social particularities to each case. Thus, this article does not try to oversimplify reality but rather look into the various similarities among voters’ perceptions and the campaigns that lead to these outcomes. Mainly, I refer to the dismissal of facts, the spread of fear, anger, lies, and false interpretations.
Yet, it remains misleading to deepen already existing divisions between supporters of one side or the other assuming, as is becoming popular, that those who do not agree with us are stupid, evil, or have been bribed. Despite what many would like to believe, the voters of the No in Colombia, as well as the supporters of the Leave option in the UK, and Americans voting for Trump do not necessarily belong to homogeneous groups.
As the famous musician Dave Grohl said about music:
You can sing a song to 85,000 people, and they will sing it back for 85,000 different reasons
The same can be applied to politics.
The deliberate creation of ignorance
Agnotology is certainly is not a common word, but it is useful to understand the spread of fear and anger through ignorance. Robert N. Proctor, a science historian at Stanford University, defines agnotology as the deliberate creation of ignorance. He suggests ignorance is not just the not-yet-known; it is also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you “not to know.” In this regard, the spread of ignorance can take place under the disguise of a balanced debate.
The Colombian plebiscite and Brexit aimed to choose between ideas while the US election chose a leader. The two processes are different in that a government lasts typically a term, but in the case of referendums once a decision is made there is no going back. However, in the three cases, one can identify campaign mechanisms and individual strategies to spread ignorance by presenting false information as valid arguments.
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Who can forget the Leave’s assertion that the UK pays £350 million a week to the EU and that after leaving this amount would be invested in strengthening the National Health Service (NHS)? They even put it as a slogan on a double-decker bus driving around London. Then Nigel Farage had to admit it was a mistake to make such a claim. Similarly, Boris Johnson argued that if they leave, the UK would still have access to the single market as well as the right to travel and live freely in Europe. Of course, it all ended up not being true.
Previous to the Colombian plebiscite, the No campaigners led by former President Alvaro Uribe deliberately crafted various myths to deceive voters under the illusion of opposing views. They lied about the content of the agreement regarding the support guerrilla members would receive to resettle, and they misled in their claim that women, as victims of the armed conflict, would promote homosexuality and threaten the existence of the traditional Christian family.
The No campaign even coined the term “CastroChavisims” after the former Cuban President Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It implied Colombia would become a socialist country and face the same crisis Venezuela is going through and the shortages Cuba has experienced. In fact, the No campaign manager Juan Carlos Vélez recognized after the plebiscite that their strategy was to stop explaining the content of the agreement and to promote feelings of indignation, anger and fear.
The case of Trump is particular since he, as an individual, has indiscriminately lied regarding all sorts of issues and used conspiracy theories to back up his stories. They include his tax returns, calling climate change a “hoax” that was “invented by the Chinese,” misrepresenting Muslims as linked to terrorism, claims about undocumented immigrants, the rise of inner-city crime, the origins of ISIS, and accusations against Hillary Clinton, among many others.
Trump and his collaborators neglect all evidence that contradicts their ideas. This behavior is terrifying to minority groups, and basically, everybody who cares about global warming. Even though there are still high levels of uncertainty regarding what his government will look like, current signs are not promising. He recently appointed Steve Bannon, who has championed white nationalism, as his chief White House strategist, and Myron Ebell, a leading climate change denier, as head of his Environmental Protection Agency.
With so many lies in the international political arena, the Oxford Dictionary has declared “post-truth” its international word of the year. This adjective is defined as:
relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Sadly, agnotology is real and is becoming more prominent than ever.
Politics has always been about trying to shape attitudes and behavior in some ways. Thus, what makes these three events particularly prominent now is their significant implications for the future as they have created high levels of political and economic uncertainty and started to normalize bigotry and hatred discourses.
In Colombia, there are instances of hate and segregation towards FARC members who want to demobilize and join the civil life, and towards supporters of the Yes. In the UK, there are incidents of xenophobia and hate crimes against ethnic minorities, and in the US, there has been a surge of Islamophobia and discrimination of immigrants, women, and the LGBT community.
Related article: “IMPAKTER ESSAY: THE POLITICS OF HATE“
Why do we need a behavioral approach?
With so much information and emotions out there, it is important to stop for a minute to look not at external forces but at internal ones – specifically, within ourselves. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
A behavioral approach is necessary because it provides a better understanding of the mechanisms that guide our decision-making processes under conditions of uncertainty. Therefore, it can provide valuable answers to pressing questions, particularly regarding our ability to think critically and to fight or allow the spread of ignorance, fear and hate.
Behavioral studies apply cognitive science to investigate decision-making processes. Its leading proponents, Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, suggested that subconscious behaviors can easily override our conscious decisions, sometimes important ones, even in ways that contradict our best interests. As a result, this approach helps us to explain why people can look at substantive evidence and yet ignore it to make decisions according to how they feel instead of addressing the facts facing them.
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Similar analyses have been gaining popularity among behavioral economists. They study how we humans deviate from neoclassical economic models, which assume people are rational utility-maximizing decision-makers (homo economicus). Thus, behavioral economics takes into account our propensity to be affected by perceptions, psychological aspects, external influences, and fallibility to make decisions. Notably, it investigates how changes in our environment affect our behavior. Research has revealed that even the smallest changes, such as how products are displayed on the supermarket shelf, can affect our buying choices.
Here I consider Kahneman and Tversky’s work. They propose human beings use heuristics which are mental shortcuts to help us making decisions and judgments quickly under uncertain circumstances and that we are subject to cognitive biases that affect our decisions. Heuristics and biases simplify and speed up the process of making decisions, especially regarding unprecedented changes and reforms. However helpful, heuristics can also introduce errors and biased judgments. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that the goodness or badness of these rules of thumb depends on the context in which they are used.
In what follows I identify six (there are many more) heuristics and biases that might have influenced our judgment and the political choices we saw in Brexit, the Colombian Peace plebiscite, and the election of Trump.
1. Anchoring and adjustment: Polls and electoral surprises
This heuristic relies on the assumption that people often start judgment and decision-making processes by focusing on an initial value or model, even if it is not relevant or realistic. That assumption is the anchor. When motivated by new information, we adjust from the original value to reach a final judgment or decision. However, the tricky part of this heuristic is that we do not often adjust far away from the anchor.
The role of opinion polls as anchors can explain the surprise many experienced since they failed to predict the outcomes of the democratic events we are analyzing.
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The effect polls have on public opinion makes evident that we can be influenced by subconscious exposure to irrelevant data. In the UK, polls predicted the Remain would win. However, the final results provided the Leave side a victory margin of more than one million votes. In Colombia, the Yes was expected to have support above 60%. The actual result was 50.2% win for No and 49.8% for Yes. Something even more remarkable happened in the US; polls that had given Clinton an 85% probability of winning when the actual outcomes showed that Trump obtained 290 of the necessary 270 electoral votes necessary to win while Clinton obtained 232. This is despite the fact that Clinton got over 1.5 million more popular votes.
The level of expectation polls generated had other implications. For example, they provided the apparent winners with overconfidence while motivating their counterparts to work even harder. Similarly, many people did not vote since they had considered their vote unnecessary under such predictable outcomes.
Related article: “WAS THE ELECTION OF TRUMP REALLY THAT MUCH OF A SURPRISE?”
2. Affect heuristic: Fear and anger matter
Affect heuristic describes the fact that people will often make decisions based on emotional reactions. As noted before, a key element of the three campaigns was the high levels of emotional content of their discourses and the distrust of current political leaders. The downside of this heuristic is that even when faced with real and relevant new information we might not change our original decision.
Many voters supported an idea or a candidate based on an emotional attachment or repulsion instead of considering facts. Previous to Brexit, the idea that people were sick of experts facilitated the spread of false information with absolutely no backup. As a result, both campaigns used this strategy reducing the discussion to emotional arguments at the expense of a reasoned debate which fueled the fear of outsiders and loss of identity.
The same pattern occurred in Colombia. There, the actual content of the agreement was rarely discussed but both sides focused on emotional responses related to war and peace. In the case of the No they emphasized how different guerrilla members were from the average Colombian making them outsiders to their own country. In the US, the use of fear and anger tactics promoted racist and xenophobic discourses and actions.
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The worse part is that fear does not have to be related to real threats. Just the perception of a threat is enough, and this is a strategy savvy politicians know well. It serves to dehumanize others and make us more vulnerable to fear-mongering rumors.
Fear of outsiders, as well as anger and resentment against economic environments where unemployment, poverty, inequality, and isolation prevail, affected many voters. In fact, these problematics are key predictors of mental stress. Thus, it is not surprising that those who do feel unrepresented turned to anti-politics and anti-establishment movements where arguments are replaced by slogans and symbols promising a better future.
Even though the need for change is entirely legitimate, it has caused people to vote for change agents who speak out loud about anxieties, fears and resentments even when such votes only serve to reinforce the conditions citizens think they are rejecting.
Related article: “TACKLING SYSTEMIC RACISM AND OUR BIASES THROUGH EMPATHY“
3. Confirmation bias: The most effective way to go on living a lie
It is a tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our own beliefs or theories. It is a bias since we know the information we want to believe, collect, and interpret fits and reinforces pre-existing beliefs while dismissing the contrary.
Several studies have proven that when presented with two pieces of evidence regarding any subject, people found the evidence that confirmed their beliefs to be far more convincing. In fact, the more time an average person spends thinking about an issue, the more extreme his or her views become.
In the cases of Brexit, the Peace plebiscite, and Trump, disbelief in political institutions and current governments was an essential element to reject proposals and candidates supported by the establishment. The Leave campaign was seen by many as a way of fighting the Tories neoliberal agenda, and to protest against the Prime Minister David Cameron, who after the referendum had to leave office.
In Colombia, the peace agreement was linked to President Santos who had low levels of popularity. The opposition reinforced the idea that the agreement was tied to the President and called it “Santos’ peace.” In the US, Trump championed the misinformation campaigns against Obama’s questioning his nationality and religion for years. Thus, many who did not agree with Obama’s government and who reject political elites represented by Clinton found their already existing beliefs reinforced.
4. Availability heuristic: Don’t trust your social media newsfeeds
Availability heuristic refers to the ease with which similar instances come to mind. It functions under the assumption that if something is recalled quickly, it must be significant or, at least, more valuable than alternative solutions that take longer to remember.
After listening to the adverse effects of immigration in national social services, how crooked a politician is, the likelihood of radicalization among Muslin communities, or the possibility of turning into a socialist country, people often think that such events are much more typical than they truly are, and hence are easily recalled.
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During elections, voters tend to base their perspectives on the availability of information within their own circles, and the experiences of their communities. However, not all the information we receive is accurate, and people do not use much time to look into the veracity of some affirmations.
Nowadays, social media networks influence the politic narratives of our times. On Twitter, everyone is an expert. Similarly, Facebook and WhatsApp groups share all sorts of misinformation pieces, and as news network advance their own interests, consequently they are biased on the information they present. As confirmation bias suggests, we like others who agree with us, and many of these online spaces allow people to congratulate each other on being right and supporting what they already believe. This behaviour receives the name of group polarisation. Consequently, these scenarios facilitate the deliberate spread of ignorance while influencing the ways we perceive reality.
5. Status quo bias: Change, not to change, or what to change?
This is a preference for the current state of affairs. The current baseline or status quo is considered as a reference point, and any change from this baseline is perceived as a loss. Usually, in the face of anxiety and high levels of uncertainty, the status quo thrives. Interestingly, the status quo is not the same for all voters.
In the UK, the idea of “Take back control” resonated among older people who had as their baseline a time previous to the EU. Accordingly, they wanted to get back to that status quo. On the contrary, younger voters who have grown under this integration idea voted to remain. Something similar occurred in the US. The slogan “Make America great again” suggests returning to a point where things were better. This previous status quo seem to have resonated among those more affected by neoliberalism who want things to change.
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Despite the odds in the Colombian case, the status quo won. People from small villages who had suffered directly from the armed conflict were ready for a change and voted Yes. On the contrary, those living in cities, widely influenced by different sources of information, as well as by uncertainty, voted No. It implies that the more averse people are to risk, even to the possibility of ending an armed conflict, the more likely they will stick to the status quo they hold most valuable.
6. Illusion of validity bias: Don’t trust too much your own judgment
This final bias is very common. Don’t we all know people who, despite how we prove their argument wrong, still insist in their correctness? Well, this bias provides us with too much confidence in our own judgment and it happens to everybody. It allows us to overestimate our ability to interpret and predict outcomes accurately when analysing a situation. Thus, do not be surprised if people do not change their minds even under the presence of new evidence that contradicts their ideas and beliefs.
Critical Thinking: Our best ally against the spread of ignorance
The process that led to the outcomes we analysed here reflect our vulnerability to make decisions under uncertainty. In an ideal world, voters would base their judgment on a careful analysis of the information available about each option. That is not how it usually works.
Calling democracy a failure is short-sighted since it fulfilled its core function: give voice to the people. However, our voices are the result of our inner worlds which are mostly the product of the discursive and material environments we inhabit, the opportunities opened to us and barred from us. The use of critical thinking and strengthening education systems is fundamental to fight the spread and surge of ignorance, fear and hate while falling prey to other people’s ideas and agendas. It is neither an easy task nor an impossible one.
That is precisely the appeal of heuristics and biases. They do not tell you what decisions to make, but they warn you about thoughts that might look right but are completely flawed.
Recommended reading: “HARD BREXIT WOULD DAMAGE ‘ALMOST EVERY SECTOR’ OF UK ECONOMY”