Saturday, 25 March 2017

Kahneman the key to Corbyn

There are books that teach you things you never knew. There are books that teach you things you’ve known for ages but never realised. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow does both.

Kahneman: powerful insights
One of the common mechanisms of the human mind Kahneman describes is the substitution of one, relatively easy question for another much harder one. He gives the example of a financial adviser who’d recently been to a motor exhibition and had been impressed by the Ford stand. He advised buying Ford stock.

The question he was trying to answer was “is Ford stock a good investment?” That’s a hard question. Answering it means understanding a stock’s future behaviour which, as Kahneman argues later, is essentially unpredictable.

So instead the analyst answered a much easier one: “how do I feel about Ford?”

That’s a way of thinking with which we must all be familiar in daily life. It seems to me to mark a great deal of the thinking of voters, for instance. They may be concerned about static incomes and rising uncertainty, but these are tough questions to which they find it hard to come up with answers. So instead they ask themselves “do I feel threatened by immigrants?”

That one many voters apparently have no difficulty answering in the affirmative. It, however, only leads to a further question: “how do I limit immigration?”

That too is impossibly difficult. So they answer yet another, much easier question. In the US, they answer “shall I vote for a maverick populist?” In Britain, the question is “should we leave the EU?”

It seems obvious to most of us that backing Trump or Brexit answers no question worth asking. Neither will be able to deal with immigration, in so far as immigration is a problem at all in the first place. And neither will reduce instability in work or raise wages: indeed, both are far more likely to make the problems far worse.

Answering the wrong question can give the wrong answer.

The same is true inside the UK Labour Party. There the question is “do we have a leader who can be elected Prime Minister?”

With a poll deficit of around 14-16 points as we approach two years into the parliament, it would be unprecedented for that to happen. Not impossible but owing more to the miraculous rather than the rational. That makes the question far too hard – not because the answer’s beyond us but because the answer hurts.

So supporters of Jeremy Corbyn answer different questions: “do Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas appeal to me? Would he be a Prime Minister after my own heart?”

Since his followers answer those questions in the affirmative, they insist on keeping him in the leadership. The evidence of a deepening gulf in the polls shakes their faith not at all.

The wrong question. Leading to the wrong answer. Just as Kahneman shows.


Anonymous said...

Good questions. Not so sure about the answers.

David Beeson said...

I'd word it slightly different. The initial questions were good. The substitute questions were poor. And the answers given to them were therefor inappropriate to the original question and deeply misleading.

Anonymous said...

Sound as if we agree.