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How cognitive biases affect our decisions

It now seems that the results of election 2016 may ultimately be decided by a contest between fear and anger. The opposition parties hope that voters’ anger at austerity will be stronger than their fear of changing government when the economy is improving.  At this point, it seems anger is ahead. 

So why is the government’s message about the risk to recovery not resonating with voters, as evidenced by their decline in the polls? One reason is that they may have underestimated how powerfully cognitive biases influence how we think and feel. When we have to make decisions, as we do during an election, it requires a lot of mental effort. We are bombarded by opposing arguments about complex issues. Since we all have a lot else to be thinking about in our lives, most of the time we revert to a more automatic, less logical thinking mode and use mental short-cuts to reach our own conclusions. These mental short cuts strongly bias our thinking. 

The government parties clearly hoped that when voters heard the word ‘recovery’ they would immediately think of the macro-economic indicators, as they do themselves. But they didn’t. They probably used a mental shortcut to assess the recovery - in this case the availability bias. This is the tendency to think that something is true or widespread by the ease with which examples of it come to mind. That process of searching memory for examples is very influenced by personal experiences and vivid stories in the media. 

This way of thinking, of course, can be very prone to errors, especially when another cognitive bias comes into play – our tendency to pay much more attention to the negative than the positive. Good news stories don't make news and we think much more about the negative events in our lives than the positive one. So it seems that when a lot of people searched their memory for examples of the recovery, nothing much came to mind, so they concluded it wasn’t happening in any meaningful way. 

So at the very least, there was a failure by the government parties to communicate persuasively what recovery there was by ensuring that before and during their election launch, they had people from every level of society prepared to talk about their stories of recovery, however modest. Making the political personal in that way what was won the Marriage Equality referendum. 

The problem with a message that does not have immediate power and fails to evoke the desired availability bias, is that once people come to a judgment based on any cognitive bias, it is notoriously difficult to get them to change their minds because it starts a cascade of other biases. We become attentive only to evidence that confirms our own position – the confirmation bias. And if something is repeated often enough we come to believe it – the familiarity bias.  

The only way the government parties might have been prevented the ‘no recovery’ narrative taking hold was if it was immediately and effectively challenged. For example, they witching the focus of the debate to the personal, in other words, much less talk about what the government did and much more on what people did to get through the recession, that way reminding people of their own recovery strategies. An early Fine Gael slogan ‘Your hard work is working’, although a bit patronising, was on the right track. 

Changing cognitive biases is difficult at the best of times. But we know from experimental studies that it becomes virtually impossible if people are then confronted by even more cognitive load, for example, trying to understand the finer point of macroeconomics.  And that’s precisely what the government did at the beginning of the campaign, talking at high altitude about macroeconomics, the now notorious fiscal space arguments.  The consequence was that the fear argument lost ground - it’s hard to get people to worry about the risk to a recovery that they don't believe in. 

The opposition meanwhile is having an easier time.  It's not hard thing to get people angry immediately after a recession. And in the opposition’s case a cognitive bias is working in their favour. We are much better at recalling more vividly the bad things that happened to us than the worse things that might have happened or were prevented. Ask the Labour Party.

Anger can also be a more powerful motivator than fear. This is because anger gives us a temporary feeling of control and competence. We feel we can do something about whatever is bothering us.  The more angry we get, the more certain we are that we know exactly what happened and why it happened and what needs to be done to put it right.  Thus buoyed, we become very confident that whatever we are going to do will succeed. That is why anger, technically a negative emotion, is also associated with many strong positive feelings. In fact, the biological and psychological 'signature' of anger is quite like that of happiness. 

Crucially, all these effects of anger make us more motivated to take risks. That is what the opposition is counting on. They are helped in this by the fact that anger narrows our focus of attention. For example, when we are angry we pay more attention to angry arguments generally and find them more convincing. We begin to think in a more careless way, paying less attention to the quality of the argument that somebody is making and being more influenced by the superficial characteristics of the person making the argument. 

What may undermine the opposition strategy is that it is not clear if anger is the dominant mood of the electorate. And the leaders’ debates are not a good indicator – the evidence being that the they have little effect on voting intentions and that the audience think of them as more like theatre, with the most exciting moments being when candidates trip up. It may be that the mood of the electorate is more akin to how we feel in our personal lives after a long period of sustained stress, relieved the worst is over, but a bit depleted and irritable.  In a mood like that, it’s hard to get excited about anything. We just want to be left get on with things. This would suggest that we might not have much appetite for risk. 

So which will win the day – fear or anger?  My bet is on fear. Hundreds of psychological studies have shown that fear of a loss is more powerful a motivator than the hope of gain, and that the nearer we get to the actual decision point, the more tuned in we become to risk. We switch from from a gain to a loss mind-set. Assessing the probability of what might be lost is given much greater weight than assessing the probability of possible gains. 

But the key to leveraging the fear of loss is to understand that it's not about telling people they will be ‘worse off’ in any general way.  The only way is to get them to focus like a laser on specific benefits they now possess that they may lose.  If the government parties succeed in making that the election focus, then they can rely on people becoming very motivated to fight much more ferociously to protect what they have than to fight for potential gains – however attractive. 

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 19 February 2016