April 21, 2024


Here’s 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’re in the minority who pause long enough to realize that the ball costs 5p and the bat £1.05, congratulations, smart shoppers. If you recognized the question as an exercise in misdirection in exposing the weaknesses of human intuition, you are probably familiar with the work of Daniel Kahnemanpsychologist and Nobel laureate, who died last week.

Kahneman did not invent the bat-and-ball test, but he introduced it to a wide audience, along with many other mental tools to distinguish between conclusions reached by sudden leaps and those made by rumination. to illuminate: two ways of cognition that the title of his best-selling book Think, fast and slow.

Quick assumption is not all bad. Millennia of evolution have sharpened the quick reactions we deploy on gut instinct. You sentence danger and run. Those impulses saved enough of our ancestors’ lives so that the genetic advantage could be passed on to us.

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

The two ways of thinking are not always in conflict, but the slower process requires more effort and is harder to sustain. This makes it vulnerable to being sidelined by urgent instinct. Gut bullies cerebral cortex to bad choices.

Those insights form the core of behavioral economics, a field where Kahneman is credited as an intellectual godfather. His legacy may be even more profound in its 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 satisfying short-term electoral demands may trump the strategic judgment required to make policy for the longer term.

The loudest call to action is not a reliable guide to what might actually work. But pithy rhetoric that speaks to the gut beats rambunctious argument, winding 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 £350 million from Brussels to the NHS, which is why Vote Leave put that promise on the side of its referendum campaign bus. It takes much longer to explain why the number is false and to summarize the benefits of EU membership which are not all quantifiable in cash terms, which are why the remains campaign failed.

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

Winning by inciting basic human instinct is a method as old as politics. What makes the 21st century iteration unusual and terrifying is its combination with communications technology that accelerates cognition on the fast track to error and prejudice.

It’s harder to deploy Kahneman’s slow-thinking corrective when your attention is captured by devices and apps designed to make you swipe, click, and refresh every few seconds. A platform that makes a profit by selling your balls at 10p has no incentive to make 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 maximize impulsive consumer behavior also amplifies political messages that satisfy a desire for instant gratification. Online Campaigns Favor Candy Crush Candidates.

This would be less of a problem if analog politics weren’t so clumsy. This is not simply a matter of archaic procedure (although Westminster balls when mr. the Speaker reinterpreting the standing orders hardly appeals to a mass audience). The deeper challenge relates to the necessity of patience with representative democracy.

There are good reasons why elections are several years apart: governing is complex; legislation must be examined; policies sometimes hurt before they work. There needs to be a buffer between politicians making tough choices and their records being judged. They need the leeway to make unpopular decisions that can turn out well. The ugly, debt-financed ditch 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 quite different from a click-and-collect digital transaction. There is a quantum of reward from participation, even if your chosen party is defeated.

When that culture is degraded, politics becomes a rolling, loud plebiscite. Weak leaders seek favor by dancing to a disjointed mix of songs amplified by whatever 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 unusually detached from that ethos. A decayed ruling party palpably longs for release from the heavy responsibilities of office. A Prime Minister who was appointed for his attitude of professional sobriety made himself hostage to a fanatical populist fringe. The opposition, set on win handily by defaulthas no motive to advertise the disappointments it will cause after gaining power.

It all points to an election conducted in a frenzy of quick thinking – a cacophony of claims and counter-claims to mimic the form of democratic debate while skimming over the content without friction.

Maybe we should just be grateful to live in a country where power can still change hands through a fair and peaceful ballot. But it is not unreasonable to wish that the process sometimes favors arguments that require some thought. It should not be greedy to yearn for politics that speaks to the head as well as the stomach.



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