Bleak outlook for informed polling

CHARLES Dickens the journalist would have written Bleak House a bit differently from Dickens the novelist. He might have written: “A dispute over a large Yorkshire landowner’s estate collapsed in a London court yesterday when lawyers announced there was not enough money left in the estate to pay their fees.

“Potential beneficiaries were aghast. Many had neglected their careers in the hope of bounty from the estate . . . .”

Very different from the slow description of mud and fog which Dickens so tellingly relates to the quagmire of the costs and delays in the Court of Chancery, at length and in detail in the opening of the novel.

This week we marked the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth. As it happens the university semester also started this week and I will be teaching first-year journalism.

One of the first things we teach is the importance of the news intro – cutting to the chase and chasing the unusual, conflict, emotion, celebrity and the here and now.

Journalists do not start the story with: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, . . .” No, journalists begin with the dramatic: “A leading London lawyer was executed by guillotine in Paris yesterday, disguising himself as the intended victim — an aristocrat who had won the hand of the woman he loved.

“The lawyer, Sydney Carton sacrificed himself so the woman he loved could be happy.”

So how did we get to this – where the real story, the whole Dickens novel with all its nuances and complexity, gets sidelined for the quick sound bite or simple summary?

Did the media – slowly since the invention of printing – contribute to the public’s appetite for the salacious and unusual or did the public’s demand for novelty and conflict drive the media to deliver it?

Maybe a bit of each.

The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman argues (in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”) that evolution has caused humans to think on two levels – fast thinking and slow thinking. He calls them System One and System Two.

System One, crucial for survival, makes snap decisions based on emotion, hunches and the urge to get a quick coherent “truth”. It is right a lot of the time. See a lion. Run.

But it is often very wrong, especially when conclusions need to be based upon solid evidence and logical steps. Endless psychological experiments point to the logical flaws in this snap, visceral thinking. But humans keep doing it — including experts, statisticians, the very intelligent and the very well-educated. And they keep thinking they are right.

I suspect this evolutionary hard wiring gives people an appetite for the media’s sound bite and the snap judgments. You get a coherent story without much effort, even if it is distorting at best and outright wrong at its worse.

This week economist Eric Knight published “Reframe: How to solve the world’s trickiest problems”. In it he tries to apply Kahneman’s theories to political questions.

Alas, I have not got hold of it yet and have only read summaries.

Nonetheless, this week’s political machinations reveal how applicable Kahneman’s theories are to politics, the media and public opinion.

Polls often ask what people think of the Prime Minister and whether she is doing a better job than various other candidates.

At least the pollsters these days recognise the problem: they do not ask, who do you think will make the better Prime Minister. They merely ask who you do you prefer. The pollsters and people who read the polls may have the mistaken belief that people are choosing who the respondents THINK would make the better Prime Minister, but they don’t think. They are really answering the question who they FEEL they prefer to be Prime Minister.

Indeed, the “feel” interpretation is the only way to explain the enormous difference between Rudd and Gillard in the polls.

Most voters simply do not have enough information to make a decision about who would be a better Prime Minister. So they answer according to feeling: voice; smile; dress and a whole lot of other irrelevant things. For them, what they see is all there is. That is how we get the result that Rudd would add 15 points to Labor’s primary vote. No doubt an accurate measure of feeling, but preposterous.

The reporting, albeit anonymously of MPs from their electorates over summer, says the anti-Gillard feeling is visceral. It must be. There is simply not enough, if any, policy difference between Rudd and Gillard to make a rational person change their party vote on the basis of who is leader.

There is certainly not enough information about leadership qualities for voters to make a sensible choice. The full story is never told. Indeed, the whole system of Cabinet government in a disciplined two-party system conspires against the public getting insight into the leadership qualities of political office-holders.

No full Dickens story here with fully rounded characters – just secondhand media grabs.

Nonetheless, however ill-informed or irrational the opinon is, it is there. We will not be able to do much about hard-wired System One thinking short of a wholesale education program in behavioural psychology. So Labor will have to deal with it.

Incidentally, replacing Gillard with Smith, Shorten or Crean would in effect be going out of the frying pan into the frying pan. It would not satisfy the gut feeling that the man the people voted for was tipped out by a small cabal of powerbrokers and that the joy of Australia having its first female Prime Minister was tainted by the circumstances of her attaining the office.

We have here what Kahneman calls cognitive bias – judgment about one thing (leadership and national interest) being made on the basis of other things (hairdo, voice, dress, soundbite). And most of us most of the time do not know that we are doing it. It may be that our snap judgment is right, but equally it could well be wrong.

Worse, the snap judgment is not restricted to leadership. It misdirects attention and resources to a whole lot of things which grab media attention because they are rare, dramatic, emotional and conflict-ridden, rather than the mundane and common where the resources should be directed.

And worse still, politicians suffer from cognitive bias, too.

Perhaps with a little more understanding of behavioural psychology, tough, we might know what the Dickens is going on.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 11 February 2012.

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