Time to bury Economic Man: why we make political decisions based on emotions over facts

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In a recent BBC documentary a woman stood crying in front of a selection of potatoes at the supermarket. There was a dizzying array of potatoes on offer – but she just couldn’t choose between them. The presenter, David Eagleman, explained that this was because the part of her brain that enabled her to use emotion to make decisions was damaged. All she had left was cold, hard, facts. And they were of no use to her when deciding between minutely differing potatoes.

To behavioural scientists, this scene would not have come as a shock. The evidence from their field has long debunked the concept of “homo economicus”, or “economic man”. Economic man is a rational, independent agent who makes decisions in his own best interest, after having examined all the available information. Economic man is who we build our economy, and much of our government policy, around. And yet, economic man does not exist. Rather, we find that sentencing is affected by how recently judges have eaten. Our energy consumption is affected by what we are told our neighbours are doing. So, given this compelling evidence, why does economic man continue to stick around?

Take the recent EU referendum. In the wake of the Leave victory, Arron Banks, millionaire Ukip donor and funder of Leave.EU dismissed the Remain campaign as “facts, facts, facts, facts, facts”. And perhaps he was right to. “If you just look from a behavioural perspective, you can’t sell an argument simply on the basis of evidence,” says Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, who dismisses the idea that facts can win a campaign as “a silly thing to think.” Rather, he explains, campaigners should appeal to our “system one”: behavioural economics-speak for our gut reactions. “It’s all narratives, and stories, and emotions, and appealing to visceral reactions that wins the day. Boring evidence is just not the way to win an argument.”

The importance of emotions over “facts” is something that the Leave campaign seemed instinctively to understand. “People in this country have had enough of experts”, Michael Gove now infamously declared a few weeks before the referendum. And how we scoffed, before lining up the OECD, the Bank of England, the IMF and the World Bank to all warn people about the dire consequences of voting to leave the EU. We told them that the pound would crumble, the economy would fail, and all our EU perks would be taken away. How could we possibly lose? Very simply, Dolan points out, because your average person on the street doesn’t have a clue who exactly any of those bodies are or what they do. On the other hand, James Dyson, a prominent Leave supporter, has a name and a face. We know him. We buy his products. He’s one of us. And this is important, because another finding from behavioural science is that who the messenger is has a significant impact on whether or not the message is believed.

This is not to say that the Leave campaign made no use of facts whatsoever – although of course they adopted a flexible approach to what a fact actually is. But nevertheless, they did present the public with what they claimed were facts. The difference was, there were only about one or two for the public to remember, always packaged up alongside the resounding cry, “Take back control,” which, as a slogan, was a work of genius. It was meaningless, made no promises about who was taking back control, of what, and from whom – and it tapped right into the heart of political discontent in this country. Moreover, it was was perfectly adapted to accompany and illuminate the “facts” (£350 million! Turkey!) the Leave campaign had hit on.

Meanwhile, the Remain camp’s facts, though facts they have certainly proven to be, were poorly chosen. As Dolan points out, “What does it mean that there’s an economic downturn, or the pound might fall, or the growth rate might drop from one per cent to another? It doesn’t resonate in any meaningful way with people.” Chris Terry, Research Officer at the British Electoral Reform Society, agrees, pointing to a poll by YouGov a couple of weeks before the referendum showing that 47% of people thought that leaving the EU would make little difference to their personal finances. Meanwhile, a poll by Ipsos Mori done not long after showed that most people had both heard and, more importantly, believed the Leave campaign’s £350m figure.

Much has been made of the anti-establishment sentiment behind the Leave victory. It’s not an unreasonable interpretation: anti-establishment feeling is not actually unusual when it comes to referendums, explains Terry, particularly referendums on the EU. “Just earlier this year the Dutch had a referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with the Ukraine, and it was rejected as a way of kicking their political elite.” Still, he says, the UK vote was a shock: voting against treaty changes is one thing. Voting to leave the EU entirely is another. “Generally speaking, in referendums you expect a swing back to the status quo, so the polls that were showing it as too close to call suggested it was going to be a Remain win.”

But perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Some fascinating analysis by Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birbeck, found that contrary to all the think-pieces in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, Leave voters were not motivated mainly by economics, but by identity. Indeed, greater than income, class, age, education, ethnicity, even voting intention (including those who intended to vote UKIP), the number one predictor of a vote to Leave was if a voter supported the death penalty. What has the death penalty got to do with Brexit? Pretty much nothing, directly. But as Kaufmann concludes, what this correlation demonstrates is that people were voting on the basis of values. And values are not facts. They are feelings. Deeply held feelings about who we are, and what kind of world we want to live in. 

Let Brexit be a watershed in political campaigning in the UK and finally strike the death-knell for economic man. Let the political elite understand what populists have traded on for a long time: people are not automatons. People are flesh and blood, heart and soul, and we aren’t moved by numbers alone. We live on stories. We thrive on emotion. We want to laugh, to cry, to rage. So if the political establishment wants to prevent a slide to ever increasing extremes it needs to learn the lesson that Brexit has taught us so starkly: learn to speak to people’s hearts as well as their heads. Otherwise, we may find ourselves headed for some very dark political times indeed.

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