Monday 16 March 2015

I Am Not As Other Men

Last year the results of an experiment were published that demonstrated that Americans are irrationally prejudiced against atheists1. Participants were described the life of an evident psychopath who in his youth tortured animals and in later years murdered homeless people. They were then asked if it was more probable that this person grew up to be 1) a teacher, 2) a Christian teacher, 3) a Muslim teacher or 4) an atheist teacher.

The results were that almost half the people surveyed went with an atheist teacher (with lower figures for a Christian teacher and even lower for a Muslim teacher).

The problem is that all those answers are wrong - categorically and unarguably wrong. It must be more probable that the person was a teacher. Given that there are some teachers who are not atheists, it is clearly more likely that the person (that any person) is a teacher of unspecified religion rather than an atheist teacher (or indeed a teacher of any other faith). Even if you hold the strange opinion that all teachers are atheists then options 1) and 4) become equal. It cannot be more probable that the person is an atheist teacher.

It's an example of what is known as the Conjunction Fallacy2, an example of Cognitive Bias3 that occurs in many situations.

In Britain it affects political opinion, as a recent survey reveals.

Now when it comes to economic policy, I reckon I'm a tad to the right of the UK population as a whole - which puts me way to the right of most people I discuss politics with. I should emphasize that this is only with regard to economics - on social policy I'm reliably informed that I have opinions so liberal they make David Cameron feel physically ill4.

That said, I think that I am on the right because of my opinions, not the reverse. I have made no decision that I am right wing and therefore adopted opinions favoured by the right. Indeed, in the past those same opinions have put me slightly to the left of centre.

And as most of us do, I'd always thought that most other people think like me. Not that they come to the same conclusions as me, obviously, but that they base their alignment on their opinions and not vice versa

A YouGov survey conducted last week demonstrates that I was wrong5.

Participants were asked the same question regarding various public services ranging from hospitals to banks. The question was whether the service was best run by the public sector, the private sector or that it doesn't matter as long as standards of service are maintained. 

The answer is no-brainer. It doesn't matter as long as standards are maintained. That's assuming that people actually want good public services, which for the most part I'll take as read. But given that assumption, the answer is just as clear as that the psychopath is more probably a teacher.

Seems I'm in a minority, however. Our survey said:

The immediate conclusion we might draw from these results is that 18% of the population want hospitals run by the private sector, but I see something far more depressing. What we can read from that first line is that 92% of the population do NOT want standards to be maintained in hospitals. Given the choice between standards and observance of political dogma they chose their own flavour of dogma.

Now you might disagree with my interpretation, you might say that what people are saying is that they favour public hospitals because that's the best way to maintain standards. That may be how people are thinking, but if so it's another fine example of the Conjunction Fallacy. Only if you have absolute certainty that your way of doing things is the way that maintains standards do the two options become equivalent. That's a megalomaniacal degree of certainty. And even then, it only makes the two options equal, so the answer should be 'don't know'.

I've tried to think of other explanations. Maybe the participants were just too busy to think about it and defaulted to a dogmatic response? But the problem is that here the pragmatic answer is the easy answer: we want what's best. It's only in the real world that things get difficult, when asking for what's best prompts the difficult follow-up question: and how are we going to achieve that? If people aren't even prepared to think in the easy case, what hope have we in the difficult?

I can't make sense of it, and yet it makes sense of much of my experience of politics. I'd always assumed that people were like me, that even when we disagree on policy our starting point is what is best for the country. But it turns out that that isn't the case - when  asked directly, most people favour dogma.

What's missing from the survey is a more direct, neutral question: Do you favour a) whatever maintains standards or b) an ideological solution. I suspect in that case more would favour option a), but if so it would only tell us that people don't recognize their own opinions as ideological.

There was one further breakdown of the data, however, looking at the tendency to choose the pragmatic option (maintaining standards) broken down by party support:

In all cases but one, Conservatives were more likely to choose the pragmatic option than Labour voters. It's not great news for them - the pragmatists are still a minority - but it still seems to be a significant difference.

Which is odd, since one of the most common accusations thrown by the left is that is that it is the right who are ideologically driven. It seems that if there is a difference, dogmatism is slightly more a feature of the left.

But that's a digression. Being pragmatical doesn't mean that you come up with better policies, but it does at least give you a chance. If you can't even admit that you'd prefer good standards to the implementation of an ideology, what contribution are you really making?

I'll always place myself firmly in that minority cyan block in the middle of the chart. And if, like most people, you don't place yourself there, then what's the prospect of any discussion between us?

UPDATE: For a good general introduction to cognitive biases try this handy guide.

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