To be or not to be in favour of the treaty - that is the (only) question


ANALYSIS:PAT KENNY kneels before no man. So the sight of him pleading soulfully with a farmer on The Frontline to stop talking about the Common Agricultural Policy must go down as the defining moment of the referendum campaign.

In a profound way, it summed up the last four weeks. As businesswoman Norah Casey said on the same RTÉ programme: “We are always talking about something else, we are never talking about the treaty.”

As a Yes advocate, Casey was trying to score a political point, but her comment had a deeper truth that was of no partisan benefit. When faced with a complex question involving uncertainty (and tomorrow’s poll falls slap-bang into that category) people unconsciously substitute it with an easier question and answer that one instead.

This proven psychological bias helped to earn psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize for economics. His research into “question substitution” has practical application for sales and marketing but also helps to explain why the referendum debate has been so disjointed.

It may also explain a peculiar phenomenon of this campaign: people frequently saying that the answer they would like to give on Thursday doesn’t match the question they are being offered.

If, for example, I was to ask you a complex question like: “How much would you contribute to save the EU?” you will – according to Kahneman – process this internally along the lines of: “How emotionally attached am I to Europe?” Or perhaps: “Was life better in the 1980s when we had the punt?” Or maybe even: “How happy am I with my lot right now?”

If I gave you a Yes/No choice about the merits of a rather narrow and technical European fiscal management proposal you might rather think to yourself: “In the space provided, how do I feel about the way the economic crisis has been handled?”

There isn’t any wilfulness to such apparent obfuscation. As Kahneman points out, our minds have evolved this way to deal with a world of great complexity.

“Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy for solving difficult problems”; in fact, he suggests it may be the only strategy. There are so many uncertainties in life that if you waited to calculate all of them you’d be pounced upon by a lion or run over by a truck before you actually made a decision.

But this “shotgun” approach – to use Kahneman’s phrase – has its downside. Like any psychological bias, it “sometimes leads to serious errors”. An instinct, no matter how well honed, can bounce you into a decision you later regret.

Kahneman doesn’t suggest we are powerless over our impulses. Rather, he argues that we have much less control over our thinking than we assume.

In effect, he has added meat to the famous theory of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume that reason is a “slave” of the passions. Hume went out of fashion in political philosophy over the last 150 years but he is undergoing a revival of late, thanks in part to the popular books of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

In Haidt’s view the western world took a “wrong turn” when it started to assume human behaviour was predictable or formulaic. An “attack of the systemisers” took place across all disciplines, including economics where models were created – until 2008, that is – on the assumption that people essentially behaved rationally.

In his latest book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt cites mounting evidence showing the mental processes that govern “most of our behaviour” occur outside of our awareness. For all of us, he argues, “the emotional tail wags the rational dog”. And like Kahneman, he provides pause for thought for tomorrow’s electorate. How many of those going to the polls will actually be voting on the treaty? How many will look at the ballot paper and unconsciously imagine a very different and much less complicated question before them: “Do you support the Government? Are the Germans trying to bully us? How do you feel about the household charge? Are you happy with your life at the moment?”

That’s not to say these aren’t valid considerations. But if you want to make a decision you’ll be happy to stand over, then you’d better be alert to your uncon- scious biases and don’t lose track of the actual question before you.

Joe Humphreys is assistant news editor
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.