Friday, 22 July 2016

PiS, Brexit, Trump and cognitive bias

I have written about cognitive bias in one of my Lenten posts in relation to the search for God. Cognitive bias being the innate tendency of us humans to distort reality to fit our own personal world views.

Today I want to write about cognitive bias in politics and in respect of the outcomes of elections.

It's evident from my blog that I am a not a fan of PiS, nor am I in favour of Brexit, and I consider the possibility of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States of America as a potential disaster.

After 26 years in which the trajectory of world affairs has been heading in generally the right direction (the Middle East excluded), things have turned sour - from my perspective. Time, then, to reassess the cognitive biases that weigh down upon our judgment. My judgment - your judgment - their judgment - every voter's judgment across the democratic world.

One of the main cognitive biases is hindsight bias - 'I knew it all along.' If voters vote for this, then the outcome will be negative - so after the vote, which didn't go according to my wishes, I'm hoping things will go wrong - even to the detriment of my own wellbeing - so that I can be proved right, having invested so much emotional energy into supporting what turned out to be the losing proposition.

Do I want the British economy to fail because I said it would, if voters went against my judgment? Do I want bad things - harmful to myself and millions of others - to happen just to prove that I was right all along? The bit of me that yearns for this to happen is the nasty side of me, the reptile brain, the immature and spiteful me, the bad loser.

It is more civilised, more angelic, to accept the outcome, move on, and work hard to keep the British and the Polish economies ticking along, rather than to revel in the schadenfreude when the pound or złoty has another bad day on the currency markets or when the sovereign debt gets another downgrade.

Better it is to see such cognitive bias for what it is - a deviation from rational judgment caused by sour grapes. And to do everything to avoid one's own prophesies of doom from fulfilling themselves. Don't cry over spilt milk - get over it, get on with it.

Then there's another cognitive bias that is opposite of the above. People who voted for Brexit will tend to say - "things are getting better, just as we said they would". They will trumpet ever perceived change for the better as their personal victory, often when the change is illusory or in fact negative. This is optimism bias, or wishful thinking.

A further cognitive bias to be aware of is illusory correlation, misplaced inference: "it rained yesterday, it will rain again today." Or - more sophisticated - "after a similar spell of hot weather last year, we had storms. So we'll have them again." This can be applied to political outcomes to; comparing, for example, what happens when Theresa May settles into her job as prime minister with what happened when Margaret Thatcher took office.

Brexiteers will hold up any good economic news as proof that they were right, while Remainers will hold up any bad economic news as proof that they were right.

Where does the truth lie? Truth, that will be judged by history, decades into the future? Will Brexit ultimately be judged a triumph, another turning-point in British history, the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher facing down the trade unions and stemming Britain's decline? Or will it be seen by the end of this century as a Canute-like reflex to hold back the inexorable progress of globalisation that caused far more harm than good?

And will PiS's electoral victory last year be seen as the Polish nation turning its back on social and economic liberalism, choosing instead a robust, patriotic, traditionalist model that ultimately proved to be a geopolitical success? Or will it be seen as a one-man power-grab, the result of shrewd power-politics and effective populist rhetoric that harmed the prospects for the country's progress?

Elections and referendums - the latter in particular - are those historic moments that bring about change in direction of travel. Some are more important than others.

When looking at a country - any country - the key question is 'is it idiot-proof'. Warren Buffett once said "I buy stock in businesses that an idiot can run. Because sooner or later, one will." The same goes for countries. Some states are so fragile that the election of a dreadful populist can wreck them. Poland survived the PiS/ Samoobrona/ LPR government of 2005-07 without any major side effect (other than some residual paralysis in public procurement). America will survive Trump. But the damage caused by Brexit will be felt for decades - even though it probably won't be as severe as many have predicted.

Now that I feel like I'm sliding into wishful thinking - it's time to invoke Godwin's Law - the longer a thread (or in this case) post gets, the greater the chance of Hitler making an appearance. So. After the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, who would have predicted a second world war and the Holocaust would happen within a few years? What were the flaws in the arguments offered by the optimists? What were the event horizons, beyond which there was no turning back? What should we learn?

In the end, it is down to judgment. The more fine-tuned, the more subtly nuanced it is - and yet expressed in terms everyone can understand - the more capable the brain that issues it.

Incidentally, what is the Polish for' judgment'? Stanisławski give rozsądek, but that's not quite right - 'he has good/poor judgment' - on ma dobry/słaby rozsądek - doesn't quite fit. PWN-Oxford gives rozsądek as 'reason', 'sense', so on ma dobry/słaby rozsądek - would be 'he is reasonable/sensible' or 'unreasonable'. Given the importance of judgment in one's life - in particular in one's working life, in annual performance reviews etc, I'm surprised that modern corporate Polish has not taken on board a loan word, such as on ma dobry/słaby dżadżment.

This time three years ago:
Portmeirion, revisited, again

This time four years ago:
Beach day, Llyn Peninsula

This time five years ago:
Down with cars in city centres!

This time six years ago:
8am and 26C already


Jacek Koba said...

I'm guilty of some biases of my own clouding my judgment since about this time last year. On finding myself in a crowded place, I study the faces and clothes, peer at book titles and newspaper mastheads in people’s hands and tune into the speech inflections for clues on their owners' voting preferences. In arguments that I can't win outright for lack of facts or due to gaps in my history education, I take the long-term, cosmic view - anything irrational will sooner or later, to a lesser or greater degree, give way to things rational.

Rational does not automatically mean better – this is a matter of opinion. I'd say rational is being honest with yourself. But I equate honesty with happiness and, cynically or not, measure both as a ratio of expectations to reality, the optimal being 1 of course (expectations matching reality in a ratio of 1 to 1).

In my view, PIS, Brexiteers and Trump have got people psyched up well above this ratio (as have religious leaders, nationalists, communists etc over the course of history). A correction will follow. It is a question of when and how radical. If I am wrong, I'll spend my twilight years analyzing the mistakes in my reasoning.

The "in my view" above is of course where 99 per cent of the argument lies, and where people clash over interpreting facts and making choices. Some examples:

Money holds the most heterogeneous things together, so in the short term it would be irrational to refuse the 500+ PIS palliative if you have two children even if you voted against PIS (you may be hypocritical but not irrational). But in the long term you are lying to yourself. It is irrational to let more people on board if the boat is sinking (Trump, Brexiteers) but you have to judge it against having more arms to row the boat to safety. If you take out the migrants who depend on the NHS, you have to take out the migrants (doctors and nurses) who work for it; if you take out the migrants who compete for houses, you have to take out the ones who build or refurbish houses at affordable prices, etc. Economic growth and isolationism are contradictions.

Young Arabs in particular are going through a bad case of expectations to reality crisis. They are having to contend with an unbridgeable gap between the shaky edifice their elders have built on sand with the ruthlessly successful and unapologetically irreligious power built on the hard rock of Manhattan. They are lashing out at the West at the moment in a sort of displacement therapy, whereas they would stand to gain more by taking the fight to their elders thus bringing into alignment the ancient strictures in their lives with the reality of the iPhone age. In the 80’s, the VCR did for communism – a triumph of reality over fiction.

And the lesson from America should be that if you are a first generation American, it is incumbent upon you to educate yourself to the level where you no longer compete for jobs with the next wave of migrants. A rat race is bad but a race to the bottom is worse.

Michael Dembinski said...

@Jacek Koba

"I equate honesty with happiness and, cynically or not, measure both as a ratio of expectations to reality, the optimal being 1 of course (expectations matching reality in a ratio of 1 to 1)."

A sentence worth pondering. You are happiest if your expectations of the future does not exceed an outcome that is observably, empirically, likely to be real.

It must have been this realism that kept people going in the Gulag. Managing one's expectations is so important to maintaining a happy outlook on life.

Islam is undergoing an upheaval similar to the Reformation. It will be centuries before its over.