System 1 politics and some thoughts on democracy…

29th September 2016 11:04

This blog was written by Elliot Simmonds, Research Consultant

Yesterday I had the pleasure, alongside 15 others from DJS Research, of attending the Best of the MRS Annual Conference event at the Lowry in Salford Quays.

Others will focus on the wider conference and some of the other presentations – all fantastic it should be said – but I would like to zoom in on a particular demonstration of utilising System 1 in research, provided by Tom Ewing.

For the uninitiated, System 1 is the instinctive, quick-thinking side of our brain, as opposed to the more ponderous, more considered, System 2. Both terms were coined by Daniel Kahneman in the seminal “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and provide a ‘complex enough to be useful, simple enough to understand’ framework on which to hang ideas about human decision making.

In general, humans are lazy thinkers. System 2 thinking is a laborious and mentally taxing process; it’s far easier to resort to System 1 thinking and to utilise mental shortcuts – remember this for later – to make decisions.

For most elements of our lives, this decision making process works very well.

System 1 politics and some thoughts on democracy…If a large dog is running at you, snarling and barking, ninety-nine per cent of the time, we would not take the necessary time to consider the likelihood that in this instance the dog is actually friendly and the barking is just a show of excitement and affection; we would instead take the System 1 approach of running away. This decision would be made almost instantly, without any real ‘thought’, and would utilise a mental short cut based on the result of every other encounter we (and probably our ancestors) had had with dogs, teeth, snarling and barking in the past.

Ninety-nine per cent of the time, the odds are likely that the barking, snarling dog is going to try to bite you, and that will hurt, and so in this instance, the System 1 approach works. All good so far. Well done evolution.

However, as we have developed as a species, the decisions we make have become more complex – running from dogs is no longer a daily concern for most people – and it is at this point that we return to Tom Ewing’s presentation, and the world in which system 1 decision making isn’t quite as effective.

Tom has been conducting an on-going project to understand the likely outcome of the US Presidential Election. Instead of the traditional polling approach, they’ve taken a behavioural economics approach to the research, essentially tracking Fame, Feeling and Fluency. They describe these in the following terms:

  • If a brand comes readily to mind, it’s a good choice (Fame).
  • If a brand feels good, it’s a good choice (Feeling).
  • If a brand is recognisable, it’s a good choice (Fluency)

Briefly, Fame is how well-known a candidate is (i.e. if shown a picture, do people know who they are). Fluency is the degree to which people associate other things with a candidate – for instance, a Big Mac with McDonald’s, a Zip-line with Boris Johnson, “Make America Great Again” with Donald Trump. Feeling is how people feel about the candidate – i.e. do they like them?

Tom’s presentation suggested that, as it stands with a few weeks to go, Hilary is just about going to shade it. But for me, the key issue at hand was the wider implications.

The over-arching point is that making a considered decision about politics is, for many people, too taxing.

When faced with many difficult questions (How will Trump deal with Russia? What’s Hilary’s view on healthcare? How does that affect me? System 1 politics and some thoughts on democracy…Who will actually have to pay for The Wall?) it takes a large amount of mental processing to produce considered results via System 2. Far easier, is to fall back on System 1 and the mental shortcuts discussed earlier. Essentially, what many voters do is substitute the time-consuming, nuanced and difficult questions about policy, with more simple questions – “Have I heard of them? Do I like them?”

On a side note, I suspect that this is also why many elections (the recent vote on the European Union for one) seem to hinge on single issues for many people. It takes time and effort to dissect individual policy issues, the inter-relationships between them, and how those elements impact you as an individual. It’s much easier to make a decision based on one facet of an offer (say, immigration or the NHS) and assume that ‘if I agree with them on that, I will probably agree with everything else they do.’ As Neo said, the problem is choice.

The point then, is that in a world where political decisions are not considered, balanced dissections of the pros and cons of a candidate, but the result of a mental shortcut (Do I know him, do I like him?”) the potential for politics of the popular rather than a politics of the able is quite frightening. Even in recent times, there are many examples of well-known individuals running (successfully) for political office – think Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and now Trump for instance in the US; the boxer Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines, Glenda Jackson in the UK.

Whilst it’s not true to say that just because they’re famous these people are less able, Tom’s findings do beg the question – how much do the policies actually matter anymore?

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