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Why politicians don’t want us to think, but opinions are okay

Politicians don’t want us thinking too hard about what they say and do. Flickr/Mutiara Karina, CC BY-NC-ND

Why politicians don’t want us to think, but opinions are okay

It’s time to gear up for the next election cycle, with the upcoming Australian federal budget the whistle for kick-off. So what can we expect from our politicians this time around?

One thing has become a given in Australian politics: we will not be asked to think. That doesn’t mean we won’t, of course. But don’t wait for the invitation to arrive in the mail.

The last thing politicians want is for us to analyse, synthesise, infer and evaluate. We might end up insisting they do the same, or that they outline their thinking for us to evaluate.

Even worse, thinking voters are unpredictable, and that makes them dangerous.

It is far more beneficial to politicians if they only ask us to judge. People are far happier if they are asked to judge the merit of a course of action than if they are asked to analyse an argument.

Rigorous engagement with a complex issue is difficult and time-consuming. Judgements are frequently instantaneous and satisfying. It is easy to imagine we are thinking critically when we are merely leaping to conclusions.

Opinions on everything

The Nobel prize-wining psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that it is an amazing thing that humans are never stumped. Give us an issue and we will happily give you our opinion, even if we really should defer it to a time when we have done more research.

We make subconscious judgements as readily as we breathe, and just about as frequently.

Our preference for judgement over analysis and evaluation explains, for example, our preference for stories about celebrities and royal babies over significant scientific breakthroughs. The actions of celebrities are rarely things we need to think about, we only need to form opinions.

Royal babies: Prince William and his wife Catherine with their newborn daughter. EPA/Andrew Cowie

Judging allows us to form immediate, satisfying and communicable conclusions; the process of analysis and evaluation requires us to do some hard intellectual yards, with perhaps no clear outcome.

Judgements are largely intuitive and, unlike analysis and evaluation, they use little working memory, and do not demand our sustained and directed attention.

When judgements are made in this intuitive manner they are often based on factors we are not aware of – factors that can be deliberately manipulated to influence the outcome.

This lack of control in our decision-making is established knowledge in the fields of cognitive science and psychology.

The language of manipulation

Listen carefully to the rhetoric around the federal budget. You will not be asked to analyse its logical structure. You will be asked to judge its basic premises, and those premises will be framed using a language that best suits a political purpose.

The language of “lifters” and “leaners” is a classic example that was used by the Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey towards the end of last year’s budget speech:

As Australians, we must not leave our children worse off. That’s not fair. That is not our way. We are a nation of lifters, not leaners.

Place people in either category of “lifters” and “leaners” and it follows that you can judge their merit, and hence the benefits of a particular budget strategy relating to them.

Most of the substance of political discourse is about encouraging us to make value-based decisions rather than outlining arguments for us to evaluate. Simply speaking, our judgements are usually about values, while arguments are about analysis.

The problem with this is that it opens the door to a range of language framing effects designed simply to manipulate our judgement-making and bypass our thinking. Political language discourages reasoning and encourages and rewards judging.

If a particular issue is regarded as too difficult to engage with or ideologically unpalatable, it can be labelled “un-Australian” and people will make judgements on that basis. The use of the terms “illegal” and “queue-jumper” invite us to judge, not to consider.

If the work of scientists results in conclusions that are counter to any party’s ideology, rather than calling them “scientists” (and ask that people engage with the argument), they could be labelled “activists”. It won’t be consensus, it will be groupthink. People will more readily judge on that emotive value base than rigorously interrogate the issue.

As the British writer George Orwell notes

[…] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

Our newspapers are also masters of this art. Look at the headlines and ask if you are being asked to think or to judge. Look also at the accompanying photographs and ask the same question.

Journalists, to their credit, often ask questions that demand a reasoned response, but the art of the politician is to give an answer based on values and to invite judgement.

The most common tactic of this sort is to move from the issue itself to a choice between the two major parties. Re-framing an issue as a choice between two options, using the language of values, is a way to avoid swimming in the sometimes murky and difficult cognitive waters of real-life decisions.

It’s no wonder that politicians prefer to spend time on emotive issues, posing in front of flags, monuments and symbols of national significance rather than engaged in reason debate with each other or members of the voting public.

Walking the hard path

The truth is, we do not like to think too hard. If politicians can give us a way to come to a conclusion that feels substantive and doesn’t require an investment in time or energy, we jump at it.

We prefer easy, intuitive decisions to hard, sustained thinking. Flickr/Sasquatch I, CC BY

It’s hardly their fault if their strategy works. When we get it from the media at the same time, the strength of the effect is overwhelming.

So what does this mean for our democracy? And what does it mean for election time in particular?

Well, awareness does not always bring defence, but it’s a start. We should subject political statements and media headlines to this simple question: am I being asked to think, or to judge? And then we should ask ourselves why?

A refusal on the part of the electorate to go down the path others are setting up for us, to think independently about issues and to hold politicians to a rational account of their behaviour would be a good start.

After all, anything less would be un-Australian.