I wrote yesterday that our tendency to take people at face value leaves us vulnerable to conmen. Bang on cue, A Tory-voting recipient of tax credits spoke last night of how she felt conned by the Tories.
Deomstrating the understanding and compassion for which they are renowned, some lefties have reacted by claiming she had it coming. This ignores the powerful forces which put her into this mess.
One of these, as I've said, is that it is easy to be conned simply because our instinct is to trust people - especially those in positions of authority. As Akerlof and Shiller say, millions of people are phished for phools. There's a sucker born every minute. Hundreds of thousands of people like her were conned when Osborne lied:
Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?
When we say we're all in this together, we speak for that worker.
But there's something else. Whilst the left is right to complain that low-paid workers like that woman should have felt solidarity with benefit recipients, they should at least understand the psychological mechanisms which stop them doing so.
One of these is the self-serving bias. People adopt beliefs to enhance their self-esteem. Those on tax credits thus believe they are hard-working and deserving, unlike "scroungers" - even though they are all, from a Tory point of view, getting "the taxpayers' money."
Secondly, wishful thinking and the optimism bias lead us to think "it couldn't happen to me". As @Staedtler tweeted:
What they said: "There will be £12 billion welfare cuts.
What you heard: "There will be £12 billion welfare cuts for other people."
Thirdly, social comparison theory tells us that people compare themselves to those who are like them. As Leon Festinger hypothesised (pdf):
Given a range of possible persons for comparison, someone close to one's own ability or opinion will be chosen for comparison.
This is what Osborne was driving at: he was inviting the low-paid to compare themselves to their neighbours rather than to mega-rich tax-dodgers and exploiters. His invitation worked because it went with the grain of people's inclinations.
Some laboratory experiments (pdf) by Philip J. Grossman and Mana Komai have shown how strong such within-class envy can be. They show that some of the poor are willing to attack other poor people even at their own expense. They conclude:
We find strong evidence of within class envy: the rich targeting the rich and the poor targeting the poor...Within the poor community, the target of envy is usually a poorer subject whose wealth is close to the attacker; the attacker may possibly be trying to preserve his/her relative ranking.
I say all this for a reason. It's tempting for lefties to believe that people vote Tory because of "neoliberal" ideology and the right-wing media. But there might be more to it than this. Even without such propaganda, there are cognitive biases at work which undermine class solidarity. I fear some on the left underestimate this fact because of the same cognitive bias which contributed to that woman voting Tory - wishful thinking.