Progress says that Labour should stop blaming the media. I agree. People don’t vote Tory simply because newspapers tell them to do so - if they did, Labour would be even more unpopular than it is – although it’s possible that the media shapes voters’ perceptions in other ways (pdf), such as by promoting mediamacro and bubblethink*.
However, there’s something that Progress doesn’t say. It’s that voters can have mistaken ideas for reasons other than media influence. We know, thanks to the work inspired by Daniel Kahneman, that we are prone to many cognitive biases**. Isn’t it possible that these systematically distort voters’ thinking? For example:
1. “People are remarkably poor at combining causal links into a system” say David Leiser and Zeev Kril. This causes them to fail to see the connection between austerity and low wage growth and to fall for daft metaphors about the nation’s credit card***.
2. The fundamental attribution error causes people to over-estimate the role of character in causing personal success or failure, and under-rate the role of luck or environmental factors. This leads them to blame the poor for poverty.
3. The salience effect means causes people to over-estimate the number of benefit cheats: the dole fiddler who’s down the pub is more visible that the housebound disabled person. This leads to unfounded hostility to claimants.
6. The illusion of control causes people to over-estimate the chances of them escaping the working class through their own efforts, and so under-estimate the importance of collective class action .
7. The anchoring effect means that perceptions of the desirable level of inequality are shaped (pdf) by actual inequality – which implies that as inequality increases so too does acceptance of inequality.
Just as individuals are motivated to hold favourable attitudes about themselves and the social groups to which they belong, they are also motivated to hold favourable attitudes towards the social, economic and political systems in which they live and work.
9. Experiments by James Andreoni and Justin Rao have found that (pdf) communication “greatly influences feelings of empathy and pro-social behaviour.” To the extent that we hear much more from the well-off than we do from the very poor, this leads to disproportionate sympathy for the rich.
You might think all this is a Marxist talk of ideology. It is. But I’m also echoing Adam Smith:
We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.III.29)
I fear, however, that both wings of the Labour party are loath to see all this. On the right, it’s because they regard politics as a marketing exercise which takes preferences as given. On the left, it’s because it’s easier to blame a few billionaires than to see that the public would be biased against them even without media influence. Until this changes, however, and Labour asks itself how to address the problem of cognitive biases, the party might remain in trouble.
* I suspect the BBC should be scrutinized more closely than it is in this regard.
** Since I began to read about these biases, I’ve seen them everywhere – which is of course an example of the confirmation bias.
*** Bone-headed libertarians please note that this also helps explain why free markets are unpopular with the public.