A failure to understand

(credit for featured image: Laura Lewis/Flickr)

Do people who make trade-offs that are different from ours fail to understand what we know to be true?

The polarization that has been characterizing politics in Europe and the US is not only revealing a degree of tribalism that we’ve not seen for generations, it also seems to have laid bare a tendency to look down on the ‘other’ camp, and to somehow see them as myopic, ignorant or indeed plain stupid. Even when you strip down the insults, what remains is the conviction that the opponent just “fails to understand”.

In the British EU-referendum, people who wanted to leave the Union did not understand the economic disaster that would follow such a move, and those who wished to remain failed to understand the huge opportunities that lay ahead if only the country could free itself from the European shackles. The people who support populists across Europe and Donald Trump in America don’t understand the benefits globalization and immigration has brought them; their liberal counterparts fail to understand that the progress of the poor in emerging countries and of migrants from Mexico, central Europe, Northern Africa or the Middle East has taken place at the expense of the western working class.

Not a matter of fact

This tendency to perceive the opposition as somehow thick is remarkably pervasive and persistent. After British Prime Minister Theresa May gave her long-awaited speech on 17 January, Chuka Ummuna, erstwhile hopeful to succeed Ed Milliband as Labour leader, tweeted “The PM fails to understand if we leave the EU Single Market we’d have no say over the rules applying to almost half our exports #Brexit”:

Mr Ummuna is clearly well aware of the fact that countries who are not members of the EU Single Market cannot influence the rules within that trading bloc, but the tone of his message suggests also that he believes this ability is of great importance to the UK. This is a sensible belief, and certainly, all else being equal, it is better to have a say than not to. But it is a belief, and a matter of preference, not a matter of fact.

What we believe to be good (for us) is not necessarily good for everyone, as others may have a different set of preferences, and make trade-offs in a different way. Non-smokers (and in particular ex-smokers) may think smokers fail to understand the risks they are running when lighting up for the umpteenth time in a day, and delude themselves with “my grandfather smoked 40 a day and lived to be 102” tall stories. But it’s rare for non-smokers to even consider that it would be perfectly reasonable for a person to weigh up the pleasure they get from smoking against the potential risk of developing lung cancer or cardiovascular problems, and deciding that it’s worth it.

Yet it is not unusual for people to make such apparently incomprehensible trade-offs.


Minus 40 (in the shade) – credit: Matcatpurple/Flickr

There are people living in remote communities of the Canadian Northwest Territories, like Aklavik where temperatures in winter can drop so low that it doesn’t matter whether you express them in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit – minus 40 is minus 40 – and which can only be reached by road during the winter when vehicles can drive over the ice. I occasionally express a tentative desire to visit such places, upon which my wife makes it clear that for such a trip I would definitely be on my own, expressing bafflement at the mere existence of the hamlet: “Nobody in their right mind could possibly want to go there, let alone live there!” Yet clearly the 630 Aklavikians who live there all year round seem quite happy in their isolation and their extreme temperatures.

Way more poignant, but no less relevant, is the plight of people with a terminal illness who consider ending their life through voluntary euthanasia, or who simply express the wish to die soon. Some people are driven to questioning whether they fully understand what their premature death would mean to their close relatives and friends that will be left behind. But perhaps it is the questioners who don’t understand the tough trade-off faced by someone in permanent physical and mental pain, with no prospect of getting better. I was once one of them, and it was not until the final days of one of my parents that I really understood the incomprehension was all mine.

Monopoly on truth

So when Mr Ummuna says Mrs May does not understand the consequences of the UK’s leaving the Single Market, it is much more likely that he has succumbed to a self-centred bias – an erroneous assumption that most people share one’s own opinions and preferences. From here it is a short step to believing one has a monopoly on truth, and those who disagree are wrong and simply don’t understand – even if they are the Prime Minister.

But she herself is not necessarily immune to the same problem. Martin Sandbu observed in the Financial Times the day after her speech that she has bowed to the logic of solipsism: she appears to believe that what is the right kind of Brexit for the UK should evidently also be the right arrangement for the remaining 27 EU-countries, so that there is an obvious win-win outcome.

This illustrates the danger that lurks in the self-centred bias: if what we believe is right, others endowed with a bit of intelligence should of course share those beliefs (and those who don’t evidently fail to understand). When we interact with others on the basis of that assumption, we are the ones who fail to understand – not that the others are right, but that our firm beliefs simply represent our own trivial preferences and trade-offs.

That is bad news if we are about to enter in a negotiation, especially if those others have more power than we do. And it is bad news in general, because it is precisely this attitude that feeds the polarization and the tribalism in our society.

Diversity in preferences can enrich and even unite us, but only if we understand that it concerns preferences that are neither right nor wrong – otherwise, all we get is divisiveness.

About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Cognitive biases and fallacies, politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A failure to understand

  1. Pingback: When a devil’s advocate throws in his wig | Koenfucius

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