(featured image: Goran Has/Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Is it irrational to favour people with whom you have something important in common?
Imagine the prime minister of your country is not someone you naturally align with: in fact, you’d rather see him or her defeated at the next election. But then you suddenly learn that your PM is a life-long supporter of the same football team that you have been a fan of since you were a kid. What effect does this new knowledge have on you?
This very thing happened to Samuel Salzer, one of my fellow behavioural practitioners and an ardent Tottenham Hotspur fan, who recently learned that the Swedish Social Democratic premier, Stefan Löfven, has also been a Spurs supporter for decades. While before, he didn’t like his prime minister or, at best, felt neutral about him, he reported that he “instantly noticed how [his] image of him changed,” despite knowing that this is “irrelevant”.
Is this fact really as irrelevant as Samuel writes, and is this reaction, as he suggests, a case of irrational behaviour?
It seems evident that politics is a matter of policies, and of nothing else. A rational voter – even a hypothetical one – will evaluate the different policies each candidate represents, weigh them up and determine which of the candidates is most likely to pursue a policy set that best matches their wishes.
But that is not quite how we work.
In a Danish experiment by political scientists Rune Slothuus and Claes de Vreese, citizens were presented with a constructed newspaper article on two proposed policies: a conflict issue (contracting out the care for the elderly, something on which the two main Danish political parties oppose each other) and a consensus issue (joining a proposed trade agreement, something on which they agree). The respondents were put in four different framing conditions: a pro- and a con-frame, each of which was presented as sponsored by either one or the other of the two parties, and had to express their level of support for the opinion in the article. The researchers found that citizens tended to respond more favourably to an issue frame – regardless whether it was for or against the policy – if it was sponsored by the party they vote for than if it was promoted by the other party.
Party affiliation thus seems to shape people’s view on specific policy proposals. Otherwise put: whether we are for or against a policy is a function not just of its precise content and nature, but also of the nature of the party proposing or objecting to it.
Might there be other additional factors that might influence our political choices?
Consider this thought experiment: you must choose between two politicians who both propose exactly the same policies (to control for party affiliation, we can even assume they are from the same party, for example if both aspire to become party leader). If you genuinely know nothing else about the two candidates, you might as well vote by spinning a coin. But will you still be inclined to do so if you learn some other factoids about each candidate? Would you perhaps have a slight preference for the person who has the same degree as you, or who is known to share with you a fondness of Kraftwerk, for Harry Potter books or for Stoic philosophy?
While such characteristics – or any other you like to name – are most likely not going to have any material effect on their political actions, they do seem to matter, in some odd way, in shaping your perception of a person. Now, consider a small alteration to the thought experiment: this time, the candidates’ policy proposals differ in some minor, and in your eyes quite insignificant way. Can you imagine still opting for the candidate with whom you feel some affinity – especially if it is a strong, emotional one – even if the other candidate has, albeit marginally, the best fit with your own political views? In other words, might you trade some policy choice for the knowledge that the candidate is in your in-group?
We are more inclined to cooperate with (and tend to have positive feelings towards) members of our in-group (however defined – even in so-called minimal groups, established on the basis of the smallest, trivial choices, e.g., whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich, or how toilet paper should be orientated). You may have noticed that astute car or kitchen salespeople will seek to boost their chances of a sale by taking advantage of this predisposition. They will ask you some personal questions and quickly bring up a – real or made-up – connection: “That’s an unusual name! Where are you from? Oh, Belgium? I was there two years ago! Lovely country, excellent beer, and Bruges, what a pretty city!” And bingo, as a buyer, you cannot help feeling some degree of connection.
Evolutionary psychology theorizes that in-group favouritism has its roots in the evolution of humans as a cooperative species, capable of surviving and prospering in a wide range of environments. Cooperation requires trust, but indiscriminate trust would be ineffective, and our early ancestors had to be able to trust those who could be trusted to cooperate too. Well-defined In-groups were, and are, a plausible mechanism for this to work. Even though party politics and football were not around when this societal model started to emerge, both clearly map onto the concept of the in-group, alongside numerous other characteristics.
(Not so) irrational preferences
Is it irrational to change your image of someone – even a politician! – because they happen to support the same football team as you? The term ‘irrational’ is widely used to label behaviour judged as illogical, suboptimal and indeed often, frankly, a bit stupid. This is not a very helpful definition, not only because of its implied normative connotations, but because it ignores the aims and preferences of the supposedly irrational individual.
Our choices are, fundamentally, a consequence of our preferences. When we can choose freely, we go with whatever we prefer. Say there are two slices of pie left, a larger and a smaller one. I really like this pie, and I could easily eat the bigger one. Is it then irrational for me to choose the smallest one and leave the largest one for you? Yes, from a very narrow perspective: I should simply self-interestedly take the larger one. But not when taking a broader view: there are ample reasons why, even if I’d rather have the larger slice, I’d still leave it for you, from genuine generosity and reputational concern to deontological or reciprocity motives. In all these situations, I would certainly be acting in accordance with my preferences.
Whether or not a choice is rational is inextricably linked with the chooser’s preferences. It can only be irrational if it goes against them. Alice, who places a high value on car’s badge, is not irrational for preferring an expensive model when she could have bought a functionally identical model of a less prestigious brand for thousands of pounds (euros, dollars) less. Bob, who prefers to avoid traveling by plane because the very idea terrifies, them is not irrational for opting to drive long distance, even if that increases their chance of becoming a fatality during the journey.
And neither is someone who prefers, all else being equal, to have a member of their in-group as a prime minister, and who feel a stronger affinity with the PM the moment they learn he is, like them, also a Spurs supporter.
Their more favourable attitude towards the politician is unlikely to be quite enough to also assure him of their vote at the next election. But knowing a political opponent is somehow in the same in-group – especially when, as in this case, it has a pronounced emotional significance – may encourage a more neutral evaluation of his policies than the dogmatic dismissal that is often the typical reaction to the policies of a political adversary. That can’t be bad, can it?