Democracy v Psychology: Why People Keep Electing Idiots

The 2015 election campaigns are under way, and it’s clear that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to political success. Unfortunately, there are several psychological mechanisms that lead to apparent idiots being elected into powerful positions.


Clegg being interviewed by Joey Essex has been seen as blatant “dumbing down” of politics, but it’s been going on for quite some time now. Photograph: @nick_clegg/PA

Courtesy of Dean Burnett @ The Guardian:

Politicians. Their reputation is very poor. In fairness, this is largely their own fault, but it would be foolish to assume every politician is like this. If they were, the whole infrastructure would collapse before you could say “can I claim this on expenses?” Still, everyone assumes they’re despicable, so always assume the worst.

Politician enacts a bad policy? They’re a terrible person. They change their mind and reverse it? They’re weak and not fit to lead. Politicians promise improvements (cut taxes, increase spending)? They’re obviously lying. Politicians promise to do something unpopular (raise taxes, cut spending)? A cast-iron guarantee it will happen. It’s a lose-lose situation, so why do they bother? Many politicians are clearly in it for themselves, but there surely are plenty who really do want the best and just put up with the negative opinions they get.

So, for the record, not all politicians are idiots (although your definition of idiot may vary). But plenty are. The US seem particularly afflicted with them; Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, these people were/are contenders for the presidency. And the archetype George W Bush WAS the president. For 8 YEARS. The man whose idiotic musings managed to sustain businesses had a nuclear arsenal at his command.

Not that the UK can feel smug, with the amount of demonstrable idiocy in our own system. Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Grant Shapps, Jeremy Hunt, David Tredinnick, a ridiculous Labour party (complete with mugs), the rise of UKIP, and the beloved bumbling mayor Boris Johnson. Continue reading

Four-Fifths of Public Want Green Party in TV Leaders’ Debates – poll


 Photo: Nick Ansell/PA

Courtesy of Patrick Wintour @ The Guardian:

Nearly four-fifths of the public want to see the Green party represented in next year’s televised leaders’ debates before the election, according to an ICM opinion poll. The poll is likely to put more pressure on broadcasters to lift their objections to including the Greens.

At present, the broadcasters have said Labour, the Conservatives, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats will all be involved in at least one of the three planned debates

The poll, which was conducted between 12 and 16 December, shows 79% support for the involvement of the Green party, a support reflected pretty evenly across age, gender and region. Even Conservative voters support the Greens’ involvement by a 62%-to-36% margin. Ukip identifiers support the Greens’ participation by 70% to 26%, Liberal Democrats by 86% to 14% and Labour supporters by 82% to 14%.

The question put to poll respondents read: “You may have seen or heard that ITV has announced proposals for a televised leaders’ debate in the runup to the 2015 general election which is likely to be held in May next year. ITV currently propose to invite the leaders of the Conservative party, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip to participate, but not the leader of the Green party. Do you think that the leader of the Green party should or should not also be invited to join in the ITV leaders’ debate?”

The Greens say it was verified by ICM to ensure there was no bias. ITN was asked to participate in the framing of the question, but refused to do so. Continue reading

Yes, we can reshape the state – if corporations pay more tax


George Osborne has announced the so-called Google tax. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Courtesy of Will Hutton @ The Guardian:

If companies in Britain paid, proportionally, as much tax as they did in the last year of Mrs Thatcher’s prime ministership, the country would be £30bn better off. There would still be a deficit, but the fiscal situation would be transformed. The crisis talk of the unprecedented reshaping of the state to the same level – in terms of percentage of GDP – as it stood in the 1930s would recede. It would not be necessary.

The chancellor has nothing if not sensitive political antennae. This kind of claim cannot be allowed to get any traction. It is a political imperative that he and his allies keep the national conversation away from the structure of the tax base. Instead they need to concentrate firmly on the shortcomings of the allegedly inefficient state and featherbedding of the welfare system – always taken as axiomatic – and thus the inevitable necessity for their reshaping and downsizing. The Conservative party’s brand is toxic enough without being seen as being soft on companies and tough on the poor and average citizen.

So last week Mr Osborne announced the popular profits diversion tax, or Google tax. It is widely advertised that he is doing all in his power to increase the tax take from rogue multinationals who artificially organise their affairs to reduce their British taxes. Company directors have a new duty to notify Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs every year if, in their opinion, their tax arrangements qualify as artificial: instead of paying 21% corporation tax they would pay a penalty 25%. It was left unsaid in the accompanying documents, but any financial officer who did not notify the tax authorities of what his or her company was doing would risk being disqualified from holding office. Continue reading

Why Do We Cling to Beliefs When They’re Threatened by Facts?

Courtesy of Cathleen O’Grady @ Arstechnica:

People hold beliefs for a complex variety of reasons. Some of these beliefs may be based on facts, but others may be based on ideas that can never be proved or disproven. For example, people who are against the death penalty might base their belief partly on evidence that the death penalty does not reduce violent crime (which could later be shown to be false), and partly on the notion that the death penalty violates a fundamental human right to life. The latter is an unfalsifiable belief, because it can’t be changed purely by facts.

According to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, unfalsifiability is an important component of both religious and political beliefs. It allows people to hold their beliefs with more conviction, but it also alows them to become more polarized in those beliefs.

Currently, very little is known about why certain worldviews gain more mindshare in some populations, while others remain on the fringes. We also currently know only a little about how and why people continue to hold a belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Sometimes people argue on the basis of fact, questioning the quality of the evidence against their position, for example.

But it seems that people can also resort to emphasizing unfalsifiable reasons for holding a belief. This “defensive” function of unfalsifiability plays a role in both religion and politics; people can also use the unfalsifiability of their beliefs to defend them when they are threatened. The researchers also look at what they call the “offensive” function of unfalsifiability, which increases the strength of people’s religious and political beliefs. Continue reading

Politics Wrecks Your Ability to do Math


Courtesy of Chris Mooney @ Grist:

Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don’t realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a “new cream for treating skin rashes.” But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of “a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.”

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What’s more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more — not less — susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves — to fully grasp the Enlightenment-destroying nature of these results, we first need to explore the tricky problem that the study presented in a little bit more detail.

Let’s start with the “skin cream” version of this brain twister. You can peruse the image below to see exactly what research subjects read (and try out your own skill at solving it), or skip on for a brief explanation: Continue reading