Elections look like popularity contests but aren’t. The contestants in reality TV are only asking you to like them. Politicians are asking for your vote so that they can act on your behalf. That is an act of trust – and trust is a very specific concept, one that fascinates economists and psychologists. Following Labour’s disastrous performance at this election, rebuilding trust seems like an urgent task. For the Liberal Democrats it seems like an almost hopeless one. But for every party, re-establishing trust means understanding what trust is, how it is built and how it is lost.
Economists have developed “trust games” to try and measure how people trust.They normally involve the first player being asked if they want to trust the second player with some money. Whatever the first player hands to their partner, the experimenter triples it. So if you really trust your partner, you would give them all your money and expect them to split the profits between the two of you. But it is your partner who decides how to divide the money at the end and, if they want, they could keep the lot for themselves. How much would you give if you were playing with your best friend? How much with a stranger?
Building on that thinking, economists understand trusting as taking risks. There are two kinds of risk involved. Suppose a stranger asks to borrow ten pounds. The risk is all about the stranger’s intentions: are they really going to pay you back? The second type of risk is different: are you able to deliver what you promise? If someone comes to you asking for a big investment in their new business idea, it doesn’t matter if they are your best friend, you are naturally going to have a few Dragon’s Den-style questions about whether this idea will work before you trust them with your life savings.
In politics, we talk vaguely about being seen as competent and “on your side” but using the tools of economics we can be more precise: when do voters think the risk comes from a politician’s motives, and when do they think that the risk comes from a politician’s abilities? When politicians ask to be trusted to do something popular, like cut crime or grow the economy, motive isn’t normally an issue, but ability definitely is. When politicians ask to be trusted to do something less obviously popular, like defend a minority or act responsibly with the country’s money, then motive looms larger than ability.
But this economical split between motive risks and competence risks is not the whole story. Neurologists have found that our brains look very different when we are playing trust games against another human being than when they are just playing them against a computer. For example, the hormone oxytonin affects how we play the game through the “selective deactivation [of] fear circuitry”, but it only does this when playing against other people, but not against a computer. People are “betrayal averse”: they do more to avoid risks caused by other people than they do to avoid risks that come from impersonal things. And perhaps most importantly for politics, when we’re dealing with someone we trust, we think more quickly and automatically.
Anyone frustrated with how the Tories got away with playing fast and loose with fiscal responsibility in the last weeks of the election might look to our neurological wiring to explain why this largely escaped scrutiny.
It is hard to understand who is competent and who isn’t so we use quick proxies – heuristics – to guide us. High school and university students in Australian and New Zealand rated American political candidates on how competent their faces seemed and the results were a scarily accurate forecast of the election results. Short of plastic surgery, parties resort to other substitutes like winning the endorsements of business leaders and those who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have the expertise needed to sort the competent from the incompetent.
Addressing risks that come from suspicion of your motives means acting “irrationally”. I trust Jamie Oliver’s restaurant to use quality ingredients because I believe he is passionate about food and would be ashamed and embarrassed if his food wasn’t up to scratch. Where motives are in question, politicians need to show they would be irrationally furious or wracked with guilt if the trust were to be broken. Indeed, at least one theory suggests that the ability of emotions to demonstrate trustworthiness is a key reason why they evolved. Similarly, psychologists focus on “strain-test” situations when one member of a couple wants, say, to take up a great job offer in a different country. If one partner sacrifices what is “rationally” in their interest then it sends a powerful signal about their relationship – but how often would politicians be persuaded to act against their own immediate interest for the sake of building trust in the long term?
For every party, there is a subtle but important tasks of differentiating between the areas where voters need to be convinced of the party’s motives and where its abilities are the bigger issue. In my party, there’s often a tendency for Labour’s centrists to see the problems entirely in terms of competence, while the left sees things entirely in terms of motive. But pulling on the wrong lever does little to address the problem. If people think you aren’t motivated to be careful with public money, another fifteen-point plan won’t address their concerns. And if people already think you are deeply committed to the health service, ever-more-emotive rhetoric isn’t going to convince people you have the ability to make it work better for patients.
Winning back trust will be a long road for Labour but it’s starts by putting more passion into our talk of responsibility and more competence into our talk about social justice.