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12 October 2015updated 04 Oct 2023 12:13pm

Here’s why politicians don’t fear failure

Left and right alike, our brains are hard-wired to believe politics is easy.

By Steve van Riel

All political careers are supposed to end in failure.  Many don’t take very long to achieve this: in every British election, many more people run for parliament than could win, producing, inevitably, more losers than winners.  Most major party leaders since 1945 have failed to win a single general election.  

Given this, you might expect that anyone embarking on a political project, of any ideological stripe, would think of it as a daunting, complex challenge.  Yet politics seems to be full of people who think it’s pretty straightforward. On right and left, electoral victories are planned out – bish, bash, bosh – between rounds of drinks at party conference or in the final paragraph of a 900 word comment piece.  Even those with years of experience observing politics up close, like Jeremy Corbyn today or Ed Miliband before him, rarely seem burdened by a fear of political failure.

One explanation might be that we all tend to think of ourselves as posessing above average skills in conducting simple tasks or possessing positive traits. If you overestimate the number of people who agree with you – a standard psychological finding called the “false consensus” effect – then perhaps doing politics seems simpler and more pleasant than it really is.  But this shouldn’t last forever: there should be a highly reliable antidote to the false consensus effect, called “losing an election”.  Yet, more often than not, this confidence persists even after a crushing electoral defeat.

There is a similar puzzle in the world of economics: why do so many people start businesses that quickly fail? In the pristine world of classical economics, I should only enter the market if I rationally expect my payoff to be higher by starting this business than by doing something else.  If people are making those rational calculations correctly, why do so many end up failing and losing their shirts? 

Behavioural economists, who are always interested in people acting non-rationally, designed an experiment to try and explain this phenomena.  Participants could decide to enter or not enter for each round of a game. If you entered, how well you did would be determined by how well you answered some sports, logic or current affairs questions. In each round, if you were amongst the top performers of those who entered, you got a big payoff.  But if lots of people entered and you scored near the bottom, you lost money. What the researchers found was that people were much more likely to enter these skill related games than when performance was just determined by luck. They were also more likely to lose money.  People were even more likely to be overconfident – and lose cash – if they had been recruited in answer to an ad which stressed that winners would need to know lots about sports, logic or current affairs.  They forgot that, while they might themselves be quite knowledgeable about sports, that would also be true of the people they were playing against.

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If overconfidence explains why so many people throw themselves, so regularly, into losing causes, it doesn’t explain why people offer their strategic advice so readily to political parties, even when said advice isn’t based on an awful lot of evidence, experience or even reflection.  This is where what psychologists call “illusions of explanatory depth” come into play.

If you ask me if I know how a sewing machine or a zip works, I’ll probably say that I do.  But ask me to actually explain it and my confidence will drain away: I don’t really know why they are designed the way they are and couldn’t draw out exactly how a zip’s teeth interlock or sewing machine creates a stich. 

American researchers found exactly the same illusions of explanatory depth when it came to politics: people were willing to say that they supported a particular candidate because of their policies on an issue, but when asked to describe those policies 50 per cent found they knew less than they expected, compared to just five per cent who found they knew more. 

The team investigating illusions of explanatory depth found that it was linked to whether you thought abstractly or concretely and, in particular, whether you broke the problem down into its constituent parts.  If you ask me how each different mechanism in a sewing machine functions, I’ll give a less confident answer. 

Similarly, I suspect that if you are asked how you can win the next election, it’s easy to offer a rather shallow answer like “economic security” or “standing up to austerity”.  If I ask how you can win Derby North, the task is actually smaller but those answers looks more trite. 

By contrast, if I encourage you think abstractly – in this experiment, by making you think about why we do things but potentially by asking you why you are involved in politics – you will tend to have an even more overinflated sense that you have all the answers.

This path, from greater abstraction, to greater confidence, and then to seemingly-unexpected depths of electoral defeat, was the path Ed Miliband took in the last parliament.  It is beckoning Labour again.

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