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18 December 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:29am

Political scientists talk about low-information voters, but too much information causes problems too

By Ian Leslie

I have never been very good at predicting how election campaigns will unfold, but in years past I could at least follow the storyline. In the one that just ended, I found it very difficult to get a handle on what was going on, partly because there was so much going on. Something terrible would befall Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign at 10am, but then three hours later something worse would happen to Boris Johnson. Then it would turn out that the thing which happened to Corbyn was not actually a thing at all, and hang on, what is Matt Hancock up to now? In the moment, each teacup drama seemed desperately important, yet by the next day I would barely remember any of it.

The overall effect was befuddlement. I sensed my already meagre capacity for political judgement degrading with every news alert. The likely outcome of the election seemed to pivot and twist like a kite on a windy day. But then, I was plugged into the machine, hungrily clicking on every link and refreshing my feeds five times a minute. People who only get their news about politics from half hourly bulletins on the radio were probably better at predicting the result than me, and probably had a better grasp of the underlying issues. Those of us glued to Twitter consumed more information but knew less about what was going on.

Political scientists talk about “low-information voters” – but I wonder if high-information voters are not also a problem for democracy. These days, more people can access the kind of real-time inside information once available only to newsrooms, but instead of making us wiser, it may only be making us myopic. We tend to think that having more information is always good, but the truth is that people really can have too much. A quirk of human psychology is that the more details we have about something, the more erratic our judgement of it can become.

According to Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, nine out of ten major infrastructure projects around the world go nearly a third over budget. One reason for this is that project managers get so absorbed in the details of their own project that they become convinced they have accounted for every eventuality, forgetting that some unforeseeable problem or other will probably cause delays and added costs. Flyvbjerg discovered that a more reliable way of judging a project’s outcome is to hire a team of outside consultants, ask them to ignore the specifics of this project, and instead compare it to other, similar projects. The story of this bridge is unlikely to be radically different from all those other bridges.

Psychologists talk about the “inside view” and the “outside view”. The inside view encourages us to think this particular situation is unique, the outside view reminds us that it’s probably not. Let’s say you identify a racehorse you think is a potential winner of the Grand National. You then find out everything you can about it – you look at its recent form, you assess its fitness and admire its graceful gallop. The more you learn about this horse, the more certain you become it’s going to win. That’s the inside view. In the outside view, you ask, how likely is it that any particular horse will win this notoriously unpredictable event? Your horse will probably lose; most horses do.

The outside view requires us to set aside the information we have so assiduously gathered about those trees in order to appreciate the contours of the forest. This goes against the instinct we have that whatever we are paying attention to must be important. It also runs counter to our tendency to be overoptimistic. The inside view tells you that you are definitely going to stick to your carefully planned exercise regime; the outside view tells you that on past form, that’s unlikely. The inside view tells you you’re a brilliant stock-picker; the outside view tells you to stick your savings in an index fund.

When we’re taking the inside view, we assign too much importance to differences and underweigh similarities. This is one reason the political classes did not see Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton coming in 2016. They were so distracted by the stream of scandal and outrage this particular Republican candidate created, they forgot to take a step back and ask themselves how often it is that one party wins three terms in a row. The answer is, hardly ever. The most remarkable thing about the 2016 election was how predictable it was – at least if you weren’t paying too much attention.

A surfeit of information often leads to overthinking, an ailment to which experts are particularly prone. A team of researchers led by Anupam Jena, a health-care economist at Harvard, looked at what happened to outcomes for patients having heart operations in American hospitals on dates when the top cardiologists were away at scientific conventions. You might have thought that patient care would suffer, but in fact Jena found the opposite: mortality rates were lower on those dates than during the rest of the year. Without cardiologists recommending complex procedures, surgeons chose simpler options and saved more lives.

In this data-saturated world, we are more likely than ever to be sucked into the inside view. We are never short of facts and details that conveniently confirm what we prefer to believe – visit the online forums of flat-Earth theorists and you will find they are remarkably well-informed about astronomy. As mini-experts in our chosen domains, we also assume some of the arrogance that can go with the position; the inside view leads, not just to excessive confidence in our own judgement, but to contempt for those who do not share it. I am an enthusiastic advocate of curiosity and learning, but modern life demands we cultivate the art of conscious ignorance. It’s important to step out of the stream now and then. A lot of information can be a dangerous thing. 

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This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning