A cocktail of biases
Jumping to conclusions — the easiest kind of exercise, especially on a Sunday morning
I learned three things this week: two things I didn’t know, and one thing I did know, but regularly seem to forget. All of this occurred in less than 10 minutes, last Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn. Here is what happened.
I was listening to the morning news show on Belgian radio, and just after 6am I heard that the people of Australia observe Father’s Day on the first Sunday in September. Well, why not, I thought — they celebrate Christmas in high Summer, and they walk upside down, so it’s hardly the most unusual thing about Oz from the point of view of a dude in Western Europe.
And certainly not particularly worthy of a news report. But there was something afoot with Australian Father’s Day. Every year for the last 15 years, the non-profit organization Dads4Kids produces a television commercial to mark the occasion, encouraging fathers to “love their children and put their families first”. A bit sentimental maybe, but going by this year’s edition, they are really quite charming. Nevertheless, the advert got pulled by the free-to-air TV industry body in Australia.
The reason? The commercial could be seen as making a political statement: it featured only families with mum, dad and children. No trace of same-sex two-dad families.
That is the kind of news item that does wake one up well and good early on a Sunday. Such censorship truly is political correctness gone mad.
But then I learned a second thing. There was more, much more to this, than met the eye. Same-sex marriage is a hot topic in Australia, dominating national politics to an extent way beyond its social significance. In the last election campaign, in a move reminiscent of David Cameron’s regarding the UK’s membership of the EU, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had promised to hold a referendum on the subject. However, a referendum requires legislation, and parliament voted against the government (which has a majority of just one seat). The government had a plan-B, though: a postal plebiscite, a bit like an official survey (run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics). This will now take place this month, after a legal challenge by one of the two sides failed.
Why is this plebiscite such a big deal? Recent opinion polls suggest more than 65% of Australians are in favour of same-sex marriage, with a little over 20% against. Australia has compulsory voting, so a referendum would most likely have led to the legislation that would implement it. Conservatives, both within Turnbull’s own Liberal party, and with his coalition partners ensured that wouldn’t go ahead. A plebiscite, however, is both voluntary and non-binding, so it is far less certain that there will be a majority of the votes in favour. That means the outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion. And in such a high-tension environment, innocuous commercials may well turn into political statements.
The third, and most important, thing I learned (or rather re-learned) is how easily my judgement gets clouded by my opinions, especially the stronger ones. At first, I actually thought the ad was being retracted because of conservative objections to the portrayal of same-sex couples. Only as I started paying more attention to the report did I realize that it was the fact that the families depicted were all deeply traditional that was the problem — not that it contained something too shockingly unconventional. Even so, I still assumed it was political correctness gone mad.
Thankfully, I was (literally) laid back on the sofa in a quiet house, and I discovered the complexity of the detail without any effort on my part, simply by keeping my ears open. I am not sure I would so easily let go of my prior assumptions and prejudices in other, less relaxed circumstances. The knee-jerk reaction I experienced not once but twice in less than a minute is due to a cocktail of several cognitive biases. I would expect conservatives to object to the depiction of alternatively composed households, therefore I immediately assumed that this is what was happening here. I was victim to selective perception, combining a few snippets into a fictitious story that fed my confirmation bias, even though the actual facts were in conflict with my belief. I could also be accused of congruence bias: censoring inoffensive commercials is not something you find in liberal democracies, and if it happens there, then it must be crazy political correctness.
The cognitive dissonance as the full story unfolded, and as I felt my mind changing was palpable, and I was rather annoyed I’d let myself be taken in so easily. Still, let it be a lesson (until the next time).
Before leaving this story it’s worth making another observation — not about my own fallibility, but about the intriguing tension between two polarized tribes, and the counterintuitive game theory involved. Why did the conservatives back a plebiscite that might produce a majority in favour of same-sex marriage? And why would pro-same-sex campaigners take the government to court to try and stop the plebiscite that might support their cause?
Human nature can be quirky and inexplicable, but a likely explanation lies in the non-compulsory nature of the vote. The support for equal rights for same-sex couples is much higher among younger people than among the over-60s (where it is just 50%). Younger people generally are less likely to vote, so a possible motivation for conservative opponents of equal-rights legislation is that they might benefit from this. If enough young people fail to vote, the plebiscite might produce a ‘No’ outcome. This would remove the issue from the political agenda for the foreseeable future. It is a risk, but it’s one worth taking.
For proponents, the risk is the other way round. Even though public opinion is strongly with them, there is a real chance that the opponents might win the plebiscite. This means they had a good reason for challenging the government and prevent it from taking place.
Sometimes things are not quite what they seem. If we want to better understand the world around us we sometimes have to take a few steps back and leave behind our prejudices and certainties. Wisdom doesn’t come easy.
Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on September 8, 2017.
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