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No uncertain terms

We are all suckers for certainty

Earlier this month, it was announced that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail since 1992, would step down in November of 2018. The Mail is the second best selling newspaper in the UK (after the Sun), with an average of around 1.4 million copies per day in 2017.

It is also, to put it diplomatically, rarely far from controversy, and near-universally despised by people even vaguely on the liberal left for its firmly conservative editorial stance. Recently, in particular its position on immigration is regularly being denounced. Following calls from Stop Funding Hate, a social media campaign launched In 2016 in the wake of the Brexit referendum, Lego decided to end advertising with the paper. In January of this year, Virgin Trains reported it would no longer be selling the Mail on one of its services. An internal memo referred to “considerable concern” about the paper’s “position on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment”, which was “not compatible” with the Virgin’s own beliefs. The decision was reversed one week later, but the media kerfuffle surrounding this episode is illustrative of the Daily Mail’s divisive potential.

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No uncertain terms in the headlines

The comments following the announcement of Paul Dacre’s ‘retirement’ were as predictable as his headlines: praise from one side and vilification from the other. But there was one comment that struck me: Dacre gave his readers certainty. Indeed, one thing you can safely say about the Mail is that it is not a great example of nuance. Just like with their reporting on what causes or cures cancer (or sometimes even cures it the one day, and causes it the other!), their views on immigration, Brexit, crime, social media, human rights, drugs, LBGTQ, Muslims and so on are decisively clear-cut.

Generally we do indeed not like ambiguity. As a young economist, Daniel Ellsberg (who would later gain fame by leaking the Pentagon papers) researched decision making, and came up with an ingenious experiment to establish this ambiguity and uncertainty aversion. Imagine you have two urns in front of you. The left one contains 50 black balls and 50 red ones. The right one also contains black and red balls, but in an unknown ratio, with every of the 101 possibilities equally likely. You can pick one ball from either urn (without peeking), and if that is a red one, you win £100 (or $100 or €100). Which urn do you choose?

Ellsberg found that people overwhelmingly choose the urn with a clear 50/50 chance of a win. How likely is it that you would draw a red ball from the right hand urn? There is a slim chance (1/101, just under 1%) that there are no red balls so you would be guaranteed not to win. But there is an equally small chance that there are only red balls, in which case you’d be guaranteed £100. In the same way, it is possible there’s just one red ball, but it’s equally likely that there is only one black one, etc. On the whole, the chance of winning by picking from the right-hand urn is also 50/50*.

We find this preference for the known and the certain also among the human cognitive biases. Maybe most prominent among them is confirmation bias. Being confronted with facts and evidence that conflicts with our prior beliefs makes us feel uncomfortable, so we prefer information that supports them. Another favourite is status quo bias, which describes our preference for the current, known state of affairs, over the uncertainty of the future. Shall we go on holiday to a different country, or with a different provider? Or still “better the devil you know”? Social proof too is a manifestation of our aversion of uncertainty: when we don’t know what the right thing is to do, we copy others. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” has been losing some of its shine, but for a long time it was a superb illustration of uncertainty aversion in the IT industry. Today, we seek certainty in ratings systems, from eBay ‘s feedback scores to Tripadvisor’s bubbles.

If we are attracted by certainty in situations with balls and urns, holidays or restaurants, then it’s not surprising to see the same thing with even deeper issues of morality. When three judges ruled the government needed the consent of Parliament to give notice to the EU of its intention to leave, did they perhaps have a point? Nope, they were “enemies of the people”. What with gay rights? “NHS to fund sperm bank for lesbians” tells you all you need to know. Are there arguments in favour of legalizing the use of pot? “Cannabis, the terrible truth” leaves no doubt.

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Urns of (un)certainty — photo: Beatrice Murch BY CC

The Daily Mail is exceptionally successful in giving its target audience the simplification and reassurance it so appreciates, and to bind it together in a world view utterly devoid of shades of grey, cognitive dissonance and conflict. But that world view, and indeed that kind of unquestionable and unquestioning world view, which appears as unshakeable as religious scriptures, is of course not for everyone.

Some people feel more at ease with ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity, and believe them to be a better reflection of reality. At first sight that preference looks to be a more rational one than that for unconditional certainty, but to what extent is that true, in particular if we consider striving for happiness as a rational endeavour?

Several studies in the UK (Wales and Essex) and the USA demonstrate a significant positive correlation between happiness and attitude towards Christianity. A similar result was found with respect to Judaism in Israel among female and male participants. A study in Oman observed that, regardless of the religious belief, the level of happiness among people increases with the increasing level of religiousness.

Does the moral certainty that religious people derive from their faith — and by extension perhaps also the moral certainty Daily Mail readers obtain from their daily paper — actually lead to greater happiness? Is a life in which there are few or no uncertain terms a happier life?

Perhaps not so fast. A study, similar to those in the UK, the US and Israel found no correlation between religiosity and happiness among German students. And a meta-analysis on the correlation between religiousness and mental well-being found support “for each position that has been taken within the religiosity-mental health debate”: for a positive relationship, a negative relationship), and indeed no relationship at all.

So it looks like nuance wins out after all. But even people comfortable with ambiguity need some degree of certainty in their lives. Providers of such certainty, real or perceived, will therefore always do well — Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail leading the pack.

*: For a hard proof, imagine there are only 4 balls in the urn, but you don’t know how many of each colour. Each of the five possibilities is equally likely: RRRR (four red balls), RRR+B, RR+BB, R+BBB, and BBBB — each have a 1/5 probability. The chance of picking a red ball for the five possibilities is, respectively, 100%, 75%, 50%, 25% and 0%. To calculate the overall probability, multiply these with the 1/5 probability of each distribution, and add: 100% x 1/5 + 75% x 1/5 + 50% x 1/5 + 25% x 1/5 = 20% + 15% + 10% + 5% = 50% or 1/2. The same reasoning applies for 100 (or any number of) balls.

Originally published at on June 22, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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