Very interesting article you linked to, thanks!

I think we need to be careful even with terms like “uninformed” and “facts”.

One way of looking at it is that there are three classes of information:

  • Information to which we have no access
  • Information to which we have access, but which we choose not to acquire
  • Information we acquire

The first class is irrelevant to our decision-making: there is no way that it could influence us – if we properly use all other information to our advantage, we are being boundedly rational.

For the second class, we can consider that the cost of acquisition is deemed too high – this is Bryan Caplan’s rationally irrational voter: it doesn’t pay to get informed.

So it is largely the last class that we use to establish our preference. The question then is, is there a problem with the level of ‘informedness’? I.e. can we say that targeting voters who use “heuristics” rather than “facts” is manipulative and distortive?

I am not so sure. I’ve written about it here:

I think we are biased in our perception of the objectivity of our own decision processes. We believe we are only swayed by “facts”, keeping our emotions at bay, and indeed, as Keynes is reported to have said, “if the facts change, we change our minds”. But what we miss is that it’s not the facts that determine our choices, but the emotions underlying those facts. It’s how the facts make us feel that matters. (I’ve also written about that :-)

We all interpret the facts, and attribute higher or lower weights to them. Often this is influenced by our priors: people who already feel Donald Trump is ‘one of them’, or who see in him the anti-PC, anti-elite candidate they think is more in touch with them, will be much more willing to overlook the outrageous things he has said during the campaign, while for those who already thoroughly dislike the man they will cement their view even more.

In addition, we must not dismiss as non-fact what doesn’t figure high in our perception. Open, free trade may be important for us, but the idea of growing domestic manufacturing again may be important for others. We need to be very careful not to fall in the trap of some orthodox neoclassical economists of assuming that rationality implies only being driven by strictly economic motives. Sometimes people’s preferences really do go against their apparent economic welfare: maybe people are willing to lose out economically to see migration curbed.

Now, if a politician (like Trump) or a proposition (like Brexit) gains support on false pretences, promising people they can have their cake and eat it (about which I have written too!, then that may be a different affair. Politicians who make false promises that they don’t (or indeed cannot) keep may well be punished by the electorate at the next occasion.

But here too we must be careful, and recognize that not everyone makes the same trade-offs as we do. Even if Trump fails to create the millions of manufacturing jobs he has promised, voters may believe (rightly!) that this was never possible anyway, but still stick with him because of their emotional connection with what they perceive as an anti-establishment guy. The same applies to the Brexit vote, where the £350M a week for the NHS was decried (correctly) as misinformation, but didn’t really play a significant role in swaying voters. It was a symbol for sovereignty, and that concept is a matter of emotion, not fact.

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

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