Choice at elections: Rationally ignorant people will decide the final outcome !
Monday, 5 January 2015 00:00
Electors who do not read manifestos
Just three more days to go for the election of a President, this writer asked a group of acquaintances whether they have gone through the election manifestos of the two main contenders to the post before they made their choice. The answer was a resounding ‘nape’.
How voters make choices at elections or behave after elections is not unusual or atypical of Sri Lankan voters
A similar question was posed by this writer to a group of middle level public servants two years after the previous Presidential election that confirmed the incumbent President in the post for a further term: Had they gone through ‘Mahinda Chinthana II,’ containing a vision for the future which was the policy package being implemented by the Government since 2010? Only two out of about 50 public servants had done so.
Even then, those two had gone through the document not to make an informed choice at the election or educate them of the main ingredients of the policy package being implemented. They had done so as preparatory work for a career advancement examination at the work place in the belief that there would be questions based on the document. Now that the examination was over and there were no questions from the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ they had conveniently forgotten what it had contained.
But when they buy products, they are very careful
This observation of how voters make choices at elections or behave after elections is not unusual or atypical of Sri Lankan voters. Voters throughout the globe, made up of wise men and women called Homo sapiens, have been behaving in the same manner: Choosing their rulers without bothering even to look at what they have promised to do for them once they have been elected to office. But when it comes to buying goods, especially durable goods, they have been extra careful about learning everything about a product by going through catalogues laboriously, making appropriate inquiries from previous users and logging into internet to learn of both pluses and minuses of the products under consideration.
A careful evaluation is then made by comparing prices with the characteristics of the goods chosen for purchase. The main rule of choice is that the good so purchased should bring a social value, that is, the private pleasure as a user plus the social recognition which the good may bring to him for being one of its users, over and above the money they have sacrificed to acquire the same. This is perfect rational behaviour whereas the behaviour shown as voters is far from it.
Kautilyan remedy: Teach people everything they should know
It is a contrasting behaviour and it affects the political side of a nation adversely. In ancient India, kings paid special attention to any deficiency that may occur in the political life of a people. Kautilya, the 4th century BCE Indian economist and statesman, in his treatise on economics, The Arthashastra, promoted the leaning of philosophy by everyone because it “helps one to distinguish between dharma (good) and adharma (evil) in the study of Vedas (guide to spiritual life), between material gain and loss in the study of economics and between good and bad policies in the study of politics”. Above all, he further elaborated that “it teaches one the distinction between the good and bad use of force”.
In addition, learning of philosophy benefits a person because it would keep “his mind steady in adversity and prosperity and he is made proficient in thought, speech and action”. In addition, he recommended that people should learn auxiliary sciences that include history, grammar, etymology, poetry and astronomy that are needed for a prosperous lay life. Thus, the Kautilyan remedy was to enhance the capacity of people as free thinkers by making them a learned group so that they are able to make choices quite appropriate for them.
When people are an informed group, it also checks the excessive use of power by a king since his legitimacy is acquired through people’s loyalty. Thus, the presence of a knowledgeable group of citizens in a country helps, according to Kautilya, the king more than the citizens. When people follow their own dharma, “it will prosper them ever and not cause them to perish”. Thus, Kautilya recommended to his king that he should “never allow people to swerve their dharma”. That was the philosophy of educating a nation by an ancient statesman.
Personal sacrifices are valued but not group sacrifices
But the behaviour of people today is different from that of those who had lived in ancient India. When there is immediate sacrifice of money, a person today is careful about getting the best social value for himself. But, when it comes to elections where there is no immediate sacrifice of money but sacrifices are made (or benefits are gained) as social groups, individuals make choices carelessly. Why should they show this freak behaviour on their part?
Economists have found four different types of behaviour by people in this regard. They are called ‘Rational knowledge, Irrational knowledge, Rational ignorance and Irrational ignorance’.
Rational people to compare costs and benefits
Thus, rationality and its opposite, irrationality, are the basis of human behaviour. What does rationality mean? It means a behaviour in which people will take into account all costs and benefits of their action and engage in such action if and only if benefits are sufficient to compensate for costs. In other words, they engage in a particular action if and only if benefits are higher than costs. If on the other hand, they engage in a particular action when the costs are higher than benefits, then, their behaviour is irrational.
Such irrational people are guided by emotions and when emotions like fear, love or hatred overwhelm them, they cannot calculate benefits and costs accurately. Emotions can take a positive form such as love or liking. In that case, a person propelled by love may overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. His choice is therefore not the best. Emotions can also take a negative form such as fear, dislike or hatred. When one is guided by these emotional feelings, he tends to overestimate costs and underestimate benefits.
Rational men make choices from head and not from heart
Accordingly, a rational man should have several attributes. He chooses the best for him which economists call the optimal choice after carefully considering all the costs and benefits of his choice. To do so, he acquires all the relevant information necessary. Once he makes his choice, he is consistent and does not contradict himself later. He is motivated by incentives and if there is a profit opportunity, he never misses it. To be able to make optimal choices for himself, he builds a store of knowledge within himself or within easy reach. He continuously updates his knowledge by being a constant learner. He does not intellectually depend on anyone else and, given a situation, can make rational and best choices for him.
Thus, in terms of the popular usage, the rational man makes decisions not from his heart, but from his head.
Irrational behaviour makes economic and political theories a mockery
All economic and political theories have been based on this rational man. When irrationality is introduced, economic and political theories collapse because then there is no man with capability and willingness to make optimal choices.
In economic choices, it affects the utility maximising consumer, profit maximising firm and public good maximising government. In politics, it affects the government he elects to rule over him. Thus in politics, when people are irrational, the governments chosen by them are not the best.
Armouries of a rational man
In this manner, information processing capacity and knowledge build-up are the armouries of a rational man. At an election, he is supposed to make use of these powers effectively to assess the manifestos presented by different political candidates and make an informed choice. But whether he could do so will depend on the type of behaviour he would depict in his choice of the candidate standing for election.
People with rational knowledge learn by themselves
In this respect, the person with ‘rational knowledge’ is the ideal person to have in a well organised political society. This person will go through the manifestos very carefully, compare and contrast them, view them in historical, current and future settings and make his choice if and only if he finds that the benefits are greater than costs. But it is very rarely that one would find people with such rational knowledge without boundaries or limitations for them to act rationally.
But, people’s rationality is bounded by information, time and brain power
This gives rise to the concept of ‘bounded rationality’ proposed by the Carnegie Mellon University Professor Herbert A. Simon as far back as 1957. He found several flaws in the concept of rationality accepted by the mainstream economists without any limit or boundary. Using his multi-disciplinary knowledge of sociology, psychology, political science and economics, Simon suggested that men are inflicted by three handicaps.
First, men are unable to calculate the relevant probabilities of an outcome of an action they have taken. This pertains to the inability of gathering the required information to make an informed choice. Second, even if they can gather the relevant information, they have the limitation of understanding and interpreting such information. This he called the limitation on the cognitive power of people, that is, their ability to think, learn, understand, reason and remember. As a result, human memories are weak, incapable and unreliable when it comes to making optimal choices. Third, people do not have time to make optimal choices by considering all the facts.
People just ‘satisfice’ and don’t make the best decisions
Hence, they make decisions but those decisions are not optimal decisions. They are rational, but not to the extent of the unbounded rationality assumed in economics. This special rationality which is constrained by the above boundaries, namely, lack of information, lack of brain power and lack of time, was termed by Simon as ‘bounded rationality’.
Then, if people do not optimise, what do they do? They would simply make the first choice by considering only the available information and available time based on their brain capacity rather than going for the best.
Herbert Simon coined a special term to describe this by combining the two words ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’. That term was ‘satisfice’ and those who practice satisficing were called ‘satisficers’.
Rationally-ignorant people will depend on others
Thus, people who have these limitations concerning the acquisition of rational knowledge will choose to become rationally ignorant or just satisfice with the available information. They are rational because they still assess the costs and benefits. But finding that the costs are too much for them will seek to keep them at a zero level by getting others to bear the costs. In other words, they wait until others study the manifestos and educate them of the relative pluses and minuses in them. They accordingly jump the bandwagon of those who have acquired the knowledge and become free riders by tapping their knowledge. Thus, they remain ignorant on their own but are guided by those who have the knowledge.
Many in today’s society who do not study the manifestos by themselves belong to this rationally ignorant group. But they seek to fill the deficiency by learning from others. If those who have acquired knowledge have a personal interest in misleading this group, then, choosing to be ignorant will be immensely costly to them. The truth of this can be realised by watching political debates on TV in which debaters posing as professionals, political scientists or independent analysts are in the habit of presenting distorted views on manifestos to their viewers.
Emotionally-driven irrational people are the core-voter base of political parties
The other two groups, one with irrational knowledge and the other with irrational ignorance, are all emotionally driven groups. The first category is so emotionally propelled that it acquires only information supporting its views and opposing the views of the rivals. For instance, at an election, they seek to learn only the information pertaining to the party they belong to. They invest their money, time and energy to acquire that knowledge but that knowledge is partial and incomplete. They blindly follow the party line and see only its virtues. At the same time, they accept without question all the demerits which their party attributes to opponents.
Those with irrational ignorance are also propelled by emotions but they, unlike the other group, do not learn about even the party line. Thus, they remain ignorant with respect to what the party does or what it attributes to its opponents. Though they are ignorant, they are emotionally tied to their party. These two groups constitute the core voters which every political party has. They do not change their views over the time and the political parties can therefore depend on their support equally in both victory and defeat.
Floating voters are either rationally knowledgeable or ignorant
It is now obvious that what is normally known as floating voters are those with rational knowledge and rational ignorance. They have no permanent loyalty to any political party and change their views from time to time based on the new information they have acquired. The group with rational knowledge will do so on their own acquiring the needed information and processing it to reach correct judgments. This group cannot be manipulated by political parties to their advantage, but it is a very small group.
But the group with rational ignorance will depend on others to get the necessary knowledge. From the point of view of a political party, this group can be easily manipulated by planting misinformation and disinformation on them. The massive wave of the political propaganda being used by the two contenders to the post of president has targeted to have this group converted to their side.
It is the rationally ignorant people who decide on the outcome of an election
Thus, the outcome of an election is determined by these floating voters, since political parties can always depend on their core-voter base consisting of those with irrational knowledge and irrational ignorance. Manifestos do not matter to them. Those with rational knowledge or rational ignorance have no permanent loyalty to any party.
Since those with rational knowledge are too smart to be manipulated, political parties always seek to target those with rational ignorance. Hence, political parties seek to win them over to their side through a successful propaganda campaign. In the current Presidential election campaign, it could be seen that this latter group is constantly shifting its loyalty from one candidate to the other.
Thus, it is not rationally knowledgeable people who will elect the next president. Unfortunately, it is the rationally ignorant people who will do so. They will do so on the strength of the misinformation and disinformation that is planted on them by the campaign designers of political parties. Thus, the last minute misinformation and disinformation planted on them matter a lot to the final outcome of the election.
(W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at [email protected])