I am a Labour member and activist. I spend almost every weekend going out and gathering data for the Labour party. It is my desire for the Labour party to win a general election and kick the conservatives out of power. Yet I find myself conflicted in what I want.
Over the last year, my opinion on Jeremy Corbyn has shifted from generally neutral to dislike, to hate, to my current position, where in a two-way presidential election between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, I’d probably vote for May.
From inside my head, this is all normal. I see myself only on a day-to-day basis, and I see the evolution of every decision I make, every comment I write about politics on Reddit, every rational decision I end up with. But if I can bear to pull away from my own Perfect Understanding of How Everything Fits Together for just one brief moment, I can see that I am not a rational actor, and I have let my emotions cloud my judgement.
There is one false reason why I hate Corbyn, and two true reasons. The false reason is that Corbyn is getting far worse and my reaction is in perfect balance with how he’s doing – a decision that was arrived at logically. Logic may be why I do not agree with Corbyn on certain issues, but it absolutely does not explain the strength of my opposition to him.
True reason 1: confirmation bias, feedback loops and echo-chambers
The brain is an unjustly self-confident being – it is both blind to a great many things, and especially blind to its own blindness. Consider the toupée fallacy, which goes as follows: “Toupées look fake. I don’t know why anyone would ever bother getting one, as I know it’s a toupée every time I see someone wearing one”. This fallacy works on a pair of confirmation biases. Firstly, if we walk past five people with unconvincing toupées and five with convincing ones, we will assume that the five poor toupées are not real hair, and the five convincing ones are real. Unless we actually give all these people’s hair a good tug, we have falsely confirmed our pre-existing belief that all toupées are fake-looking, and we were blind to any evidence that countered our claim. Secondly, suppose we walk past Donald Trump in the street. Despite the fact that Trump has allowed people to test it for themselves, people still refuse to accept that it is, in fact, his real hair. Therefore, not only are we ignoring evidence that we are wrong, but we are also gathering false evidence to support our wrong claim. When the brain’s confirmation bias is shown in this light, everyone can agree it is silly, and assume they would never be so wrong. So let’s examine three example from economics, society and politics where our brains do the same, and we do not notice.
In economics, it is a very common trope that state owned businesses are inefficient and poorly run. As such, when business are fully or partly owned by the state, we don’t think, “good work state – I guess my theory was less true than I had thought”, we generally attribute it to something else, or even more often, remain ignorant of the fact that the state even played a role. Examples of such success include the Conservatives privatising Rolls Royce in 1971, Singapore Airlines (Singapore actually has a huge amount of State owned enterprises), a large number of enterprises in Finland and South Korea, which resulted in both countries moving from almost 3rd world status post WWII to successful economies now, Renault and Thales in France, Petrobas and Embraer in Brazil, etc. Similarly, When private companies are inefficient and poorly run, no one every thinks that such inefficiency is because they are privately run. As such, our brain sticks with the ‘truth’ that is has been told, and all evidence is used to confirm this theory, whether or not that evidence contradicts the theory. [For much more on this, I recommend Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans Chp.5]
In society, if you are straight, you probably haven’t given much thought to the ‘fact’ that gay men act noticeably more effeminate than straight men. Yet once again, the evidence we see gets twisted by assumptions. Suppose you go to a clothes shop and the assistant acts in an effeminate way. In most peoples brains, they will make the conscious assumption that the assistant is gay. They do not notice the subconscious ticker that adds one more ‘point’ to the evidence pile for our initial assumption. Yet, how often is that assumption checked? Do people ask camp assistants if their assumption is true? I imagine that it is a pretty rare occurrence. After we have bought our jeans, we head over to the hardware shop to buy a new hammer. When the muscular, masculine assistant helps us get the best one, our subconscious also makes the assumption that he is straight, and adds this to our evidence pile, but again, is anyone asking him if he is straight? In my personal experience, one of the most amusing examples of this comes from an old university jujitsu club, when the teacher was making remarks that were somewhat anti-gay, utterly unaware of the fact that among his 15 or so male students, 4 were gay, because none of them confirmed to the pre-existing stereotype. Some might be tempted to portray that this assumption is a sign of bigotry, but I would argue that it is not, any more than the economic assumption or the toupée doubters are bigots – all brains, regardless of ‘bigotry’, will start acting with a confirmation bias once it is given a theory and a starting point of data confirming it.
Finally, in politics, the assumption exists that left-wingers care about the poor, whereas right-wingers only care about themselves. Our bias comes through clearly here when politicians start speaking about helping the poor. When someone like Ed Miliband talks about the poorest in society, do we take a healthy scepticism and examine whether he truly believes in this, rather than manipulating it for his gain? It is important to emphasis that the truth of his concern is not the important factor here, but rather our automatic reaction to believe it because he is left wing. Conversely, when Iain Duncan Smith quit the government over concerns for welfare, it was instantly said to be insincere. Equally true of Theresa May’s first speech, which suggested she was going to work on social justice, and which was written off as lies by a number of commentators. Again, it doesn’t matter if they both were lying, what matters is whether we think they are lying because we carefully checked their claims against their actions, or whether we allowed this evidence to instantly confirm our pre-existing bias. It is worth noting, although not conclusive, that there actually is a decent (1) amount (2)of evidence (3) that conservatives tend to give more to charity than left wingers.
So the first thing is that my brain decides on a belief and uses an unfair evidence system to support it, but the situation gets much worse, due to feedback loops in the mind. Our brains have a bizarre characteristic called neuroplasticity, wherein we can literally change the physical structure of our brains by the way we think. Think of a neural pathway as the same as a path you may choose to run across a field. Initially, it is just grass, but over time the track is worn in, and that particular path becomes both the norm, and easier to run on. So take for example that one starts thinking initially that, for example, the European Union is a poor idea. If one only thinks about the EU once every few weeks, then the idea will remain lightly negative. However, for the last 6 months, people were forced to think about the issue (at a wild estimate) 100 times as often, and so the idea “the EU is a poor idea” was given the chance to very quickly be engraved into people’s minds, and so without any additional evidence, people became more certain of the idea that it was a poor idea, and equally people who were lightly positive became more certain that it was a good idea.
So as it is, an idea, probably based on a biased evidence system, has the potential to become deeply ingrained in the brain if it is repeated often enough. But these ideas surely won’t matter too much, since we are constantly being bombarded with evidence from both sides? Nope. A natural effect in society is that we tend to create social groups with like-minded individuals. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that we are completely unaware that we are doing it. In my favourite article ever, Alexander Scott’s I can tolerate anything but the outgroup, Scott explains his take on American society, where around half the population does not support abortion, yet he doesn’t know a single person with this opinion. That would make sense if all the democrats lived in California, and all the Republicans in Florida, and they never met. However, that isn’t the case. Within one city, for example, London, one might behind someone completely different in the queue at Starbucks, or sit beside one such person in the tube, yet we create social bubbles where these different societies are living among each other yet never seem to interact. As I saw on my Facebook feed shortly before the EU referendum, one friend wrote a status to the effect of ‘Why are the polls saying it’s 50:50?! Who are these people are voting leave? I don’t know a single one!’ Yet, our human nature to create this echo-chambers of our own beliefs is even strengthen further by Facebook itself, whose algorithm was revealed to show on our feed the friends whose statuses we liked more than those we didn’t, i.e reinforcing the ideas we already believed and spiriting away those that did not conform.
So the first true reason why I utterly hate Jeremy Corbyn is that I started off disliking him, just the tiniest bit more than I liked him, and my brain did the rest. It ignored the evidence that didn’t fit my initial judgement, it repeated that opinion until it was the natural path for all my Corbyn related thoughts, and created a space where all the pro-Corbyn news was from sources I didn’t trust, whereas all the clever people were repeating the opinions I wanted to hear them say.
True reason 2: I have an emotional investment in being right.
As much as it was difficult to write so far around 1500 words on why my brain is a shitty tool for fairly analysing data, this part is even harder to admit.
If you were to ask me the day after Corbyn’s election “how would you feel if Corbyn became prime minister, he implemented a hard-left agenda, and the whole thing was a massive success?”, my response would probably be “Well I’m pretty certain that that’s not going to happen, but if it did, that would be great!” It is difficult to admit to this, but in truth my answer to that question today would be “I’d be fucking furious”. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I also suspect that deep down, a lot of Labour members who have argued against Corbyn feel the same way. Again, assumption, but I imagine that most Corbyn supporters deep down would feel the same to the question “How would you feel if Liz Kendall threw her hat in the race at the last moment, won it, won a landslide in a GE and was fantastically successful as a centrist PM?”.
You see, I write comments on reddit almost daily concerning politics, and these days that almost always involves some sort of comment on Corbyn. Each one of these comments contains a bit of my opinion, so in a way it contains a bit of me. Over the course of a year, I have become personally invested in a series of predictions, most notably that Corbyn has less than a 1% chance at winning a majority in a GE. In my head, I see myself as an individual, and my predictions and thoughts on politics are completely separate. In truth, the two are deeply intertwined, and if I did not think those things, that would have a pretty big change on my identity. If my predictions turn out to be wrong, I will face the painful realisation that I am not as good as I think I am at such things, and no one enjoys this kind of hard truth.
However, it is more than just my personal identity that is invested here, but also how others see me. Every single one of us craves approval from our peers, whether we admit so or not. It is necessary to our psychological health that we feel valued, and part of that is that the people around us don’t think that we are complete idiots. As such, we all have an investment in any prediction we make, as a correct prediction will boost our standing among our peers, and means they will place further trust and value on any subsequent predictions we make. Conversely, if we call it wrong, we risk our peers thinking that our opinion is worthless, and any future predictions ought to be ignored.
So the truth is that for both my self-esteem and to hold a position of worth among either my friends I know in politics, or among those commenters on reddit, I hold a deep personal investment in being correct, even at the risk of everything going terribly. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most people are a lot more self-serving than they would admit to. As such, I see it as a preferable outcome for everything to go wrong, as I predicted, than for my prediction to fail and everything to go right, and there’s a good chance other people do too.
This is a deeply dangerous situation. I doubt I am going to do anything to hurt my party’s chances of winning (at least not consciously), but those familiar with game theory will know the perils in having a large number of actors in a position where they have a vested interest in their own team’s failure.
I do not know a way out of the situation I have created, or that has been created for almost every member of the Labour party, seeing as the party is more or less split in two, with each half deeply invested in the idea that the other half’s plan will be an absolute disaster. However, surely it must be a step forward to have recognised that there is a problem.
This is not an article about me being wrong to oppose Corbyn – I believe I am correct to do so. However, this is an investigation as to why my mild opposition has become so deeply held that I’m willing to vote for Theresa May over my own party leader. I believe that somewhere along the line, my rational thoughts have been weakened by cancer of irrational ones, that only serve to bleed dry my ability to construct objective predictions and analysis of what I see.
I doubt I will become pro-Corbyn any time soon, but for the good of my own health, it is my aim to remove the anger, and remove the incentive to see my own party fail.