It’s an irrational world – and better for it

My wife had a problem with her car over Christmas, which took fully six weeks, a lot of annoyance, and a lot of stress to get fixed properly. The following week, I decided that I had better have mine (a different brand) checked for potentially the same problems, left it at the garage for an hour, and returned to be informed that it had indeed had a problem but it was fixed now and there would, quite naturally, be no charge. This is not a one-off – both UK and global surveys indicate clearly that dealer service at my brand is significantly superior than at my wife’s (which consistently ranks well below average).

Here’s the thing: my wife’s brand sells twelve times more cars in the UK every year than mine does – even though they are not demonstrably better cars and the performance of their sales and services teams is significantly inferior.

In a world where we were all rational, of course, this simply would not happen. But newsflash – we are not.

It pays to reflect on this as we approach an election too. Some people in politics, particularly young people, make two understandable but significant errors: they assume that voters will behave rationally; and they also think it is more important who wins than it actually is. The two errors are linked.

Let us veer away again… In November 1963, while his motorcade passed through Dallas, the President of the United States was shot and killed by a madman. This event has spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories, but in fact that is all that happened – he was shot and killed by a madman. The reason for all the (entirely irrational) conspiracy theories is that we are averse to chaos and we simply cannot live with the idea that the President of the world’s foremost political power can simply be shot and killed by a madman. It is comforting to believe that there was some greater power at work; perhaps an evil genius of some sort; or perhaps operatives from another similar power. It is unpalatable to believe in an ordered secure world that a random citizen can simply lift a gun and murder the President. Yet, as I have written before, just because something is unpalatable does not make it untrue. That is, after all, precisely what happened.

It is worth tying these together. Politicians have significantly less power than we suggest they have; one reason for this is that we like the idea we are in an ordered secure world with someone (and, better still, someone accountable) in charge. It is also a significant fact of human psychology that we like someone to blame when things go wrong – fans of a losing football team blame the manager (rarely the players) and citizens of declining society blame the Prime Minister or President. There is something comforting in the notion that even when things go horribly wrong, we can fix them again simply by changing Leader, as if there are no deeper problems within the team (football) or within society (politics) that we need to fix too!

A large part of this is our own irrationality. We know in our heads that politicians are pretty powerless (arguably increasingly so in a world of fast travel, global trade and instant communication). There is something inside that tells us that we all contribute to society’s ills, foibles and unfairnesses (and that indeed the politicians we elect merely reflect these). Most of all, we all have pre-ordained belief systems tied to our emotions (the very things which make us human, not robots) and we will apply the facts and cases we hear to those – our beliefs create our evidence, not the other way around.

By and large, it is a good thing we are irrational. Our national identity usually gives us a sense of collectivity and common good. We know that announcement on planes about turning all electronic equipment off “in case it tampers with the controls” is garbage, but we buy into it anyway (for the sake, in fact, of communications equipment on the ground). Indeed, how on earth would we reason our way to admiring a night sky, remarking on a beautiful landscape, or most obviously of all falling in love?

After the terribly inaccurate polls of 1992 one columnist noted that the polls would have been right if voters behaved predictably “like electrons” – “But we need to remember that elections are decided not by electrons, but by electors”. A successful campaign, therefore, will appeal to emotion more than reason, because that is how we humans operate. The good news for failed campaigns is it doesn’t matter that much – society runs itself, politicians are only there for us to blame when we mess it up…

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2 thoughts on “It’s an irrational world – and better for it

  1. Jane M says:

    ” my wife’s brand sells twelve times more cars in the UK every year than mine does – even though they are not demonstrably better cars and the performance of their sales and services teams is significantly inferior. In a world where we were all rational, of course, this simply would not happen”

    Are you saying your wife is irrational?

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