Time to update our democratic models

Throughout childhood and until late adolescence, our brains are building their internal models of what is out there and how it all works –physical, social, emotional and so on. After that, our core beliefs harden and we find change, according to Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, ‘difficult and painful’. The power of our many cognitive biases skews our view. We attack unwelcome information. The gravity of our personal worlds attracts us to other, similar worlds –people who ‘see it like we do’, whose opinions give us the warm, reassuring pleasure of comfort, familiarity, safety. It all thickens the illusion that our way is the trueway.

I’ve just finished reading The Heretics by Will Storr. It’s part investigation, part memoir, as Storr embeds with homeopaths, faith healers, neo nazis and others with “weird beliefs”.

I’m slowly going through my notes and may pull out some more, but the thing that consistently struck me throughout is what this means for institutional design.

Our democracies absolutely were not built, and have not evolved, with our more sophisticated understanding of how people build beliefs and make decisions. How fallible our memories are, how we capitulate to group think, react and then build post hoc justifications (etc.).

Meanwhile those who wish to take advantage of us certainly have.

In that strange, chemical and alchemical moment when an unconscious decision is made about what to believe, how much is genetic, how much is rational, how much is concerned solely with reinforcing our dearly held models of the world? And how does personality collide with all of this? How does the character of the decider – all that complex emotionality, the calculation of possible outcomes, the current state of mind, the kaleidoscope of motives, the autobiographical heromission – pollute the process? With these questions, we have struck rock. There is no answer.

(My emphasis)

How should we frame foreign aid?

I’ve always been inclined to frame foreign aid in purely self interest terms – helping others makes us all safer, preventing disease etc. But if we want our governments to increase foreign aid is that the best argument?

Terence Wood and Chris Hoy from the Australian National University have done an interesting study on precisely this issue:

All of the treatments, including the basic treatment, increased general approval of aid giving (by roughly ten percentage points) and decreased the percentage of the population who thought Australia gave too much aid by a similar extent. Simply providing people with some tangible detail about what aid is doing, and coupling this with endorsement from an independent expert, is enough to have a substantial impact on support for aid. The specific way aid is framed – basic information, appeals to national interest, altruism, etc. – doesn’t seem to matter much for these improvements.

These are from their dev policy blog post about their paper. (My emphasis)

Increasing the share of Australians who thought Australia gives too little aid was more difficult though. Only the altruism and national interest treatments brought statistically significant increases, and the increases were only in the vicinity of about five percentage points.

There’s more to this story – for one the authors note that this is complicated by what participants believed the intention of the project is. But at the very least this confirms that low information is a major problem and seemingly any discussion is a good discussion.