I spent part of the morning reading a conversation between Sam Harris and Daniel Kahneman. In an almost textbook example of priming, when I saw something that I already believe, it led me to accord a greater degree of importance to the conversation. Soon I was connecting dots all over the place, and this post is a culmination of that rabbit hole that I hurled myself down.
Harris and Kahneman talk about the asymmetry of morality. How human beings have evolved to avoid loss much more than pursue gain. Consider the following scenarios: we tell a person that they have two options. Out of 100 people, they can either save 60 people, or take a gamble in which we they have 3/5 chance of saving all 100 people. Imagine another scenario in which we tell a person that they can either kill 40 people out of a 100, or take a gamble in which they have a 2/5 chance of killing everyone. The two scenarios are obviously identical. However, in most cases, the person will choose to save 60 people in the first scenario, and choose to take a gamble in the second scenario. Killing 40 people for sure objectively sounds worse than saving 60 people for sure, although these two choices are exactly the same. Actively harming someone seems much worse than refusing to reward someone.
I have referred to this phenomenon in an earlier blogpost as well. Donald Knuth said in an interview that in order to lead a satisfying life, one must reduce loss and regret much more actively than pursue happiness and success. Now Kahneman also reiterates this sentiment, expressing the view that we may have evolutionarily evolved to minimize or avoid losses much more actively than pursue gains. This may be because a loss in the jungle might mean a loss of life or mobility, while a gain might just mean perhaps greater strength or a richer food source. Animals pursuing greater strength or better food sources while jeopardizing their safety would have a lower chance of survival than animals focusing on just watching their backs and focusing on not dying. Hence, more of these animals would have survived through the eons, passing these genes on to us.
How may this apply to politics and and public policy? Take a country like India. We may consider ourselves to be a developing nation. However, roads in many places are full of potholes, women feel unsafe in many areas, water is not potable, there is rampant caste discrimination, etc. However, despite these many hindrances in our daily lives, our voting record would show that a majority of Indian citizens do not vote for development. We mostly vote along caste or religious lines. Why is that? Do we not want better roads or clean drinking water?
This may be because this is the way things have always been. The country has never had much better roads, potable drinking water, etc in the past. Hence, because we’ve never had it, we can’t imagine what losing it would be. The poor family living in the slums does not actively day dream about how living in a better house would be, and how this possibility is being snatched away from them. Hence, people vote based on their deep seated sympathies for their own tribe, whether it be caste, religion, etc.
Now contrast this with the farmer’s protests rocking the country right now. The farmers have been guaranteed a good price for their produce for a very long time. Now the government is threatening to take away that guarantee, at least in the long term if not immediately. The government is snatching away something that farmers have had for a long time. This loss feels much worse than the government not building better roads or infrastructure for the farmers, although objectively the latter is much worse. Hence, farmers have been demonstrating against the ruling government for months, and this is by far the most serious challenge to the government’s authority.
Is this moral asymmetry exploited in politics? All the time. How did India’s BJP sell their Hindutva agenda to the population? They asked us to imagine what a perfect Hindu state or Ram Rajya would be like. It would be a perfect society without vice or corruption, as described in great detail in our mythological stories. Hence, when they claim that this is what our previous governments have denied us, it feels like a personal loss. We feel enraged at other political party (Indian National Congress) for denying what was rightfully ours.
How are refugees demonized everywhere in the world? Our political leaders make us imagine refugees come in and steal our property, sexually abuse women, etc. Although refugees have also been consistently known to revitalize the economy and herald unprecedented developments in science and technology, our potential losses, which have never really systematically been seen in data, seem much more unbearable than the benefits that refugees have provided us for more than a century. This prompts large parts of the population to vote against accepting refugees, although they’re aware of the terrible conditions that refugees live in. This is how India justified its refusal to accept Rohingya refugees, and much of Europe refuses to accept refugees from Africa and Asia.
Is there any way to be able to escape this cognitive bias? To perhaps not let our political leaders manipulate us as easily? I’m not sure. But I hope that being aware of this bias in the first place forms part of the solution