Undercover Economist

Wishful thinking in politics is a recipe for foolishness

Shortly after the hilarious UK election, I had the opportunity to ask a Conservative politician (retired, centrist) what he made of the result. “Good news for a soft Brexit,” was one of his conclusions. That was my impression, too. Since both of us were Remainers, it was a comforting thought.

And then I reflected for a moment. Back when Theresa May was expected to secure a stonking majority, wasn’t that also supposed to be good news for a soft Brexit? I reflected on how I’d felt when Mrs May called the election. My dismay at the political choices on offer was offset a little by the hope that, with a clear victory, Mrs May would be unafraid of the extremist Eurosceptics.

I was forced to admit that I could take almost any scenario and produce a soothing interpretation of it. Wishful thinking is a powerful thing, and common. Recently the data journalist Nate Silver wrote that “Donald Trump is making Europe liberal again” and explored the possibility that Mr Trump’s toxic reputation in Europe was helping to suppress the far-right from Austria’s Freedom party and France’s Front National to Britain’s UK Independence party. Mr Silver made a good case, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was widely shared among my European liberal friends because it’s exactly what they wanted to believe.

A more scientific illustration of the same tendency in US politics comes courtesy of the psychologists Ben Tappin, Leslie van der Leer and Ryan McKay. The researchers wanted to tease apart two psychological tendencies that are often conflated: confirmation bias and desirability bias. Desirability bias is wishful thinking: we see what we want to see. Confirmation bias is our tendency to see what we expect to see (now that I’m aware of confirmation bias, I see it everywhere).

A month before the US presidential election, Mr Tappin and his colleagues recruited US-based experimental participants in four categories: Hillary Clinton supporters who expected her to win, Trump supporters who expected him to win, and supporters of each candidate who expected to be disappointed. Then the researchers showed their participants fresh opinion poll data that suggested either that Mrs Clinton was likely to win, or that Mr Trump was.

The research suggested that people seized not upon what they expected to see, but what they hoped to see instead. They tended to focus on encouraging evidence, whether or not it was surprising. They ignored unwelcome evidence. Desirability bias was stronger than confirmation bias.

There is a place in the world for wishful thinking — for example, in business. Without the sunny overconfidence of entrepreneurs few good ideas would ever get off the ground, because the chances of failure are so high.

Even the successes tend to generate more benefits for customers than shareholders. One study, by the great economist Bill Nordhaus, concluded that US companies retained less than 4 per cent of the social value of their innovation. The other 96 per cent went to customers. Given their inability to profit even when things go well, rational entrepreneurs would never quit their day jobs. Business innovation is built on the back of giddy optimism.

Wishful thinking even has its role in politics. The quest for marriage equality, for civil rights, for votes for women and for the abolition of slavery were all once distant dreams. Emmanuel Macron has surfed to success on a wave of optimism that an untested centrist can fix what ails France; I hope he succeeds, but hope alone will not be enough.

In many cases wishful thinking in politics is a recipe for foolishness. Much of Mr Trump’s appeal lay in the idea that the people who said policy was complicated were lying. Solutions were simple if you were strong and smart. It turns out that wishful thinking does not solve problems, but creates them.

Wishful thinking infects the political left, too. Many diehard Democrats seem bewildered that Republicans have had five full months to impeach their own man and still haven’t done it. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn and his fan base have been enthused by his better than expected performance but seem not to have noticed that he lost the election.

Last year’s Brexit campaign was based on a simple piece of wishful thinking: Boris Johnson’s idea that the UK could have its cake and eat it. How, exactly, was never quite clear, but desirability bias gave a foolish idea more credibility than it deserved. Voters hoped that Mr Johnson was right, and so they began to believe him: it is so much easier to believe what we already wish is true.

That glib optimism stood in stark contrast to what experienced technocrats were saying behind the scenes. They warned that the UK simply didn’t have the time, the people or the expertise we needed to handle the process of leaving and then forging new trade agreements.

Mr Johnson told us that things were easy; the mandarins cautioned that they were difficult. I have my suspicions as to who will be proved correct, but we already know which proposition resonated with the voters. We need to be careful what we wish for.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 June 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – out last week in the UK and coming soon in the US. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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