Political beliefs cloud people’s judgement on policy decisions
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Outside of a few pieces in the opinion pages of this newspaper, it is not easy to find too many essays that analyse the impact of the withdrawal of high-value currency notes in a dispassionate and objective manner. If you go by most commentators on the topic, this move is either a masterstroke that will do wonders to reduce corruption and black money in India, or it is a complete economic and social disaster, one that will cripple the economy for years to come.
Moreover, as Niranjan Rajadhyaksha remarked in his column on Wednesday, there seems to be an “exponential growth in the number of economists” in India, given the number of people who are weighing in with their opinions on this complex monetary issue. While the complexity does not make it easy to analyse, prior beliefs mean that it is not hard to form an opinion, and to strengthen it.
Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, conducted a straw poll on Twitter on Tuesday to gauge people’s support for demonetisation, and for the prime minster in general. While online polls are unscientific and notoriously unreliable, one nugget from this poll by Pai was hard to miss—only about 13% of the 1,800 or so respondents had differing opinions about the PM and his latest piece of policy.
This is similar to what we have seen in the PM’s approval rating polls that Mint has conducted in association with InstaVaani—people’s approval of the PM is heavily correlated to their approval of his government’s policies.
What these polls show is that in the absence of reasoned argument and evidence, people fall back upon their political preferences in order to form their opinions about any issue. Most people in India, for example, can be expected to strongly subscribe to one of the following views.
1. The PM is a great man, and every policy decision of his government is a stroke of genius.
2. The PM is incompetent, and every policy decision of his government is regressive and anti-people.
These priors help form a reasonable first approximation in people’s minds on whether a particular policy proposal is good. While this is a reasonable approximation to make, and indeed rational in the absence of additional information, the strength of these priors, and the lack of opportunity to update them, results in a serious problem.
Most people nowadays are part of informal Internet-based groups, either mailing lists (a dying breed) or (more commonly) WhatsApp groups. Considering that most people start with extreme opinions, one of two things can happen in the group.
Firstly, if there are two people in the group with strong and opposing opinions, the group can descend into a flame war, as these opposing parties continuously talk past each other. When prior beliefs are really strong, no party is able to update their opinions based on the evidence on offer.
The other possibility is that the group ends up becoming a so-called echo chamber. A group of people who strongly believe in one of the priors dominate the discussion, and people with opposing viewpoints, rather than risking an argument with a vocal majority of the group, choose to stay quiet.
This phenomenon, where groups seemingly come to a consensus on a topic is known as groupthink, and was first introduced by Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist who based his research on discussions preceding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1962.
While the average newspaper columnist can be expected to be more knowledgeable and discerning than the average citizen, the problem is that the commentators are themselves not immune to strongly believing in their priors, and this can affect how their commentary is received.
Consider, for example, a commentator who has been consistently critical of the government in the past. While this might be a function of the topics that he has written on, it is not unreasonable to expect people to conclude that this commentator has a strong anti-government prior belief. If such a commentator attacks the government on an issue, the information content in such an attack is very low—since people will attribute the column to the columnist’s prior beliefs rather than dispassionate analysis.
Similarly, a commentator who has gained a reputation for defending the government at every possible opportunity gives out very little information content by defending the government again on a particular issue.
In the case of the demonetisation issue so far, most opinion pieces critical of the move have come from columnists and publications who have had a historical reputation of being critical of the current government, and most opinion pieces in favour have come from columnists and publications who have historically defended this government.
Thus, from an information perspective, the credibility of most of these columns has been low, giving people a lower opportunity to update their prior beliefs.
While we have seen that closed groups such as WhatsApp groups can result in the formation of echo chambers, even open social forums such as Twitter are not immune to such opinion formation. While Twitter theoretically gives people the opportunity to be exposed to diverse views, confirmation bias means that they selectively choose to read and share commentary that fits their prior beliefs.
Confirmation bias is a logical fallacy where people interpret news and opinions in a way that fits their prior beliefs.
Anecdotally speaking, while the demonetisation issue has ruled Indian Twitter ever since the policy decision was announced, there has been very little in the form of informed discussions. Most “discussions” on the topic have either been outright flame wars, or people talking past each other, reflecting strong priors.
Ordinarily, exposure to a diverse array of opinions that can be offered by a platform such as Twitter should help people update their priors and make more informed decisions. However, with people again getting tagged as strongly pro or against the government (based on their prior tweets), it is easy to ignore opinions contrary to one’s own as being unduly influenced by the biases.
So, with prior beliefs being strong, and with little opportunity from both mainstream and social media to update such beliefs, people hold on to their priors, and judge policy matters based on their political affiliations rather than on merit.