Love life? Love Enda

Following the launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer and Enda Kenny’s affirmation that he stands for trust, trust and more trust, Eadaoin O’Sullivan looks at nodding dog syndrome and why some world views appear more credible than others.

Launched last week with much ballyhoo, the Edelman Trust Barometer is a survey of a small sample of wealthy people in 23 countries around the world. Enda Kenny chose the launch of this year’s survey to reappear in public after a stint in hiding. His appearance at the launch of a survey on trust was probably, to some eyes, unsurprising, even predictable. All politicians, all people, indeed, aspire towards at least a semblance of trustworthiness. Some aspire to it in practice. For Ireland’s next Taoiseach to seek to associate himself with a survey of something as valuable and valued as trust; to use its launch as his popping out of the birthday cake moment after a week hunched trembling excitedly inside; betrayed nothing but the standard opportunism of the standard baby-kissing politician.

But Kenny’s choice for his grand pre-election unveiling had more significance than that. On the one hand, it tells us a lot about his worldview; on the other, it tells us a lot about ours.

The Edelman Trust Barometer is subtitled ‘Annual Global Opinion Leaders Survey’, and its findings are aimed at people who work in business and PR. As mentioned, it’s a survey of a small number (200) of wealthy people (‘in top 25% of household income per age group’) with particular interests (‘report significant media consumption and engagement in business news and policy’). As such, it’s entirely unrepresentative of the nation at large, and while its sample size might be big enough to give a reliable indicator of the preferences and attitudes of the small and particular group of people it’s drawn from, it can tell us very little about the same indicators for the wider population. Nonetheless, since its launch in Ireland in 2007 the barometer’s findings have become a proxy for the real faith we hold in our institutions, and the people who populate them.

When the barometer was first launched here the media, in reporting on its findings, usually included some information as to the makeup of its sample, though generally not to its size. Most of the reporting, as you would expect, was on the business pages or in business magazines. By 2010, those crucial details about the sample had disappeared, and the public told, simply, stuff like: ‘Ireland is experiencing a profound and continuing crisis of trust in business and government, according to the findings of a newly published survey’, or that ‘Ireland [has] “a deep institutional skepticism.”‘ Its findings crept from the business to the opinion pages, assuming the aura of truths universally recognised along the way. This year, it even got its own Twitter hashtag, #trust2011.

But who cares though, right? It’s only a poxy survey, and its results seem fairly intuitive (people don’t trust governments or media; they do trust NGOs). The headline finding this year was that trust in business is up, but since (a) most people who responded to the survey probably work in business they would say that, wouldn’t they; and (b) since 43% of respondents believe that ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits’ and the trust in business question runs ‘please tell me how much you trust that institution to do what is right’ there’s probably some overlap there; that is, a proportion of the 53% of respondents who trust business trust business to make money. They’re probably the ones who haven’t slid into receivership yet.

Our nigh on universal credulousness – or, rather, to be fair, the media’s nigh on universal credulousness – in the face of numbers is the scary bit. Like Blue Monday, which started out as a PR stunt for a travel company but which is now a popular fact relayed with full solemnity by otherwise clever people, Edelman’s survey of businesspeople for businesspeople is now, so the story goes, a reflection of the opinion of the population as a whole.

This slow worming of terrible ideas into the public consciousness is nothing new, of course, and nor is their basis in some kind of spurious empiricism. Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium; the Efficient Markets Hypothesis; and the rational, self-interested homo-economicus are all terrible ideas that, by dint of their inexplicable longevity, have almost disappeared from conscious awareness and now form part of our unconscious perception of how the world works. Any assault on this perceptual mask is greeted at best with incredulity, at worst with outright aggression. For evidence of this, see the almost universal derision heaped on Sinn Féin’s stated plan to default on banking debt, or the Twitter-rage which greeted Vincent Browne’s ‘loony left’ panel last Wednesday night. Interestingly, the all-economist panel featured on Thursday was well-received, despite their (in the main) articulating ideas not too far removed from Sinn Féin’s – to the point where Browne was moved to ask Peter Matthews ‘Is Gerry Adams right about defaulting on the debt?’; a question Matthews dodged with all the deftness of a manatee (saying, in essence: ‘I’ll answer that in a minute, but right now I want to give a shout out to my homies in Cabinteely. Wooo!’).

One possible explanation for such oddly dissonant reactions to broadly identical ideas is our credulousness in the face of the expert, or when confronted by anything vaguely sciencey. But, as David McWilliams or Morgan Kelly could both no doubt attest, such slack-jawed acceptance does not extend to just any expert and their analysis. One might suggest that in the case of those two, we heard what we wanted to hear, and ignored what we didn’t. And one would be quite right. But this obvious conclusion contains within it something far more interesting. A group of researchers at Yale Law School have found that, when it comes to risk, we attach credence to both warnings and proposed solutions depending on our cultural values. As they put it: ‘Individuals selectively credit and dismiss factual claims in a manner that supports their preferred vision of a good society.’

So if you’re an individualist*, you’ll believe a risk is real if it represents a threat to your capacity to be your full glorious you; if you’re an egalitarian you’ll believe a risk is real if it’s a threat to the capacity of everyone to be their irreplaceable thems. The really interesting bit lies in how the framing of actions to mitigate risk can be manipulated such that most of the people will agree that they’re plausible. The authors give the example of tradeable emissions permits introduced in the US in the late 1980s. They say:

Consider the softening of conservative opposition to air pollution regulation [advocated by egalitarians and solidarists] in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Individualists tend to resist the idea that commerce threatens the environment, because that conclusion implies that society ought to constrain market behaviour and like forms of private ordering. Yet when the idea of tradeable emission permits — a market solution to the problem of air pollution — was devised during the highly individualist Bush I Administration, pro-market forces in the Republican Party stopped resisting. Shown a solution that affirmed their cultural values, it became easier, cognitively, for individualists to accept the idea that there was a problem to be dealt with after all.

Similarly, by framing Ireland’s current crisis in terms of a threat to business, and the solutions in terms of the gains for business, the economists on Vincent Browne on Thursday seemed credible to the mass of individualists in Irish society** in a way that Sinn Féin or the ULA, with their talk of equality and the public good, simply do not. It’s less to do with the expert effect, and more to do with how problem and solution are framed. It’s certainly nothing to do with a rational evaluation of facts. If a rational evaluation of facts had an impact on our worldview, then the thoroughly discredited economics of neoliberalism would have been binned long ago. The sad truth is that we’ve internalised neoliberal economics so that to turn our backs on them would be a betrayal, a bit like saying your childhood puppy was a bit shit and ugly as sin.

I promised an insight into Enda Kenny’s worldview some time back, and here it is: Enda’s presence at the launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer was a signal not only that he values universal and abstract notions like trust (and indeed in his speech he made reference to a few more, albeit in a manner that suggested an inadvertent copy-paste from a funeral eulogy: ‘Compassion, gentleness, sincerity, responsibility, respect, honour, grief, forgiveness, redemption, restitution, love, letting go’); but it also signaled his alignment, nay, fundamental emotional entanglement, with another set of values, namely: business good, government bad. Strategically, this was an emotional affinity he hoped to broadcast to the electorate.

Our general acceptance of the findings of a tiny and highly unrepresentative survey reflects not just our seeming inability to sort good research from bad research, but rather it reflects our tendency to accept anything that reinforces our already existing worldview. That Kenny’s endless repetition of the new Fine Gael mantra that they will ‘get Ireland working’ was accompanied in his speech by no reference to exactly how that would happen barely matters. When it comes to our cultural values, we really do see no ships. That the popular Banker Matthews and Constantin Gurdgiev are advocating policies closer to Sinn Féin and the rest of the left will, on election day, be safely offset by Fine Gael’s congruence with something far more powerful than science – our culture and our emotional investment in a particular way of ordering the world. For all that recent history has been marked by the rise of the technocrats, and of a technocratic way of explaining the world, the technical details involved in such explanations – methodology, reliability, validity – matter far less than how well they reinforce our emotional attachments to certain ways of being and believing.

*Rationale for the categorisation of people as individualists, hierarchists, egalitarians and solidarists is provided in the piece.

**That Irish society is composed of a mass of individualists can readily be demonstrated not so much by the visceral hatred heaped upon folk like the ULA (which could, in fairness, have as much to do with their frequently fluffing their lines and stuttering when it comes to economics talk), but by the popularity of Fine Gael and the fact that Labour’s move rightwards has seen them gain in popularity, rather than lose it. Oh, and the past twenty years are a bit of a clue too***.

***On a vaguely related note, given that we’re lately emerged from one of the biggest bubbles in human history, the machinations of the false consensus effect are probably worth a nod. This effect, which the media is both privy to and which it amplifies, is the tendency of individuals to form an exaggerated sense of the degree to which members of their peer group hold a particular position (see here). This bias is likely to generate a self-sustaining condition of pluralistic ignorance to the extent that individuals are motivated to represent their adherence of this belief to others, who will in turn feel constrained to represent that they hold the belief, notwithstanding widespread reservations (see for e.g. here). As we bubbled then, so we bubble now: namely, if the consensus as broadcast is that government stimulus is ineffective in reviving an economy, you’ll take this on board, tell your friends, who’ll nod sagely, and they’ll tell their friends, who’ll nod sagely, and so on, until such time as the idea of government stimulus seems entirely mad. The false consensus effect also explains why the burden of proof lies so heavily on anyone who seeks to express an alternative view; it also explains why Sinn Féin and the ULA need to seriously up their game if they’re to even begin to make anyone listen to them.

Originally published on politico.ie/Crisisjam. The site is currently offline; view a static copy of the page here.