Many British voters in the Brexit referendum seem to have failed to acquire, understand and/or assess information pertinent to their complex voting decision.
In this post, I will point to two chapters of my Cognitive Productivity book that are relevant to understanding avoidable information processing errors many voters make.
Chapter 3: Challenges to Meta-effectiveness
Chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity describes several challenges to our ability to use information to improve ourselves. It lists several illusions that were probably at play in the minds of many Brexit voters, including
- The illusion of helpfulness of information. That is the belief that information is pertinent to our concerns. Many voters no doubt felt that the information they were presented with was pertinent to their voting decision when in fact it wasn’t. Apparently the Leave side claimed that Leave would free money for the NHS, and millions may have believed them! There is more on assessing helpfulness in the next section.
- The illusion of comprehension: thinking one has understood what one has read or otherwise processed.
- The illusion of rationality: thinking one will easily be able to make rational use of recently processed information down the road.
Chapter 3 also describes cognitive miserliness and how one could in principle get around it.
Certainly a large number of other cognitive biases were also at play on both sides of this voting decision.
Chapter 11: Assess
Chapter 11 of Cognitive Productivity describes and tries to help resolve the problem of assessing the “helpfulness” of information. One of its major contributions is to distinguish four different contributors to judgments of helpfulness, one of which can be extremely misleading (appeal). They involve assessing the information’s
- caliber, which is a collection of epistemic qualities of the information (e.g., coherence, explanatory power, accuracy, etc.) measured against objective standards.
- utility, which is the extent to which the information can help advance one’s goals, projects and pursuit of value.
- potency, which is the extent to which information can bend or shape one’s mind.
- appeal (“CUPA”), which is the extent to which we like it, are drawn to it, or are seduced by it. How many people believed either claims from either campaign simply because the views, or the persons or contexts of the information pleased them, or otherwise appealed to them? Advertising (including political advertising) rests on the fact that people have tremendous difficulty distinguishing caliber from appeal.
It is essential for each one of us to be able to assess high caliber information on major concerns, be they universal or transient. Some of the universal domains are
- health (nutrition, exercise, etc.),
- economics and investing,
- interpersonal relations (marriage, friendship, colleagues, community, etc.),
- engineering and product development,
- knowledge building, and
- politics (at every scale).
I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to mine the ample examples of low caliber, counter-productive (negative utility), but seductive information put out by both sides of the political Brexit campaign. (No doubt some of the bad arguments on the Remain side made some voters skeptical enough to shoot themselves in the foot.)
The Diffuse Death of Expertise
One cannot become expert in every field. However, by systematically striving to improve one’s ability to select, understand and assess knowledge resources, one can get better at these processes. This involves learning to identify experts and expertise. This in turn requires a dose of respect for expertise.
Tom Nichols has argued that we are experiencing the “Death of Expertise”, meaning the end of respect for expertise. I think it’s a diffuse phenomenon.
From my vantage point, it seems that too few British voters adequately considered high caliber expert information pertinent to their voting decision, such as that coming from Professor Michael Dougan of European Law at the University of Liverpool.
Why this Matters
The ability and motivation to use knowledge to become profoundly effective, which I refer to as “meta-effectiveness”, is critical to well-being (and happiness, in Aristotle’s sense). (Compare its impact on the universal domains listed above.)
Brexit is a great example of how failing to consider pertinent information about the consequences of a decision may adversely impact one’s well being. This is not the place to argue this at length. I will just provide some pointers (not long posts!).
Steve Leach writes:
So if you regard yourself as progressive, compassionate, a believer in the importance of community, and yet you voted Leave whose campaign leaders were Farage, Gove, Johnson, Duncan-Smith, Fox, Redwood and Rees-Mogg, I will be fascinated to hear how you feel about your decision in five years time. How did you put aside your qualms knowing that you were following the advice of Donald Trump? And I guess you appreciated that this was giving the SNP the excuse – indeed a mandate – for a second referendum to leave the UK. So how did you factor that into your thinking?
Brexit’s greatest winner is Putin
Security expert, Tom Nichols wrote:
I was all for putting a scare into Brussels. Not sure I wanted to hand Putin a divided Europe. I’ve seen that movie.”
Still, there is noise in the information signal. Some financial experts claim that for Britain and Canada, Brexit will not be very negative. However, this is not merely a financial matter. Moreover, their arguments were not sufficiently detailed. Furthermore, I didn’t get the sense that these experts had the relevant expertise.
I’m not an expert on these matters. At this point, I am siding with Professor Michael Dougan whose view supports what seems to be the overall relevant expert view on the matter of Brexit (from a Western perspective).
Having said that, Brexit is not a controlled experiment. We will not get to see what would have been the case had Britain voted Remain.
I’m currently co-authoring a new book on cognitive productivity that provides many tips for using information to become highly effective. It includes new tips and guidelines for assessing knowledge resources. This is a topic that has often been discussed, but rarely discussed in detail in terms of using information technology. Events like Brexit remind me of the importance of this endeavour.
Here are other examples of the possible relevance of Cognitive Productivity to politics.