The psychology behind the mistake the Tories are on the verge of making
Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s next Prime Minister, apparently.
In 1947, the pioneering cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner ran an experiment with children that is just a little heartbreaking. Bruner recruited children from differing socio-economic backgrounds. The participants were shown some coins and some cardboard discs and asked to estimate the size of each object, using a tool. Bruner found that the kids consistently judged the coins to be bigger than the discs, even though the discs were the same size. The monetary value of the coins was influencing the children’s physical perception. But that wasn’t all. The poorer children - the ones who really wanted for money - perceived the coins to be bigger than the children from richer backgrounds did.
Bruner’s study inspired a whole line of research on the way that our values and desires shape our basic perceptions of reality. Psychologists from New York University asked students to estimate the distance between their own position and a full bottle water bottle on the table they were sitting at. Beforehand, they fed some of the students a diet of pretzels, to make them thirsty. The thirsty students judged the bottle to be nearer than the other students. The researchers called this phenomenon “wishful seeing”.
For those of you who have not been paying attention to British politics (I don’t necessarily recommend you do) the Conservative Party is currently choosing our next Prime Minister. Yes, that’s right, one party’s MPs and members are getting to pick the leader of the country, at least for the next two years or so until there’s a general election. It sounds a bit mad, but then all political systems have their eccentricities, and as Tom McTague points out, Britain’s cobbled-together constitution is actually coping quite well with all the demands that have been put on it in recent years by those unreasonable bastards, the British voters. Having said that, I think the Tories are on the verge of making a big mistake which will have severe consequences for the country, and for their own party as a political force. And it has a lot to do with the kook in human perception identified by Bruner and his successors.
Events are moving fast but as I write this, the favourite to win the leadership contest and thus to become Prime Minister by September is an MP of whom 90% of voters knew nothing until this week; a person who has almost no experience at the most senior level of government and a very limited track record at a junior level.
Now this, I think, really is mad.
Political reporters are good at judging what’s significant today or this week, but they’re perhaps not as good, collectively, at highlighting what is significant or remarkable in the context of a longer timescale. Ever since it became clear, a week or so ago, that Penny Mordaunt is doing very well among MPs and in members’ polls, she has been absorbed seamlessly into the narrative of the contest. It’s suddenly become a fact of political life that she could be the next PM. It seems normal.
It’s. Not. Normal. It’s bonkers.
After the jump, I explain exactly why it’s bonkers and what the Tories should do about it. As if that’s not enough, I also explain why this contest is like my experience of online dating.
Plus: my thoughts on two movies, Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis; some cool productivity tips; the biggest marketing hype failure of the last ten years, podcast of the week, and why Keith Richards is a genius. Enjoy.
Oh and please buy my book, How To Disagree (formerly Conflicted), now in a brilliant orange paperback.
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