Calling the political tune

The debate continues.

The lines from Gilbert and Sullivan – ‘That every boy and every gal/That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal/Or else a little Conservative!’ – highlight a fundamental issue for psychologists in exploring psychological processes underpinning our political values, beliefs, and attitudes, and, indeed, our political institutions: we bring our own political values and beliefs to that table. Indeed, in his brilliant analysis of the way psychological processes interact with, and distort, economic thinking, Daniel Kahneman introduced the principle of ‘confirmation bias’, searching for, and finding, information that supports or reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. The same psychological processes operate, I’m sure, in relation to political thinking.

I suspect that the pre-existing beliefs of your correspondent, E. Angell (July 2017) veer towards the right side of the political spectrum, given their reference to Jeremy Corbyn’s ideology as ‘linked to long-standing anti-Western and pro-terrorism sympathies’, etc. Nevertheless, the publication of the letter as a rejoinder to the pieces in the June ‘Democracy in danger’ articles illustrates two processes central to the growth and development of democracy and the institutions that support it: firstly, a willingness to air and give psychological space to counterargument; and, secondly, to critically analyse, both empirically and, from the perspective of psychological processes, any biases which may distort the argument and its conclusions.

I am in no way qualified to comment on the work of Thomas Piketty, whose work Angell complains was presented uncritically. However, in the spirit of open inquiry and countering my own psychological biases, I did a short web search for critiques of his book Capitalism in the Twenty First Century. The most prominent critique was by Mark J. Warshawsky of the Mercator Center at George Mason University, which reported several significant flaws in Piketty’s methodology. This university was the very same mentioned in a Guardian piece by George Monbiot, published only days before (19 July 2017), as the beneficiary of generous donations by Charles Koch, one of the richest people in the US. The article further describes how Koch and other business tycoons funded, through the academic institutes they sponsored, ‘a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich’.

When psychologists explore the threats to democracy they should consider the most striking psychological bias of all: the one in which those who pay the piper call the tune.

Barry Greatorex

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