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Abbott’s unpopularity is all our fault

Tony Abbot’s unpopularity is startling to many including (not at all startlingly) Alan Jones.  Did you hear this call a fortnight ago?

Caller to Alan Jones: This opinion poll out today saying the PM is apparently unpopular is ridiculous. It has no credibility. At a time when we’re dealing with a crisis with Putin, we should all be getting behind Abbott.

Jones: Absolutely. When you’re on a good thing, you should stick to it.

23 July 2014

What’s going on?

Two well-documented psychological phenomena are illustrative in why Tony Abbott has gone from hero to zero so quickly.

The first is human beings’ inability to predict what will make them happy.  This has been written about extensively by Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, particularly in his book Stumbling on Happiness.  Gilbert also points out that humans consistently think their current self is the same as what their future self will be, “the end of history illusion”, and as a consequence, fail to predict how much they are going to change.

When we vote, we make decisions for our future self and what that future self will like after the election (except for the guy who I once overheard at a ballot box saying he would vote for someone because the candidate had a ridiculous name. Sadly, he seemed not to be joking). Dan Gilbert would say that we are pretty bad at knowing what our future self will like so we’re not going to be that great at voting for it.

When Gilbert (p421) analysed the 2000 US election between Gore and Bush and asked people to predict how happy they would be after the election, he found that straight after the election, Bush supporters weren’t nearly as happy as they predicted they would be prior to the election. In a fascinating twist, when he tested them again later, they estimated (or “remembered”) that they had been much happier straight after the election than the earlier results showed they really were. Similarly, Gore supporters predicted they would be much more unhappy than they actually were and reported being more unhappy than they actually were.

So it turns out that the people who liked Abbot prior to the election probably don’t like him as much as they thought they were going to. Luckily for him, the people who thought they wouldn’t like him, also don’t hate him as much as they thought they would – but apparently that hasn’t been enough to salvage the situation.

Let’s look at what he promised (again, I know right? We do this like, all the time.)

The Coalition will end the waste, repay the debt, stop the big new taxes and, above all else, stop the boats. Tony Abbott, November 16, 2010

Basically, it seems like since the election people have changed to wanting different things. Or perhaps not wanting to end the waste and repay the debt if it means cutting their pensions. And not caring enough about the boats to make it balance out the “bad stuff” like new taxes and whatever the heck is happening with Clive Palmer.

The second phenomenon at play here is what’s called hindsight bias. Both Dan Gilbert and Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Prize Winner) point out that we are very bad at reconstructing past states of knowledge.

Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.  (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow)

Hindsight bias has a huge impact on the way we evaluate our leaders’ decisions. When they make a decision and it turns out badly, we judge the decision-maker on the basis of what we know now, rather than what we or they knew at the time.  The consequence is that even if the decision-making process was sound, we tend to blame people for things turning out poorly, even if they couldn’t have predicted it.

An example of hindsight bias working against the Government is the fact that Tony Abbott opposed Australia’s push to get on the Security Council. At the time, Liberals put the view that it was a long shot, a distraction and probably a bit expensive.  People are now criticizing Tony Abbott (and Julie Bishop for that matter) for taking the bounty of Security Council membership inasmuch as it helps us manage the tragic consequences of MH17.  So Tony Abbott is criticised for his view then, even though if the genuinely unforeseen occurrence of MH17 had not happened, Australia’s involvement in the Security Council may have gone on unremarkably for two years with no easily measurable benefit to the country.

For politicians, more generally, hindsight bias means that being risk averse is often the most sensible approach. When some members of the commentariat cry out for leadership and forward thinking, they ignore that it’s just that sort of crazy behaviour that will be slammed at the ballot box if something happens to go wrong.  Many people want leadership and forward thinking but only if it all works out fine, thanks very much.

So where does this leave Mr Abbott? Is it all our fault that he’s unpopular? Is it really because of our own human frailties? You might say that he is deeply unpopular because, it turns out we don’t like the things that he said he would do as much as we thought we would – “Balance the debt? That sounds grand but now that you mention it, I don’t love what you’re doing to balance the debt.” Or you might say that he is deeply unpopular because he should have predicted that things would go wrong, “Stopping the boats? Yes please but you should have known that someone would get killed at Manus Island because someone did get killed at Manus Island.”

Or you might say that he is deeply unpopular because he has done things that he promised not to do (like slashing education funding or trying to introduce a GP levy).

Whichever way you cut it though, he’s deeply unpopular.

About Cressida Wall

Cressida Wall

Cressida has been a Chief of Staff and senior adviser to Premiers and government Ministers for nearly twenty years. She was a senior adviser to Premier Steve Bracks and Premier John Brumby and worked in Australia and Israel for Better Place, the electric car infrastructure company. She now works as a consultant.

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