Read the two following headlines:
‘Targeting the rich may cost us dear‘ (The Telegraph)
’George Osborne has unveiled a millionaires’ budget, says Ed Miliband‘ (The Guardian)
Humans tend not to enjoy ambiguity
So, using the same ‘data’, an event can either be “targeting the rich” or “a millionaires’ budget”. The point of my writing this is not to determine which of these perspectives is ‘correct’ but to demonstrate something central to our work in psychology: people interpret the same information in very different and often polarised ways. Unhelpful reactions, emotional or behavioural, are common consequences of this style of thinking, which can be seen as the mind’s attempt to simplify and make sense of information.
Another process evident in the political and media reaction to the budget is something psychologists refer to as “cognitive fusion”– this occurs when people are ‘stuck’ in a particular way of viewing a situation or other people: new information confirms what they already ‘know’. In some parts of the house/society this was “the same old Tories” and in others it was “cleaning up Labour’s mess”. Wouldn’t these have been the reactions regardless of the content?
Again, my point is not to argue about the accuracy of such statements but to suggest that starting out with this viewpoint probably doesn’t encourage beneficial discussions.
If these kinds of thinking and responding are unhelpful, why do they persist? A major reason is one of the basic rules of behavioural psychology: behaviour that is rewarded is usually repeated. Anyone watching Question Time or BBC Parliament for more than a few minutes will see that polarised opinions fused to particular interpretations ‘truth’ are greeted with cheers. Audiences (not excluding this author sadly) are captivated by the baiting of some politician or other and ‘winning’ the debate is the goal above all. It is interesting to note that some of the same “traps” that lead to unnecessary emotional suffering are relevant at the level of our society. But it is also unsurprising – they are, after all, the human mind in action.
In our consultations we work to identify these kinds of extremes and then focus on what works to move people forward in their lives. For example, we might notice that fusion to the goal of being successful prevents a person from making progress towards a professional, sporting or personal goal. A flexible approach to success and failure allows them to try something new and learn from their experience. Whilst a similar approach to the nation’s political life might not be such entertaining viewing I wonder if it might enable our leaders to get on with the real work.