“Massacre of the middle-aged men” shouts today’s Daily Mail. Let’s leave aside the over-entitled self-pitying here and ask how people can possibly believe such guff.
What’s going on here is an old phenomenon described by Adam Smith:
We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. (Theory of Moral Sentiments I.III.29)
But why do they get such respect, and such sympathy when their rewards fall slightly short of their over-inflated expectations?
Part of the answer lies in an experiment (pdf) conducted by Deborah Small, George Loewenstein and Paul Slovic. They paid people $5 to complete some questionnaires and then invited them to donate to an overseas aid charity. Some were given statistics about millions facing food shortages in Africa, whilst others were shown a picture of a poor girl from Mali and told her name. People were twice as likely to donate after seeing the picture than the dry statistics.
This is the identifiable victim effect. As Dan Ariely says: “once we have a face, a picture, and details about a person, we feel for them.” (The Upside of Irrationality, p 241).
The mere fact that politicians are in the public eye, therefore, disposes us to sympathize with them. We have the face and the picture.
Yes, I know: replicability blah, blah. But we do have other evidence here. James Andreoni and Justin Rao got subjects to play a dictator game in which some potential recipients could request donations and others couldn’t. They found that requests significantly increased donations even if they conveyed no significant information. They conclude (pdf):
Communication, especially the power of asking, greatly influences feelings of empathy and pro-social behavior.
This is consistent with an experiment described in Robert Cialdini’s Influence, wherein a woman tries to jump queues to use a photocopier in a university library. When she merely asked to jump in, 60% of people in the queue complied. But when she asked “May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” 93% to agreed. Even a meaningless remark (why else would you want to use the copier?) elicited compliance.
Merely talking to us, then, elicits our sympathy even if there’s no meaningful information. And of course, politicians (and the rich generally) do communicate with us.
There’s a flipside to this. If we don’t know people or they don’t communicate with us we are meaner to them. Experiments by Agne Kajackaite have found just this. She says:
Ignorance may not only reduce altruistic behavior, as found in previous experiments on ignorance in ultimatum and dictator games, but may even lead to anti-social behavior.
From this perspective, reporting of Westminster politics carries an inherent bias. In giving prominence to mediocre middle-aged white men, it invites sympathy for them.
To see this, do a thought experiment. Imagine if news programmes focused heavily upon particular individuals struggling with poverty whilst paying only minimal attention to Westminster shenanigans – that is, if we had more Kate Belgraves and few Laura Kuenssbergs. Research suggests there’d be more sympathy for the poor, and less concern about “massacres” of dullards. Our political culture would then be less inegalitarian.
All this said, there is a massive caveat here. The extensive coverage of the Westminster bubble doesn’t actually work very well: most people can name only very few politicians. (Though we might ask why the ones they can name such as Johnson and Farage are disproportionately private-school shysters). However, I suspect that most of us living in comfortable circumstances can name more MPs – and certainly more rich people – than we can name users of foodbanks. And this, I fear, does skew our sympathy. To this extent, even apparently impartial political coverage contains an insidious bias.