Tuesday 22 October 2013

Winning the people's trust

An elephant that is so hard to ride
Relying on facts, logic and rational thinking is no longer enough to persuade on issues
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 20 Oct 2013

These are challenging times for the public service as it gears up for a new course that the political masters have set.

For those still unsure of what lies ahead, how's this for a triple-barrelled change: "Singapore is in a new phase. We are heading in a new direction. We are making strategic shifts."

I didn't make that up. It was how the Prime Minister began his speech to senior civil servants last month, as if to make triply clear how committed he was to making the changes he had announced at the National Day Rally in August.

It was interesting he singled out winning the people's trust in the Government as key to the success of this undertaking: "Without basic trust in the Government, none of our plans can make it off the paper and be realised. There will be no end to the demands for more reviews, or doubts about whether a policy is to benefit those with connections rather than the public good."

How to win this trust and persuade detractors that those in charge have the people's interest at heart?

Perhaps there is no short cut, and it will have to be demonstrated through policies that are seen to bring real benefits to the majority of Singaporeans.

In housing, public transport, health care and immigration, it will be evident sooner or later whether the new approaches are working and the people better off as a result.

But how the Government communicates its intent is important in the short term and can make a difference in winning hearts and minds.

It was reported recently that the public service was seeking experts who could help it communicate to the public simply and with sincerity and empathy.

It wants to simplify letters and other correspondence that its agencies send out, some of them in language guaranteed to turn you cold.

This is a worthwhile effort though the challenge is a tougher one that goes beyond language.

In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that people who disagree with a certain policy do not change their minds even when shown seemingly irrefutable facts or reasons.

According to this relatively new area of study, the rational mind isn't responsible for what you believe but comes into the picture only after you've already decided.

A recent study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan showed that politically partisan people lose their ability to think rationally.

In one experiment, researchers asked respondents to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes.

They were then asked to interpret a different table - but containing the same set of numbers - about whether having a law that banned the carrying of handguns reduced crime.

Professor Kahan found that when the numbers in the table showed results which went against the person's position on gun control, he was more likely to interpret the result wrongly and in accordance with his belief.

If he was for gun control but the table showed that having a law to ban guns had no effect on crime, he would interpret the result as if it did.

But when the issue was about skin rashes - which have no political implications - he would interpret the results correctly.

Even more startling: The more numerate the person, the more likely his political views would get in the way of his ability to do simple maths.

When confronted with facts that go against a person's beliefs, the partisan view almost always prevails.

Much of the research in this area is about trying to explain why Democrats and Republicans come to such different conclusions even when they look at the same data.

The problem, it seems, isn't a person's ability to do maths or to think logically, but how people make decisions in the first place.

If you believe the research, decisions are made not from the mind thinking logically about the issue, but by a completely different process - by intuition, emotion, from past experiences or the influence of other people.

The book The Righteous Mind by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes this in a graphic way by representing intuition or emotion as an elephant and the logical mind as the rider.

Decisions are made by the elephant - it decides where it wants to go - but the rider can learn to anticipate where it is going and lean in this or that direction.

More interestingly, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, giving rational explanations for the decision already made.

Dr Haidt says the mind is like the public relations office, good at giving post hoc explanations on the client's behalf.

He has conducted numerous experiments to back his hypothesis, which explains why it is so difficult to get people to change their minds on moral or political issues even in the face of conflicting evidence.

To do so, you have to talk to the elephant, not the rider.

That means appealing not to the rational mind with rational arguments but to the intuitive or emotional parts of the person.

In fact, Dr Haidt found that if you ask people to believe something that violates their intuition, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch - a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion - and they will almost always succeed.

In other experiments, it has been shown that when people were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good - affirming their self-worth - they were more likely to change their minds.

The elephant has to be put in a good mood if you want it to go one way and not another.

If this research is right, it is sobering news for a government which relies predominantly on facts and reason to support its case and is made up mainly of technocrats adept in economic logic.

But it also means that the Government can also be guilty of arriving at decisions not through reason but from its own biases.

It too has to guard against the tendency to look for justifications for these decisions only after the event.

But the real significance of these studies for policymakers is how hard it is to change a person's mind about an issue.

Reason alone won't do the job.

That's why trust is such a big elephant in the room.

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