I read an interesting paper this morning from the journal Nature – a bit leftfield of my usual reading, but totally relevant to mainstream politics and public services. It made me think. Yesterday I wrote (well, I copied Martin Wolf anyway) about the challenges of consensus building, and the implications for long term economic policymaking. The suggestion was that, now that party politicking is back in full swing in the run-up to the election, generating necessary consensus on some serious big issues will be nigh on impossible.
At the 2020 Commission, we have talked about the need to generate a new consensus on the need for a 21st century blueprint for public services. The hope of consensus lies behind the very idea of a cross-party commission, and, whilst the development is difficult, the impact is hopefully broader, more powerful and more coherent….
Anyway, this article – by Dan Kahan – offers some reasons why consensus is difficult to find. Cultural cognition – which is the ‘influence of group values…on risk perception and related beliefs’ skew our perceptions of policy, meaning that we ‘endorse whichever position reinforces (our) connection to others with whom (we) share important commitments’. Bluntly, we have pack mentalities, which magnifies difference and ‘polarises’ debate in artificial ways.
This might seem obvious to anyone who follows a sports team, but the author also reflects on how these polarised mentalities can often push at the same outcomes (though maybe not in sport):
“citizens who hold opposing cultural outlooks are in fact rooting for the same outcome: the health, safety and economic well-being of their society.”
And he concludes that:
“We need to learn more about how to present information in forms that are agreeable to culturally diverse groups, and how to structure debate so that it avoids cultural polarization.
If we want democratic policy-making to be backed by the best available science, we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.”
Easier said than done for sure, especially when the means to achieve outcomes can be as contested as the outcomes themselves. For instance, all parties responded to the Hills review of inequality with similar horror, but the strategies they use to address the problems it highlights will certainly differ.