Polarising Views And The Morally Righteous.

I’ve begun volunteering for a mentoring program at a school for the next 12 weeks. During my first session – as an ice-breaker – the mentors and students were asked to agree or disagree with various statements:

  • Should the voting age be lowered to 16?
  • Cats are better than dogs.
  • Doctors should earn more money than football players.
  • University education should be free.

Aside from the cats and dogs – which is clearly a little bit of fun – the other statements were quite polarising. For the sake of the ice-breaker, I chose an opinion, but I didn’t feel all that comfortable. My initial reaction was ‘Jeez, these are complex, I don’t like forming snap opinions.’

The Problem

So I understand the aim of an ice-breaker is to encourage people to talk, but aside from that, I feel this type of activity doesn’t offer much. I was constantly hearing responses like “Young people are the future”, “Of course, they should have the right to vote!”, “Doctors save lives!”, “I believe in the right to free education!”

I felt like I was at a political rally! It had a certain ring of the sheep from Animal Farm:

4 legs good, 2 legs bad!”

Why does this happen?

The best explanation I can think of is based on work by Daniel Kahneman. In his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘ – he talks about decision making and puts forward the notion that when faced with complex problems, people tend to change their frame of reference and ask a much simpler question.

In the case of free university tuition, people may start asking themselves simpler questions like “would I like to have gone to university for free?”

For the sake of my argument, I’m literally googling “the right to free education” and the top result is a wiki. To paraphrase:

‘as a human right free primary education is compulsory, it’s obligatory to develop free secondary education, and obligatory to develop accessible higher education with the ideals for it to be free.’

You can clearly see how people misuse the ‘right to a free education’ slogan for moral grandstanding. Free primary education is the only human right. It says the idea of a free university is something a society should aim for.

So what can we do?

If we want to make the world better, I would suggest making the problem smaller and simpler.

In the book ‘think like a Freak‘ the authors argue a very similar case. They look at the challenges of improving education for young people. And highlight how huge sums of money have been thrown at the problem, and how governments implement various policies, which both ultimately have little effect. This is not the case if you approach the problem differently.

The authors reported a correlation between problem learners and poor eyesight; economists in China decided to act upon this data and gave cheap glasses to students with visual impairment. At the end of the year, the group with the glasses outperformed a control group by 25-30%. A simple solution.

I think Einstein sums it up pretty well:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Simplify the question, don’t simplify your answers. If the question is complex, I think it’s important to realise and reflect on this. This is when we are most likely to change our frame of reference and answer a completely different question. And in doing so solve nothing.

And I think at the current time, this could not be more pertinent. So I’m going to leave you with one final question.

Should Britain leave the European Union? Yes or no.

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