If people are in danger of considering our system of democracy is unfair, then what does behavioural science have to offer when considering alternatives?
The recent turmoil in British politics has led many commentators to consider that the general public’s perceptions of the fairness of political institutions is being seriously eroded, undermining faith in our democratic systems. If politicians are able to operate unethically then it can easily feel as if the whole system is fundamentally unfair.
Perceived fairness is clearly important, with research showing that when people get an unwelcome outcome but believe the process used to make the decision was fair, they may be disappointed, but they tend to accept the decision and stay loyal to the institution that made the decision. This is called the “fair process effect”: the tendency for fair processes to offset a negative response to an unfavourable decision.
Therefore, if we feel that the process is not fair, then we are inclined to be less happy about the outcome and as such challenge it. We can see the impact this has had in the US, for example, where a high proportion of the population have been persuaded that the process for the 2020 Presidential election was unfair. As such, there are significant levels of negative emotions with the outcome and a general sense of ‘anti-politics’, that the system ‘is broken’.
No wonder that in recent times there has been interest in alternative forms of political participation with different types of system getting more attention. One such is direct participation (also known as ’direct democracy’) often through digital technology. As political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo sets out, it seems to hold the promise of cutting through swathes of bureaucracy and help us to express ourselves directly, without having to go through other people who may not represent us as well as we might like and avoid processes that seem opaque and complicated.
But does this really offer a better, fairer system of political participation than the usual liberal democratic system of representation, where an elected representative and political institutions reflect our interests? We use behavioural science to unpack some of the issues relating to direct (via digital) participation, asking whether this really does offer an effective alternative for political and social justice involvement.
There is a degree of excitement and attraction to ‘organising without organisations’, the notion that we can make change happen through direct participation. This is certainly the promise for organisations such as Italy’s Five Star Movement, Podemos in Spain and the Pirate Parties that have emerged in in many Northern European countries. Each of these rapidly gained huge base of supporters on the basis that they offer participation though digital platforms: both in terms of deliberating over the issues to tackle but also through voting as a key decision-making process.
Other examples have been related to participation in campaigns, with organisations such as MoveOn, Change.org and Avaaz drawing in huge numbers of people signing petitions on a wide variety of issues.
In many ways we can see the way that direct participation is attractive, recognising our individual contribution, with bottom-up collective action not requiring any form of formal structures in place. This sits well with digital culture, its anti-bureaucratic spirit and belief in individual autonomy and spontaneity.
But to what extent does the promise live up to reality? Not all that well, according to Gerbaudo. He cites three key challenges with these platforms:
Participation can become an end in itself: Traditionally, participation was considered as a necessary effort in order to attain the final end of creating a better society. There is a danger that direct participation moves away from what politics can achieve, and instead the feeling of recognition and the positive experience of the process can be an end in itself. This can led to political or social justice positions that will likely over time cease to be coherent as they are then not led by a sense of a wider ambition for what society could look like.
The ‘tyranny of people with time’: Only a small number of people have the time and inclination to dedicate themselves to the necessary level of active participation. This reflects Jakob Nielsen’s famous 1-9-90 law of participation, which indicates the split of active and passive users. In any community, the vast majority – at least 90% – is made of passive users who are, for the most part, simply consumers of information produced by others. Next, there is a 10% that are active but only 1 per cent that is really active and dedicated. This creates a ‘participation divide’ between those who are able and willing to participate from those who are not – with the former of course having a disproportionate impact on outcomes.
Hidden power structures: All participation takes place in an organisational framework that inevitably has structures of power and influence that shape the nature of participation. For example, the process of determining what topics are subject to voting and the linkages from this to policy making are often vague. This can lead to an illusion that there is freedom in participation which in fact this is constrained by a sets of rules that can be harder to see.
So we can see that direct participation, which has grown hugely via digital platforms, is not necessarily the attractive solution that we might first imagine. So let us turn to the alternative, representation, where people are selected to participate on our behalf.
The case for representation
Here we can turn more directly to the behavioural science literature to consider a number of ways in which representation may be of value:
Undesirable choices: There is no shortage of questions that involve such choices in politics and social justice issues. Simona Botti has done a great deal of work in the area, and found that when we are making choices between undesirable options, we tend to dislike making the choice and have a decline in our happiness as a result. Also, importantly, when people are making a choice (compared to when people have the choice made for them) – they are less satisfied with the outcome. When faced with an unpleasant choice, we are often relieved and happier with the outcome when someone makes the choice for us.
Cognitive offloading: A related issue is the way that we seek to operate in an efficient way, offloading our mental processing where we can. The obvious examples of this are things such as notepads, watches and web searches. If we have tools that we can use then we will deploy them allowing us to focus on other topics where our mental effort is actually required. In many ways we could consider that a political representative plays a similar role for us. If there is someone to undertake the effort involved in participation, then it makes sense (and we are often happy to) offload it.
Common good thinking: The problems we need to resolve are typically those which effect a wide range of people with many different backgrounds, values, preferences and opinions. To this end, trying to find solutions that meet the common good, where few parties, if any, feel they have got what they wanted, requires a distinct set of skills and personal resilience. Just ask anyone who has served as a committee member for their sports team or for a local society. So while many of us are able to represent our own position, we need people who are able to reflect on the diversity of interests and think best how to balance the different needs. Attempting to do this with a blunt voting system through direct participation is unlikely to result on outcomes that could be considered as fair.
So we can see that there is a case for characterising representative democracy as something that works ‘with the grain of human behaviour’ as it arguably suits the mechanisms that we have to call on for collective lives.
There is clearly a desire for more direct participation but perhaps we can unpack what we mean by this a little. As we have pointed out previously, we can make a distinction between transaction and transformational in terms of how we effect change.
‘Transactional change’ is where the aim is for concrete, near-term changes to behaviour, often incremental in nature. ‘Transformational’ change may involve uprisings and protests can result in fundamental changes in the way that people think about an issue. We can apply the same principles to the way we characterise participation. The painstaking work to examine how to address complex policy issues and balance different needs for the common good is very different to the participation needed to alter the ‘climate of public debate’.
On this basis the case can surely continue to be made for the importance of representative democracies. The notion that we can side-step the messy business of governing by assuming we can use direct participation has a number of difficult psychological barriers.
Of course, different forms of political organisation are entirely possible and very much worth considering. In future posts we will look at these with the lens of behavioural science hopefully sparking thoughts and debate on some of the behavioural opportunities and barriers to effective democratic systems.
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