There have been suggestions recently that some voters are immune to evidence and argument. They rely instead on gut feelings and instinct. These individuals are described as being “intuitionists” or “superstitious.” I will suggest that while this is the correct direction of travel, that we can in fact be more precise and locate the issue as a consequence of cognitive bias known as Status Quo Bias.
The Onion puts the strangeness of the gun control debate best with its satirical headline: “No Way to Prevent This, Says Only Country Where This Regularly Happens.” To rational observers, it seems obvious that if you have 310m guns in a country and 93 people a day are killed by them, you should reduce the second number by reducing the first. Almost every other country in the world does this and it works. Yet a majority of Republicans and even 25% of Democrats disagree. This is ignoring data on a massive and deadly scale.
I think this is not best explained by appealing to superstition as The Economist did recently. Superstitious beliefs, to be sure, are not based on data and do not often result in true claims. If they do, it is a coincidence: superstition is not a reliable method of arriving at true claims. There is no such thing as bad luck and walking under a ladder wil not bring it. Opponents of gun control do not believe that firearms are lucky charms.
The appeal to intuition, by contrast, can I think throw light on the topic if precisified in the right way. I would understand intuition as being a collection of cognitive biases. These operate to slant and indeed direct our decision making, largely unbeknownst to us.
The Bias I have in mind here is called Status Quo Bias. For my U.K. readers, I should immediately clarify that this has nothing to do with Francis Rossi. The Bias is also known as the familiarity effect. I will introduce it by asking you to make a quick choice.
Would you prefer to meet a friend for lunch somewhere you have been before or would you rather go to see a stranger to pursue a novel activity in an unknown location? Most people most of the time would choose the first option.
As with all Biases, this one has its origins in being valuable. Most of the time, it will produce the right result. This is because of a very approximate risk assessment heuristic. We assume that things we have done before which have not harmed us visibly are safe activities. This is wrong but better than nothing. It is in fact I believe an outgrowth of another Bias called the Availabilty Heuristic, but I will set that aside for now.
Status Quo Bias though can be rephrased as the idea that any change is more risky. This can produce conclusions which are as uncongenial to the left as to the right. It is not true, for example, that because countries have borrowed heavily in the past, they can continue to to do indefinitely. As to the topic at hand, for the “intuitionists,” changing to a scenario of tighter gun control is risky because it is new, rather than safer because all of the countries that do it are safer.
If you are wondering what this means practically, I suppose that depends on whether Cognitive Biases are hardwired in to us. That’s unclear, but I think it is at least a start for me to list the mental subroutines we are running. If they are hardwired, then they will be impervious to data, which would explain why the debate is sterile: proponents of gun control continue to say “if we changed this fewer people would die because that is what happens when you have gun control” and opponents would continue not to listen. If they are not hardwired, then telling people they have these biases might be a start in the direction of changing them.
My new book focusses on these biases and their effects in financial markets:
I recommend it if you want to be aware of the subconscious processes which guide your behaviour in markets and elsewhere and if you want to become less dependent on your own autopilot which will not be optimising your outcomes.