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Governing in the age of outrage

Many of the current tensions in the world have been discussed in Davos. Those tensions are seemingly everywhere. We can see them in the political sphere, whether it’s the yellow vests of France, the visceral debate over Brexit, in Hong Kong’s umbrella movement and the Arab Spring. There are political economic elements, like the increasing wealth disparity and how this plays into populism. And there are social aspects, with the #MeToo movement perhaps the most profound of these.

The channeling of emotion is providing new ways of driving progress.

Some of these have deep roots in the past. France’s gilets jaunes are the just the latest manifestation of that country’s rich anti-establishment history. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring and the umbrella movement exemplify the kind of ‘speaking truth to power’ that has driven the development of cultures for centuries.

In other cases, the channeling of emotion is providing new ways of driving progress. The MeToo movement is accelerating meaningful and much-needed change. It seems clear to me that social media has, in this case, acted as a largely positive catalyst to turbocharge a debate that has been going on for some time.

But in other cases, unproductive outrage is replacing rational debate. Today, conversations between fiercely committed sides often degenerate into shouting matches. Britain’s wrangling over Brexit is a prominent example, but a range of political, social and economic debates appear to be becoming more polarized.

Why is this happening? The rise of social media is commonly cited as the cause. Certainly, many leading platforms lend themselves more to broadcasting one’s own opinions than to listening to and considering those of others. When communication is set to ‘transmit’ rather ‘receive’, it’s harder to reach compromise or consensus. And if we conduct our debates in instant, unreflective soundbites, the quality of those debates is likely to degrade.

Also, although social-media platforms theoretically give everyone a voice, in practice they tend to amplify the voices of those who shout the loudest. This includes activists but also extremists. Meanwhile, click-driven advertising models exacerbate the effect by nudging media consumers towards the poles of a particular topic.

But is social media the cause of the outrage that characterizes contemporary discourse, or simply its conduit? Perhaps it merely shows that societies are starting to operate in profoundly different ways from how they functioned in the past. This may be because technology is amplifying and exaggerating our innate human tendencies.

In this regard, access to information may be at least as significant as social media. Those of us in the investment community are well aware of behavioral biases – the irrational impulses that explain so much of our decision-making. Of particular importance here is ‘confirmation bias’, which leads us to seek support for our existing viewpoints. When our main sources of opinion were the daily newspapers, most of us regularly read editorials and articles with which we disagreed. Today, however, a huge variety of online media allows us to content ourselves with ‘comfort eating’, reading only those opinions to which we fully subscribe.

Meanwhile, the ‘backfire effect’ leads us to double down on our original views when we are confronted with dissenting opinions – and again, the internet allows us to seek rapid reassurance. Rather than broadening our minds, then, access to unfettered information may be narrowing them.

Then there are our tribal instincts. As creatures that roamed the savannahs in small bands only a short time ago (in evolutionary terms), we have a strong preference for being part of an in-group. And that in-group needs to be defined against an out-group – which in turn tends to be denigrated by in-group members. Today, technology allows us to put our in-group credentials on prominent display.

Our tribal tendencies may be exacerbated by the fact that we increasingly live in large, anonymous cities. In contrast to the smaller communities that forced our forebears to rub along with each other regardless of difference, urban environments leaves us free to mix with those most similar to ourselves – whether online or off.

All of this has troubling implications. As fund managers, we are as susceptible to the same biases and tribal instincts that are present in wider society. We all know about the dangers of ‘groupthink’ and the unparalleled access to information that we enjoy has been suggested as an antidote to that. But if we look at how information is actually closing minds in wider society, we must wrestle with the possibility that it is doing the same to us.

Beyond the asset management community, thirty years in business has taught me that sustainable progress comes only through compromise. The will of an individual can only get a business so far and the simple reality is that you have to find common ground with others if you’re going to succeed.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we should all seek to agree with one another. Differences of opinion are the bedrock of reasoned decisions. But we do have to be willing to let each side have their say and be listened to. It’s this quality that seems to get lost in so many of our contemporary debates. Rather than turning ever-fiercer streams of invective on each other, we need to concentrate on curbing some of our tendencies and find ways to allow technology to bring us together, not divide us. This debate needs to be had far beyond the slopes of the Swiss Alps. But I hope next week can be a starting point.

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 22 January.

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