A chicken that was an economist would also be a good political campaigner

Over on Mainly Macro, economist Simon Wren-Lewis made a good point about the need to understand the wider context and the motivation of others.

As he wrote a while back:

[Imagine a] chicken that is fed by the farmer each morning may well have a theory that it will always be fed each morning – it becomes a ‘law’. And it works every day, until the day the chicken is instead slaughtered.

When I used to lecture about economic methodology, I liked to say that this chicken was not an economist. Now you might say that no chicken is an economist, but suppose that chickens were as intelligent as the farmer who keeps them, so they could be an economist…

They would not simply have observed that every morning the farmer brought them food, and therefore concluded that this must happen forever. Instead they would have asked a crucial additional question: why is the farmer doing this? What is in it for him? If I was the farmer, why would I do this? And of course trying to answer that question might have led them to the unfortunate truth.

The point is that you need to understand what the motivations and incentives of others are in order to fully understand the situation in which you find yourself. Crucially, those motivations and incentives may be very different from your own. You need an open mind and a breadth of understanding to avoid falling into the trap of thinking everyone is like you and that there is no alternative perspective you are missing.

The risk is there, even perhaps greater, for political campaigners. Most voters do not think like political campaigners, for they do not think about politics very much at all. That’s why Ed Maxfield and I spend several chapters in 101 Ways To Win An Election talking about how voters think and how to change their minds.

Wise political campaigners understand voters as they are, rather than simply assume or wish that they are like themselves. As the fate of the chickens shows, thinking everyone is like you leads to a messy end.


One response to “A chicken that was an economist would also be a good political campaigner”

  1. This is a good point. It’s so true of management too and of giving any kind of speech or presentation.

    Mind you, in one of Tom Holt’s books an intelligent sow cogitated about why the farmer, who took such good care of her and her offspring, kept taking them away from her, and concluded because his treatment of them was so caring, he must be taking the piglets away to give them a good start in life. However, this is Tom Holt and her theory turned out to be true.

    Your point about “laws” is so true of psephologists. This has always happened, so it will always happen. It’s also one of the reasons why so many people fail to spot a disaster approaching, whether a major accident or a military attack against a weak spot. Nothing like that has ever happened in my experience, so it won’t happen now. Instead I wrench what I’m observing round until it fits something with which I’m familiar.

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