Perception — from monkeys to politics – By @CharlesHueWill1

By Charles Hue Williams


Perception — from monkeys to politics


We were treated to an exceptional first masterclass, in our new Pop residence, by the illustrious Rory Sutherland and he certainly didn’t disappoint. 

Rory showed the power of perception and how an audience can be swayed by emotion over logic. He provided an example of how a capuchin monkey in captivity was satisfied with receiving a wedge of cucumber, as a reward for completing the task of returning a rock. This was until the monkey saw its neighbour awarded a grape for the same task, causing the capuchin to become agitated and uncooperative. The idea makes obvious sense on paper. Most people are familiar with the concept of fairness, working on an even basis for equal reward. Although we are familiar with this basic concept, it still isn’t upheld as common practise, demonstrated most evidently by the gender pay gap. Watching this monkey’s reaction created a similar state of disbelief. One moment, so content with the reward, to suddenly change perceptions based on a comparative choice. This provides an interesting insight into the complex world of behavioural decision making. Conveying that an audience will not just evaluate based on their own preference but also the preferences defined by society. 

In ‘Made to Stick’, Chip and Dan Heath make reference to Donald Kinder, a political science professor from the University of Michigan, who produced an influential study on self-interest in politics, spanning thirty years. The survey seemed to produce counterintuitive results, with people not necessarily favouring self-interest unless the policy at hand delivered significant, tangible and immediate effects. On one side Kinder establishes that the medically needy are no more likely to favour government health Insurance than the fully insured. He goes on to demonstrate however that when decisions are taken on as a group, self-interest does seem to prevail or at least magnify. One particular example was from a 1978 Californian ballot initiative which called for a sharp reduction in property taxes in exchange for an equally large reductions in public service funding. Although beneficiaries of the public services, the homeowners voted to apply the cuts, seeing more immediate value in a tax reduction, than the potential negative effects on a service they may or may not rely on in the future. This group interest provided a sway on perception, where the measurable and now, out-weighed the potential of what if and when. 

Kinder explains how self interest in politics isn’t the whole equation though. Principles, equality, individualism, ideals about government, human rights and much more can gain significant appeal, even if they contradict immediate self-interest. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez produced one of America’s most recent, shocking political upsets when she beat Joe Crowley as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. Crowley was sitting on an unchallenged, ten year position, backed by corporate money. Ocasio-Cortez’s in comparison, campaign came from a financially disadvantaged grassroots mobilisation. Although Crowley had reliability and a proven track record, he was unable to sufficiently connect with audience principals allowing newcomer Ocasio-Cortez to gain enough sway, winning over the district. 

Rory’s talk had a powerful underlying message. It is not enough to rely on preconceived notions of how you expect an audience to react based on logic. You must instead understand the 

audience, plan for potential perceptions and utilise the space between the rational and the emotional, to find the magic. 

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