Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear offers a psychological model for how we, as ex-hunter-gatherers, make decisions about stuff. Apparently we have two separate modes of thought, which psychologists call System One and System Two and Gardner, with rather more of an eye on bestseller status, calls Head and Gut. Instinctively, you can guess what those mean and some careful thought plus a bit of research would tell you you were right.
Gut is where elections are won and lost. Head might sway politicos, journalists, academics and hobbyists/junkies; a full 1% of the population taken care of. Everyone else has better things to do with their time than read economic history or position papers, and so relies on headlines, soundbites and topical comedy shows to tell them what's going on.
Gut is what's killing Labour right now. Take the latest expenses revelations: while there appear* to be some genuine (fairly flagrant) abuses from various Cabinet Ministers, the accusation against Brown himself is pretty flimsy. £6,000 to brother for "cleaning services"! scream the headlines, generously larded with a near-audible,"Oh Yeah?". But Downing St have released what looks a lot like a contract for cleaning services, for the appropriate amounts, over the right time-period. Nor is it an exorbitant some of money for two years worth of cleaning. It probably is, in fact, exactly what it appears to be - an arrangement between two brothers to share a cleaner.
Doesn't matter. Who cares about the contract? That's not the point. We're surrounded by stories where £££ + "Odd Financial Arrangement" = Corruption. This story fits that pattern. And that is more than good enough for Gut. Head might think differently if it ever took a look, but it probably won't. As Gardner says, Head is a bright underacheiver - capable of greatness, sure, but far happier to sit back and let Gut do the driving. Proper thinking is a lot of effort, and who's going to do it on the off-chance that some politician isn't as bad as he's painted?
There's a point to this, but at the risk of creating an artificial sense of suspense, I'm going to leave it to my next post.