Take a look at this picture. You’ve probably already seen it, it’s all over Twitter. It’s caused a lot of political chatter, from both supporters and detractors, with the detractors cornering the market in parody and raising people’s spirits, certainly more so than the news of a marginal change in the real world cost of bingo and alcohol. Here’s an example of the satirical response:
The tax cuts might be substantial, relative to their own percentages, but in reality, this tax cut makes a minority of people slightly better off by a few pounds, maybe even a couple of hundred pounds if they’re very heavy beer drinkers or bingo players, but as nationwide population group, it’s a very small change in our collective retained income.
But the numbers aren’t fuelling the news story, the Twitter chat, the questions asked by journalists the morning after and so on. Explaining that, requires explaining something a little more complex. It’s the result of unconscious metadata processing – the unwritten backstory, the body of knowledge that we carry around in our heads which we use to annotate a singular event into the context of a bigger picture.
This ability to recognise a singular event and create a complex historical narrative to explain it, uses the principle defined by cognitive science back in the 1970s, namely the idea that “recognition is easier than recall”. It’s a thinking process that can’t function without memory… like familiarity, breeding contempt.
Looks familiar? The relationship of recognition and recall
Watching politics is like being ten years into watching soap opera. When character a does something to character b, we recognise the nature of that single event within the context of a collection of events in our memory. These past events weren’t present in our conscious minds when we started watching character a do something to character b, they were lurking as memories, organised, like a playlist on your iPod, to be used if and when they were needed to help us analyse the interactions we’re watching in real time.
Put simply, we anticipate heroes to be heroic, and villains to commit villainy, and we’ve got a whole bunch of memories we’ll access to explain it when they are heroic or villainous again. We observe their actions, recognise the pattern, pull up a playlist of memories that confirm we are correct in our recognition… and then our brains give us a little pat on the back for being right and release a hit of dopamine, which is the brain’s equivalent of rewarding you with a beer (and a game of bingo) for making an effort.
Our playlist of memories is more than the sum of its parts, once aggregated into an organised set of memories, it becomes meta data. It’s a set of information that isn’t written into the actual memories themselves, rather, something we create on top of them to explain why they belong together. It’s the basic brain function that describes learning. It’s invisible, unspoken and insubstantial, but it’s also the data that we use to form an opinion, more than what we see, hear and take part in.
To explain it, let’s use the Grant Shapps bingo poster. Here it is again, in all its cognitive dissonance glory:
Why would this poster, taken at face value, provoke a negative reaction?
Taken objectively, this is a good message. It’s colourful. It uses imagery of gaming, which is a leisure pursuit. People like that. It’s announcing a reduction in tax, which means people will be giving less money to the government, which is normally welcomed by the citizens of a state. It even explains that it’s motivated by a desire to reward hard working people (oddly written as one word) with more ability to enjoy themselves. We deserve a reward for hard work, that’s a basic life expectation shared by most moral and ethical frameworks.
It is, therefore, without question, an unequivocally positive message, structured in such a way to engage our brains to think positively. However, we recognise the blue colour is the colour of a political party. We recognise the message is coming from the government. So immediately that makes us cautious, because we’ve got a whole load of memories that tell us, historically, governments have a tendency to present bad news as good news.
We don’t trust politicians. When they say nice things, it makes us feel suspicious, because they’re really selling themselves to us. Who looks good in this poster, the deserving recipients or the benefactor who is handing out the reward? (The answer is, of course, both, but more the giver than the receiver, which is the basic premise of gift giving).
That question has an unconscious answer.
A cascade of “me, them and us” meta data
Once we’ve recognised the political nature of the image, we’ve got a whole queue of memory meta data we use to help analyse the picture. That creates a very interesting polarity in the final conclusion we make (either for or against it). However, both results are the end of the same process of rationalising our personal emotional and social motivations, framed by our memories. It’s like this:
- Emotional response: Politics is the process of making our personal values into frameworks of legislation. It is intensely emotional. If you see a political slogan that endorses your personal values, you react positively. Not just because you support the political issue, but (mainly) because the political issue affirms you. It’s an emotional support. We seek approval from authority, as children from our parents, as students from our lecturers endorsing our opinions with good grades, as adults from our bosses at work by giving us a promotion, from our sexual partners by enjoying our performance in bed, and so on. We like getting rewarded for getting something right. We’re emotionally motivated to support things that reflect our own sense of personal identity, and reward them when we seem them in others.
- Social response: Politics leverages community standards. We learn how to behave within a community, and those community rules give us social motivations to expect specific values and behaviours in others. It also defines our difference from other communities who have different standards. So, when you see the poster and the connection it makes between “hard working people”, “bingo” and “beer” (a set of vectors that gives us a clue as to their low economic status, because we assume that connection) – and the source of the poster, in this case a political party that enjoys the support and membership of an economically powerful, socially privileged community, what you recognise is a a judgement upon one community by another. This point may not seem obvious, but our memory meta data explains to us that old Etonians, wealthy businessmen and people with a certain kind of accent (an aggregate we can recognise as being the community creating the poster) are not the same community who are the typical bingo audience, or will be most affected by a marginal cut in the price of a pint of beer.
Ironically, if the poster announced a cut in Polo Pony taxes and the price of Bordeaux wine, it would appear less of a judgement by the wealthy upon their poorer neighbours, and people would be less polarised by it.
Meta data of implied meaning.
So within seconds of recognising the poster, we’re already forming rational arguments to explain a whole flood of memory meta data that shapes our reaction to it. But of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. This message implies that “hard working” people will be pleased with this news. That point implies a lot of unconscious connotations. That’s because we know the things that hard working people do for enjoyment are being misdescribed here. It doesn’t matter where you are from, your background, or anything else. The bottom line is, drinking beer and playing bingo are not important vectors in our quality of life. They are not an index that relate to happiness at all for most people. This poster is therefore making a deeply flawed correlation between things that we know to be, broadly speaking, barely connected.
I have a friend who is an investment banker. He works hard. He doesn’t drink alcohol at all and I sincerely doubt if he’s ever stepped foot inside a Mecca Bingo in his life. Neither have I, come to think of it. If you’re a muslim, you probably don’t do either of those things, because gambling and alcohol are culturally unacceptable. If you are a full time mother, faced with challenging economic circumstances, the difference this makes to your life is negligible compared with, for example, greater child support or lower grocery bills.
It says “hard working people” but doesn’t mean that, it means a subset of hard working people who play bingo and drink beer. Which, our meta data tells us, intrinsically means primarily a group of women and men whom, in the past, weren’t called “hard working people”, were called “Working class”.
If it said “Helping the working classes drink more beer and gamble” it would cause outrage. However, it doesn’t, so instead of outrage, we get satire. Satire is a proportional response to subtext. Call me a liar and I’ll react angrily, suggest I haven’t explained the whole story accurately, and I’ll make a more rational defence to explain myself.
Satire is a polite way of shouting “you’re talking shit”.
The unconscious judgements we communicate
So, when you bundle all that meta data together, we see why people reacted the way they did. This poster is presenting something which doesn’t really make sense to anyone. It implies that the social set that created it, are judging the social set it will affect, and their leisure pursuits as being, basically, getting pissed and frittering their money away down local bingo, chuck.
That implied meaning does one thing. It confirms prejudice. It either resonates with you because, on some unconscious level you agree with it, or it resonates with you because, again unconsciously, that’s the sort of thing you expect that political party to say – because they have a rather dim view of people like you.
The meta data paradox
Finally, we reach a conclusion. Drink beer and gamble, a bit cheaper. It’s either a gross miscalculation of the economic incentives and wellbeing benefits that motivate both behaviours, or it’s a high handed attempt to throw the dumb, cloth cap wearing northerners a bone from the window of your Bentley. Or it’s somewhere in between, depending on how your own playlist of memories accent the data.
What’s important to remember, is this: This message was constructed to communicate a specific, positive point. However it failed to recognise the people seeing it have complex, unconscious data processing built into their minds that would shape their response.
Which in the end, removes the politics and leaves us with the alarming conclusion that the politicians who created it assumed none of us have got a normally functioning brain. Which is, regardless of your own political leaning, the reason why you probably have an innate distrust of politicians.