It’s a great day for understanding how you think, today. On the one hand, we have UKIP launching a range of posters (of which this is the best example) which suggest that millions of people are coming to this country to steal away your job. Now this poster, indeed, the notion that a job can be stolen from someone, is ripe for the plucking as an example of faulty thinking processes, but what’s even better is comparing this with the sacking of David Moyes, the beleaguered manager of Manchester United. This news has been met with much analysis and punditry, describing the business thinking behind his sacking, namely the Glazer family who own MUFC deciding, on the basis of his performance, that he’s not the right man to invest £200 million in new players for a $3 billion public company that only makes £120 million profit, given their 11 defeats in the last season and poor overall performance compared with their past performance.
How do the two things relate? Well, on the one hand, we have a poster that describes the nature of work as being an employee’s personal possession that can be stolen away by other potential employees, the other is a news story that explains the status of the employee in terms of performance, returns on investment and the decision making power of the employer.
To put it simply, did a low paid Romanian immigrant steal David Moyes job? Or is that impossible? One thing is for sure, either David Moyes has been shafted by someone, or UKIP is trying to shaft us. Either way, this strange juxtaposition is an excellent story to explain how we see minds and intelligences guiding events where there are none. It’s called the “theory of mind”.
There are no coincidences. The notion of coincidence is very much the like the notion of luck, which also doesn’t exist. Both are a function of how your mind works. You see, everyone develops (around the age of 3) an innate understanding of the fact other people and things possess a mind of their own. This usually coincides with developing the ability to tell lies (around the age of 4). Basically, it’s very simple – when you realise that grown-ups don’t automatically know the truth of what you have seen or done, you intuitively understand that what goes on in your head, and what goes on in theirs, is private and unknowable.
That’s how we, as children, can blame the dog for drawing all over the wall in the kitchen when, in fact, we did it. Although we don’t have enough general knowledge to know that a grown-up will see our hands covered in chalk, or indeed that the grown-up will know dogs can’t draw, we do know that unless the grown-up saw us do it, they can’t actually know for sure it was us.
This sense of understanding that other people have minds of their own is called the “theory of mind”. If we didn’t have a “theory of mind” we couldn’t relate to each other socially, nor would we have been able to ask big questions about the nature of existence, like “why are we here?” or “why do we do the things we do?”. It’s the evolutionary cognitive process that makes our intelligence extend into advanced social and technological concepts as opposed to living like animals. Without understanding the needs of other life forms, we couldn’t grow crops or farm cattle, or do anything that wasn’t simply serving our basic needs to eat, survive and reproduce as individuals. It’s one of the things that makes human brains so remarkable, and very few species have the same level of advanced perception. We marvel at it in Dolphins and apes, we even laud dogs for showing a slight sense of ‘knowing’ us. But pretty much everything else thinks we’re going to kill it when they see us, like a pet Hamster, for example. We tame those creatures by getting them to associate us with food, we can’t convince them we’re not going to hurt them, they instinctively think of self preservation before they consider studying us to assess us as threats.
That’s UKIP’s policy on immigration. Don’t study it, just say “no” without thinking about it too much.
The problem with the “theory of mind” though is it starts us down a path of assigning intelligence to things that don’t exist. When things happen, we all have an inbuilt cognitive bias to assume someone or something made it happen. We see minds everywhere. Our ancient ancestors saw minds that governed the natural world, from the Sun to spirits and deities that made the seasons change. As society evolved, we looked for minds that governed social and cultural behaviours like social gatherings, love and war. Further social and cultural evolution brought us minds that made the world, made the universe, that governed where our own minds (souls) went when we died and so on.
This tendency to look for minds everywhere, leads us to luck and coincidence. These concepts stand out as remarkable, because they are as close as we get to a secular, impersonal mind. Luck (sometimes called a Lady, but not consistently enough to warrant a full blown deification as such) is considered more like a force of nature. Coincidence is an even more watered down version of this force. Of course, without an observer to define events as lucky or coincidental, they are just events, with no meaning other than the events themselves. We know this is a function of our “theory of mind” because people who suffer with Asberger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism, which describes people who don’t have a properly formed “theory of mind”) have, in studies, demonstrated they don’t believe in luck. Or deities. Or the supernatural at all. They see life as sequences of events, there’s no narrative of forces at work shaping their destiny, something the rest of us, no matter how logical or dispassionate, naturally reach for to explain our place in the world.
You can’t steal a job.
What the UKIP poster shows us, when we contrast it with David Moyes sacking, is simple. Jobs and employment are not personal possessions and we have no rights to own them. They are contractual relationships. Nothing more. The contractual conditions of employment are set mainly by the employer, and the local employment laws of the place where you work (set by the government), with a few fundamental rights that may apply at a higher level (like the European Union). Getting and keeping your job is down to you and your employer. That’s it. You can’t lose your job without one of those parties being involved, I.e.
- You get the sack for some reason
- You break the law (employment law or other, which affects your employment contract)
- You choose to leave (take redundancy)
- You’re made redundant (or retire).
Nobody can steal your job. However, they can compete for a job opportunity against you. But that’s not the same thing, is it? You can’t own the job you lose to another candidate, obviously, otherwise, there couldn’t be candidates at all, because the contracted employment position wouldn’t be open for competition to fulfil the contract, because it’s already being fulfilled by you. Either you have a job, or you don’t. Nobody stole it from you, because theft requires possession, and you can’t sneak into an office, stuff someone’s job in your pocket and come back the next day claiming it’s yours. It’s nonsense.
The UKIP poster is aimed at people who don’t have jobs
We live in a climate of high unemployment. The graph from the ONS shows us that unemployment is dropping slowly, but the last few years of economic crisis have taken their toll. These 2.3 million people who are unemployed are the ones who are at risk of losing out to other people competing for their next job. If there is a flood of immigrants into the country, as UKIP warns, this competition will get stiffer. Which is possible, but it’s not a one size fits all dilemma. After all, I don’t think UKIP’s finger is pointing at investment bankers, or particle physicists, or experienced managers with a kickass CV, is it? No. It’s aimed at the unemployed, which means (statistically speaking) lower paid workers, many of whom are young and recent school leavers or graduates, or unskilled labour.
The question it leaves us with is simple: Is the competition from immigrants for those jobs a primary factor in determining who gets them?
David Moyes has the answer
As we can see from the dismissal of David Moyes, the employer calls the shots. For the people who might lose out to immigrants, the immigrants aren’t themselves the problem, it’s one of economics. Employers want cheaper labour, which means lower wages and fewer benefits and work related costs, if immigrants tick more of those economic boxes, they are selected. It’s that simple. Because as we see from the Moyes example, it’s not just about the person, it’s about the balance sheet. Moyes will probably be replaced by an immigrant, there are few British candidates for the post, the MUFC bosses want someone with a track record and most of the likely candidates are Europeans running European teams. There’s a whole host of reasons for this decision, but it’s not because there are millions of possible candidates coming to the UK to run a premier league football club. It’s business. Business doesn’t respect society or culture over economics, that is the preserve of politics – and primarily, it seems, UKIP.
Was it all down to Moyes? We know he’s had problems with members of the squad. We know there are people within MUFC who have challenged his decisions. We know some of his signings have failed to live up to their big price ticket promise. We know the owners of MUFC play hardball over getting results for their money. We also know that replicating the success of Alex Ferguson’s 27 year career in 11 months, for anyone taking that job, is damn near impossible.
But that’s the job. It’s a tough old game, managing a premier league team. Fans can blame Moyes if they want, but in reality it’s a much more complex picture than that, comprising dozens of people within the organisation and comprising a multitude of variables within the concept of sporting competition. Blaming Moyes for not making the grade is like blaming immigrants for taking jobs in that respect, it’s aggregating a complex problem into a simple answer that doesn’t really describe the reality of the situation.
And the winning candidate is… Cognitive bias
So let’s consider the evidence. We know that all humans have a tendency to explain the world in terms of minds, it’s where we get the basic notion of God from, I.e. Why are we here? Because God put us here. It’s much easier to understand that than explain the scientific nature of the cosmos. Why did you win the lottery? It was luck, not the random selection of number sequences in a game of mathematical chance. Explain the recent woes of MUFC? It was the manager’s fault, not the nature of sport or corporate politics. How do immigrants affect your employment chances? By taking jobs that should have been yours, not because of the complex economics of business models that rely on contractual relationships between companies and individuals.
The point here is simple and ironic. The reality of our lives is complex. From the fact we even exist in the first place, through to the events we intersect with in our lives, to the economics of the employment market, our brains are trained to explain our lives in terms of a narrative – the story of ourselves. Stories need characters to work, heroes, villains, love interests, bit parts, extras. Recognising that there is no story, merely the functions of a social species, interacting on a daily basis within a system governed by economic laws like supply and demand, inflation, productivity and so on, is counter intuitive. We want to thank our lucky stars or blame the real culprit, not perform an analytical exercise in socio-economics to explain how we feel about our day either looking for work, or at the office.
Vote for your brain
The hero of your own personal story is your brain. You see, it doesn’t matter what you believe to be true, you have the ability to induct and deduct information. That’s why people don’t automatically know how they’ll vote for years in advance, otherwise we could say “I’m Labour” or “I’m Tory” and cast all their votes from 18 to 80 in the one go. But we don’t. We have regular elections to assess how our gut feelings, how our ability to predict events, panned out. We moderate our feelings with rational data. We’re not that good at it, admittedly, which is why very few children are atheists compared with adults, it takes time to question your beliefs, it takes experience. It’s the same with politics. It’s the same with economics. Eventually, we all work out that paying hundreds of pounds for a pair of jeans doesn’t automatically get you a better pair of jeans. Or that shopping in Waitrose is automatically better value than shopping in Aldi. Or that the reason you haven’t got a job isn’t just down to immigrants, it certainly has something to do with yourself as well as the companies who employ people.
But it takes time. It also is affected by what other people think. It’s what has been called the “Theory of social proof” – meaning we’re all inclined to believe the things most of our friends and neighbours believe. We used to think smoking was cool. We used to think petrol was better than diesel. We used to think Slavery was okay… or women didn’t need to vote in elections. We used to sacrifice goats to the Gods to bring us good luck.
Was David Moyes a good manager for MUFC? Well, somebody thought so before we saw what happened. Will UKIP turn the British economy around and tackle unemployment? Well, some people think so now. In both cases, we are applying our “Theory of Mind” to affect our choices before we have data to make a decision with. In both cases, we’re trusting in luck more than judgement, and in both cases we’ll make our final decision about wether we were right or not, based on results and the bottom line of the balance sheet.
One thing we can say for certain, is for whoever takes over MUFC and for the economic impact of immigration, there remains an element of blaming the dog for the crayon on the kitchen wall… there’s a whole layer of complex data regarding the mechanics of using crayons and the artistic abilities of dogs, without which we can’t possibly hope to fabricate a plausible explanation for something which is, clearly, the result of our own actions. Nothing in life is simply the result of actions by an unseen intelligence whose existence we can’t prove. Our brains have a tendency to invent these unseen minds, however, normally to explain the mess we’re in.