A blind choice?

Photographer: Michael Tubi/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Outrage Clouds Political Judgment, in U.K. and Beyond

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Whether or not it was justified, Britain's vote to leave the European Union was rooted, in large part, in a widespread sense of outrage. To understand the underlying political psychology, and see how to respond to it, it’s important to know something about outrage in general.

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton, David Schkade of the University of San Diego and I teamed up to study how ordinary people think about punishment. We looked in particular at punitive damages, which juries award in the face of egregious misconduct -- say, when tobacco companies have hidden information about the health risks of smoking, or when a manufacturer has sold toys that it knows are dangerous to children.

One important thing we learned was that people’s judgments are driven mainly by outrage. Jurors are “intuitive retributivists.” If a company has acted badly, people want to punish it -- not in order to deter future misconduct, but simply because they're outraged. And the more outraged they are, the more punishment they want to inflict.

You might think that’s obvious, but it has a major implication: People don’t like to focus on the actual consequences, good or bad, of punishing wrongdoers. When we tried to get them to do that, we failed.

On this count, the most striking evidence comes from the psychologist Jonathan Baron of the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues discovered that, in deciding whether to impose punishment for corporate misconduct, most people will award a stiff penalty even if the effect would be to stop a company from making a highly beneficial product, such as a life-saving vaccine.

Which brings us to the British vote. Sure, the U.K. had an intense debate about what would happen if the country left the EU, but many voters were simply outraged, and wanted to register that fact.

That presents a challenge for other countries facing similar nationalist fervor -- not only in Europe but in the U.S., as well. Can anything be done to combat that fervor? There are three answers.

The first draws directly from behavioral science: Enlist loss aversion. People really dislike it when they incur losses from the status quo. In fact they are far more likely to be influenced by the prospect of loss than by any possibility of gain.

In the U.K., a strong majority of young people voted Remain, in part because they had a keen sense of the losses that leaving Europe could inflict. In nations debating their own possible exits -- such as the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark -- those who favor continued EU membership would do well to stress what people would lose without it.

The second answer is to shift the focus of outrage. Nationalist movements often succeed in channeling pre-existing grievances, whether they involve economic stagnation, lost jobs or a general feeling of powerlessness or humiliation. The best way to respond might be to focus, not on nationalism, but instead on the indifference, incompetence or corruption of private or public institutions.

By arguing in favor of bold economic or political reforms, rather than incremental ones, unjustified nationalist impulses might be defeated.

The third answer is the bravest and also the most respectful of voters: Engage the consequences, honestly and repeatedly. Although people who are outraged want to punish somebody, it may not be futile, in a political context, to try to specify a course of action that would have better consequences.

It’s true that, for those in the U.K. who favored Remain, such efforts didn’t work out so well. But, at least in its immediate aftermath, Brexit is causing real harm, just as its opponents predicted. That’s ominous for other nations facing serious movements to leave the EU. And it may be ominous, too, for Americans deciding what to make of Donald Trump's proposals to scale back U.S. engagement with the rest of the world, rethink trade deals and limit immigration. One way to respond is to argue, and try to show in concrete terms, that the result would be significant damage to many millions of Americans.

As for jurors, so, too, for voters: When citizens are outraged, retribution has immense appeal. But when public outrage moves people toward harming their own interests, well-chosen counterarguments about consequences have the potential to ensure that, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net