Sunday, 18 November 2012

No surprises (2)

Following on from yesterday's post about Karl Friston's neurological work on how we act to minimise surprises, it may be worth applying the idea to politics. Do we vote for political parties because we judge them to be less capable of surprising us?

Maybe so. Human beings are programmed to seek out and value predictability. It’s a key survival trait which seeps into every aspect of our lives. The key attraction of big-government politics, is its promise of predictability through endless schemes of social control and the systematic elimination of surprises. 

So libertarian and free market politics are unattractive to most people simply because they embrace the dynamism of unpredictable outcomes. They promote the idea of adapting to and learning from surprises, but don’t seek to eliminate them. To many this is not acceptable - they don't want any surprises at all, especially from their government.

Adapt and survive may well be what we evolved to do, but one the whole we adapt by preferring predictable situations over unpredictable surprises. So it doesn’t actually matter how stupid governments are, what matters is that they should be perceived as predictable and incapable of surprising us.

Ed Miliband will not spring any surprises on us.
David Cameron may have a few surprises up his sleeve.

So unless circumstances change, Ed Miliband is likely to be our next Prime Minister. He will of course be hopeless, but politically that doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that his hopeless performance will be unsurprising.

It's what most of us want.

In which case, there are aspects of human behaviour we can't change, but are only able to mitigate, however rational we may think we are, or could be, or ought to be. One of them is a natural tendency by government and institutions to build unsurprising social, economic and political structures. Many of us perceive these structures as authoritarian or totalitarian - because they are.

It seems to me that the problem we face is that this tendency is innate. It may well be the reason why civilisations fail. It may even be the reason why they will continue to fail - including ours.

It's obvious I know, but Friston's theory, if correct, would also be subject to the goal of minimising surprises. I may like the theory because for me, it minimises surprises. The map is never complete.


Demetrius said...

That Ed Miliband is Ed Miliband never fails to surprise me.

James Higham said...

Until the surprises become so repetitive and so logically from the same cause, that people are finally forced to confront them and the possibility that there are going to be many more.

Then maudlin self-excusing sets in that we didn't see them coming.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - I sometimes wonder if it surprises him.

James - yes, and it is no surprise if those that do see them coming are frustrated.

Sam Vega said...

There is a great deal of baleful significance in your point that governments want to be perceived as protecting us from surprises. This means that in our inherently unstable world they will be tempted to lie - big time - about events that have already happened or are bearing down on us. Gordon Brown's administration, for example, seems to be an example of a government that excelled in telling the people a series of comforting lies.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I think may collude with the lies too - they prefer false predictability to honesty.