18 April, 2024

Blog

In This Election Year, Sri Lanka Needs A Lot Of Rationally Thinking People

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

An emotionally driven voter-base

In 2024, Sri Lankan voters will be given the choice of electing their leaders through the power of the ballot. This is an important occasion for Sri Lanka which is a long surviving democracy in South Asia, next only to India. However, a common allegation is that, throughout the post-independence history, the voters have not done their job correctly. Instead of being rational choosers, they have acted on emotions created by political leaders of all hues.

There are many examples which can be quoted to substantiate this claim. On one occasion, it was the promise of making Sinhala the official language of the country. We as voters were jubilant over this promise. However, even after 15 years, when this writer joined the public service, it was the English language that was reigning in the leading government institutions in the country. Without English, no existence or career advancement there.

Then, there was the promise of eliminating the shortage of the staple food of Sri Lankans – rice – in the market sourcing it even from the moon, the most unexpected place to get that stuff. But what was delivered was a ban on transporting rice prom producing areas to the market by erecting control barriers operated by party cadres on main supply routes. As a result, the shortage worsened.

Then, there was the promise of creating a righteous society by enforcing laws equally on everybody, irrespective of party affiliations. But many actions taken by the rulers were quite contrary to this ideal. More recently, voters were emotionalised by promising to reestablish a government ruled by ‘good governance’ and ushering an era in which people will enjoy the highest level of prosperity. But like the previous promises, they all remained unfulfilled. Hence, at an election, political leaders would emotionalise voters to gain power but after the election, they simply forget about it leaving the voters in the lurch. Hence, acting rationally is a must for voters at the forthcoming elections.

The rational man in economics

In economics, rational choice means that individuals collect all the information on an issue, carefully weigh the good side and the bad side of making a choice and go for it if and only if the good side is more than or equal to the bad side. The good side is known as benefits and the bad side, costs. When benefits are more than costs, there is a net gain; when they are equal, it at least compensates for the efforts made and therefore does not involve a loss.

Consider what happens to you when you buy a loaf of bread. When you eat the bread, there is a pleasure, called utility in economics. Money you spent on it is a cost and a loss to you. When you gain more utility than the loss, you accumulate a surplus and you are on to a good deal. It is a more promising exchange that will prompt you to go for it. If the utility is equal to costs, you have been properly compensated for the loss and it is still a good deal. That is because it is an equal exchange. Hence, when making economic choices, all participants are expected to behave rationally to make the best for themselves.

Characteristics of a rational man

This rational choice is valid for elections as well. The politicians stand to gain if people are irrational, and it is caused by emotional feelings like fear or expected super gains. Both are roused by politicians at the time of elections. It is easy to act on emotions because it gives a sudden feeling of fulfilment without the need for taking a laborious path to act as a rational chooser.

In a previous article in this series dealing on ‘God Natha Promise’ and the ‘fear of grease devils’, I have explained the fundamental work that a rational man should do as follows: “A rational man has several features. He chooses the best for him which economists call the optimal choice after carefully considering all the costs and benefits of his choice. To do so, he acquires all the relevant information necessary. Once he makes his choice, he is consistent and does not contradict himself later. He is motivated by incentives and if there is a profit opportunity, he never misses it. To be able to make optimal choices for himself, he builds a store of knowledge within himself or within easy reach. He continuously updates his knowledge by being a constant learner. He does not intellectually depend on anyone else and, given a situation, can make rational and best choices for him. Thus, in terms of the popular usage, the rational man makes decisions not from his heart, but from his head.”

Hence, though rational behaviour helps people to make optimal choices, it is costly to follow that path. As a result, people will choose to avoid that path if it is possible.

Lao-Tzu: Filling the bellies of people and removing thinking power from their heads

Kings and their servants will promote irrational behaviour among people according to the 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu and the 4th century BCE Indian Guru of economics, Kautilya. In today’s world, you can substitute ‘politicians and their supporters’ for ‘kings and their servants’. Lao-Tzu in his treatise, The Tao Te Ching, said that king’s servants will fill the bellies of people with foods but remove their thinking power from the heads. Then, they become totally pliable to the dictates of the kings. This creates ‘desire’, an emotional craving, in them. Lao-Tzu further says that for people to see the depth of the mysterious world, they should be devoid of desire. But if they are filled with desire, they will see only the outer fringe of the mystery.

This reminds us of a popular Sinhala song, of which the lyrics have been written by Atthidiye Punnaratana Thero, sung by Sunjeewa Lonliyes under the caption ‘Pitacovare’ or the cover page. It says that ‘people are always looking at the cover page instead of reading the book’; here the cover page is the outer fringe of the mystery, and the book is the depth of the mystery. Therefore, politicians and their supporters always stand to gain if people look at only the cover page rather than reading the whole book. Hence, you all have to do is to paint the cover page with appealing colours and attractive symbols to bring voters under your dictates.

Kautilya: Nothing wrong in cheating fools

In a similar vein, Kautilya offered a fine piece of advice to the king in his treatise on economics, The Arthashastra. He said that when the king’s treasury runs low, he should use extraordinary measures to build the treasury. Collecting money by exploiting the gullibility of people to superstitious beliefs is one such measure he has suggested. They include common ways of fooling people with all kinds miracles, wonders and tricks: ‘building overnight as if it happened by a miracle, a temple or a sanctuary and promote the holding of fairs and festivals in honour of the miraculous deity; exploiting an unnatural happening such as an unseasoned flower or fruit by making it into a divine phenomenon; using secret agents to frighten people into making offerings to drive away an evil spirit; playing tricks on people by showing a cobra apparently with many heads or a stone cobra coming alive and finally selling remedies against evil occult manifestations.

Kautilya further recommends that if people are not easily taken in, they should be frightened into doing so. Secret agents who include wandering ascetics working for the king as well should give unbelievers an anaesthetic in water and blame their condition on a curse of the gods or kill a condemned criminal by poison and attribute his death to divine retribution. Therefore, the emergence of a cobra with a message from the world of the cobras is a common trick played by politicians to fool the gullible voters and win elections. Likewise, voters should not be surprised to see a stranger appearing to claim that he is a Bodhisatva’, one to gain enlightenment in a future life, and delivers a message to people to vote for the politician for whom he works.

Bounded rationality

It was the Carnegie Mellon University Professor Herbert A. Simon who challenged the validity of unbounded rationality by suggesting, as far back as 1957, the concept of bounded rationality. Using his multi-disciplinary knowledge of sociology, psychology, political science and economics, Simon suggested that men are inflicted by three handicaps. First, men are unable to calculate the relevant probabilities of an outcome of an action they have taken. This pertains to the inability of gathering the required information to make a choice. Second, even if they can gather the relevant information, they have the limitation of understanding and interpreting such information. This he called the limitation on the cognitive power of people, that is, their ability to think, learn, understand, reason and remember. As a result, human memories are weak, incapable and unreliable when it comes to making optimal choices. Third, people do not have time to make optimal choices by considering all the facts. Hence, they make decisions but those decisions are not optimal decisions. They are rational, but not to the extent of the unbounded rationality assumed in economics.

This special rationality which is constrained by the above boundaries, namely, lack of information, lack of brain power and lack of time, was termed by Simon as ‘bounded rationality’. Then, if people do not optimise, what do they do? They would simply make the first choice by considering only the available information and available time based on their brain capacity rather than going for the best. Simon coined a special term to describe this by combining the two words ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’. That term was ‘satisfice’ and those who practice satisficing were called ‘satisficers’. Even after five and a half decades of coining this term, it is yet to get into standard Oxford or Cambridge Dictionaries, though it is widely used in behavioural economics, management and strategy. Simon’s bounded rationality offered immense opportunities for decision making science in economics and management. For this unique contribution he made, he was awarded Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978.

Kahneman and Tversky approach

Two decades after Simon, two other psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky of Stanford University at that time, came up with a new decision making process by people based on the trial and error learning method of their intuitive understanding and the allegiance to such intuitive understanding. The trial and learning method was called heuristic and the allegiance bias; hence, the approach was known as ‘heuristic biased approach’. For a layman, it is simply the use of rules of thumb (heuristics) influenced by most recent experiences (bias) when making decisions in cases where they do not know the full outcomes.

The simple explanation of this approach is that people have an intuitive pool of knowledge which they build up through emotions and fears and that pool is brought into action when they make a choice. For instance, if people believe that a certain politician is corrupt, whenever they are asked to make a choice about him, their view on him gets coloured by that built in bias, despite the convincing logic contrary to that view. Thus, people have lifelong loyalties to religions, cults, political parties, political leaders, brands or economic systems based on these biases and aversion to some others based on built in prejudices.

The Canadian journalist Dan Gardener in a book titled ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’ and published in 2008, has presented the Kahneman – Tversky theory with full of psychology jargons in simple language. According to the two psychologists, there are three components in making these choices: anchoring and adjustment heuristic, representativeness heuristic and the availability heuristic. Anchoring and adjustment heuristic is that when we make choices, we remember only the most recent event relating to the situation and we anchor ourselves to that event. So, the rule of thumb is, according to Gardener, ‘the Anchoring Rule’. If we are asked about a politician and all we remember is something nasty he has spoken about women, we like a herd, decide on him based on that anchor, even without considering the logic of his saying about women.

Representativeness heuristic is simply that we form an opinion about an event before us based on our pool of emotional knowledge. There was a friend of mine who argued with me for hours that tobacco companies are bent on destroying Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist culture despite my saying that even the Buddhist priests chew a little bit of tobacco as a routine when they chew betel. But for him, driven by fear, tobacco companies are a typical representation of destroying a wide and established culture. Gardener calls this ‘the Rule of Typical Things’ The availability heuristic is a rule of thumb about a common example which we bring to play when we make choices.

There could be many examples in store in our mind relating to the matter; but what we use is simply the easiest one which we can remember and that easiest one is marred by our emotions and fears. For instance, if we have been frightened by a grease devil prowling in streets in the nights, any male we meet in the street in the night is a grease devil for us. Gardener has termed this ‘the Example Rule’. The research done by Kahneman and Tversky was used by another economist at Stanford, Richard Thaler, to lay the foundation for a new branch in economics, now known as ‘behavioural economics’. Kahneman was also awarded Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for his contribution to economic decision making. Many believe that Tversky too would have been a co-recipient in this event had he not pre-deceased.

Rational fools

Amartya Sen, another Nobel Laureate, made a different type attack on rationality. In a paper titled ‘Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioural Foundation of Economic Theory’ and published in 1977, Sen argued that a choice by a typical person from within a given set of choices is sub optimal because he has no opportunity to choose from a wider spectrum of choices. He may be rational in his choice by considering all the available information and carefully calculating all the costs and benefits within the given narrow option available. But according to Sen, he is a ‘rational fool’ because his choice is limited by the boundary of the option available to him. Hence, even in ordinary economic rationality, one would not get the best option or choice.

Sen’s argument has nothing to do with emotions and fear. But, it helps one to understand that choosing from limited options is not the best for a person. This very well fits to the political party system in China or Viet Nam or Cuba. People there have to choose candidates fielded by the same political party since there is no multi-party system in those countries. Since the choice is from within a single party, the choosers are rational fools. A similar situation has arisen in the preferential voting system in Sri Lanka. After voting for a party, choosing candidates fielded by the same party is an act being a rational fool by a Sri Lankan voter. That may be the reason for many voters, after voting for the party, not to cast the preferential vote for individual candidates. In Sri Lanka, if people choose the same people as their rulers again and again, they are simply rational fools.

At this crucial hour, Sri Lanka does not need rational fools or those whose rationality is bounded by constraints. It needs a lot of rational people to elect their future leaders. If they are not rational, they will be fooled by their political leaders by filling the bellies but removing thinking power from heads.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 5
    11

    Anyone who has studied the psychology of decision making, or those who are in advertising and marketing fields, or even in sales, would tell you that human beings first make decisions based on their emotions, which they subsequently justify, using rationality. Quantum physicists would go a step further and even claim that there’s no free will, let alone rational decision making. Economics on the otherhand often critiqued for not being grounded on science, especially behavioural economics, albeit some noble prizes that have been won by several economists in the field.
    .
    To address the specifics of the essay; the author states: “In Sri Lanka, if people choose the same people as their rulers again and again, they are simply rational fools.”. Doesn’t this contradict his own definition of rational fools? Simply put what can people do if its the same old candidates that seek election, over and over again?
    .
    Despite the multitude of parties available, infact too many of them, in Sri Lanka, people still have no real say in the choices each party make when coming up with their candidates, not just in Sri Lanka, but in any other democracy too, including the ones like the US and UK. Democracy it seems like makes rational fools out of the electorate by default.

    • 1
      9

      Cont’d…

      .
      Bandaranayake’s pledge to change the language policy had some rational basis within the context existed in the society during that time. He from what I have heard turbo charged it with emotions by promising to change the policy within 24 hours of being elected to differentiate him from his opponents who also made the same pledge sans 24 hour condition.

  • 10
    2

    Opinions of the salt of the Lankan earth ………….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHM0jLB48A8 ……….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtYHmJdMOng

    They have very little to go on to make an informed decision or choice at election time ……. they are kept in the dark by our education-system ……. and by teachers like Sinhala_Man who feed them only the garbage of one political party or another …….

    Media barons with vested interests do not help either ……… they feed only one line of garbage that makes most money for the crooks ……

    Unfortunately this is the lot of these good people who just want to make a honest living.

    If I was born in some remote village in Hambanthota district …….. and my only exposure to the outside world was teachers like Sinhala_Man …….. I too wouldn’t have been able to punch my way out of a paper bag …………… not that I can do it now but that’s an entirely different shindig …..

    • 8
      0

      The crowning moment of Ranil’s presidency! ……. Lankan anglophile Uncle Toms are over the moon, just cock-a-hoop ……. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFvs-eKYCIo

      Native’s in there …….. dressed in his finery. :))

      • 7
        0

        nimal fernando

        “The crowning moment of Ranil’s presidency! ……. “

        Where were those eminent persons such as Wimal Weerawansa, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Uday Ganampilla, Dinesh, Champika Ranawake, Mahinda, Gota, Basil, …….. most importantly Namal Baby, ….. Sarath Weerasekera, ….. our Surgeon General Shavendra, ….. Tilvin,Vijitha Herath, …..Channa Jayasumana ?

        • 3
          0

          Native,

          Why did you miss naming your best buddy Gunduvindu? …… This guy too missed the party ….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvXo41Zugkg&t=57s

          It’s a strange feeling …….. just a couple of days ago I was roaming those areas …….

          • 3
            0

            I really like this priest ……. he is a credit to Sinhala-Buddhism …… speaks not like Buddha, which is old had; speaks like a modern-day politician ………….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSFo6o-i_wg

            All cults seduce people by numbing their minds …… taking over their thinking. ……… Thinking for them is done by someone else.

            “Sinhala-Buddhism” is a cult ………. Native and I are scathing against it.

            Ranil is also a cult ……. only I’m scathing against it.

            Native has gone missing ……. flown away with the fairies ………..

          • 1
            0

            nimal fernando

            Whats is going on in this island?

            Those who watched the entire incident felt like watching English movie, like Chicago in the 1920s, 30s, Al Capones, .
            Could you find out which of the Sri Lankan J. Edgar Hoover is protecting these Sri Lankan variety.

            A few Chandiya monks are linked to this party.

            While you are here can you not find a way to eradicate the crooks, starting from the top.

          • 1
            0

            nimal fernando

            Whats is going on in this island?

            Those who watched the entire incident felt like watching English movie, like Chicago in the 1920s, 30s, Al Capones, .
            Could you find out which of the Sri Lankan J. Edgar Hoover is protecting these Sri Lankan variety.

            A few Chandiya monks are linked to this party.

            While you are here can you not find a way to eradicate the crooks, starting from the top.

            Look into
            Pre-and post-Aragalaya sugar tax scams and culpability of Finance Ministry

            https://island.lk/pre-and-post-aragalaya-sugar-tax-scams-and-culpability-of-financeministry/#:~:text=The%20Supreme%20Court%20ruling%20delivered,and%20Basil%20Rajapaksa%20and%20others.

  • 9
    0

    ‘An emotionally driven voter-base’, is an inaccurate description. The reality is that we have an irrationally motivated voter-base.
    Over the years, the idea that depriving others is best way to feed yourself has been fed into the minds of the voting population.
    Principles of economic thinking has been plucked away from the minds of the voters.

    • 5
      0

      Nathan,During the British rule, Tamils had the opportunity to have the opportunity to learn the English language and get into the public sector and travel abroad to earn money in many other countries. Comparatively few Sinhalese had that opportunity. With the Power changed from British to Sinhalese, they have to compete for power they took up racism as the cheapest option to get into the power. It is natural for human beings if something comes cheaper without much effort. Sinhalese thought that it was the right decision. There is nothing wrong with the voters decision. Within 65 years they never expected that Tamils took arms and it lasted for 30 years and it left them bankrupt by their leaders.It is too late, and they have no option and it is difficult to come out with mentality of the cheapest option.

  • 17
    1

    WAW, says ” in this election year, Silly Lanka needs a lot of rationally thinking people “, NO KIDDING. What about after election or years before election ???? I guess, it really doesn’t matter.

    • 18
      1

      Today’s news, yet another underworld politician and “ape jana bala party leader ( looks like in Lanka every criminal has started / own their party ) , was one among five, shot dead this morning. This criminal was arrested and released in 2022 for aiding and abetting a suspect connected to a murder. He also faced allegations over the murder of Balapitiya PS Chairman and his son. Welcome to Silly, Stupid, Sorry Lanka politics.

    • 3
      12

      Don’t expect any elections from elections rejected illegal Christian head of state RW.

  • 11
    0

    Thank you WAW.
    Lack of rationally thinking people (educated or not) is made used by the crooked politicians. Hindu or Buddhist Fundamentalists are irrational people. They are made irrational by the CROOKED politicians to get total power. Easter Bombings on 21/4/19 was staged to make SL voters to become irrational. The country will not prosper as long as there is no justice for the people who were made to disappear or maimed by the STATE.
    It includes people from the minority or majority race.

  • 13
    0

    “Sri Lanka Needs A Lot Of Rationally Thinking People”
    How can a population with an average IQ of 79 points think rationally?

  • 3
    0

    As usual Dr. WAW has done a well researched presentation of how decisions are made by voters – most of which goes over my head as I skim through the article.

    To my mind the most important paragraph is the last one – Rational Fools. The most important sentences are as follows:

    “he is a ‘rational fool’ because his choice is limited by the boundary of the option available to him. Hence, even in ordinary economic rationality, one would not get the best option or choice.”

    No solution is suggested to resolve this issue.

    At the rate political bargaining is taking place, we will continue to face this problem in every future election unless we are given the choice –

    “NONE OF THE ABOVE”

  • 5
    0

    The rules should also be changed as follows:

    Nobody over 65 years can contest any election
    No salaries and perks. Only an attendance allowance of Rs.5000 per sitting.
    One cannot serve any Council, Parliament etc. for more than two terms.
    No legal immunity.

    If these are adhered to, everything will fall into place and we will have good governance.

  • 3
    1

    Our leader is fast being recognized as a world authority on climate change, economics,
    debt consolidation, and more recently on struggles for autonomy. He has proven himself to be unelectable by popular vote, but yet, might even be a strong contender for a Nobel Prize. So why worry about “A lot of rationally thinking people” – leave it all up to Him.

    • 7
      0

      Pundit, you forgot Buddhism, the only subject on which the leader has written something ( Gibberish actually) As to the other subjects, he is a conman !

  • 8
    0

    Well written by Dr. Wijewardena. However instead of calling most of the Sri Lankan voters as rational fools, I would name them as unintelligent, illogical and incoherent. Over 90% literacy rate is irrelevant here, as the ability to read and write a language has not made people intelligent. That’s the plain truth, sadly.

  • 4
    0

    Rs 5000 1/4 of Arrack and a parcel…. Simple

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.