Thursday, 22 May 2008

Introducing the "psycho-neuron-surgeon"

I'm all for disseminating psychological knowledge but a brave attempt to apply Daniel Kahneman's and Amos Tversky's Prospect theory to Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) may have been a step too far (watch the clip).

That's right, hot on the heels of the Times newspaper diagnosing Gordon Brown with a personality disorder, the Daily Politics programme on BBC 2 invited Steve Martin (author of "Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion") to analyse the behaviour of Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, during PMQs.

By the way, PMQs is a weekly half hour slot held at the Houses of Parliament during which MPs are able to ask questions of the PM. Martin attempted to apply the idea of loss aversion - the fact that we are more influenced by the prospect of losses than gains (part of Prospect Theory) - to an exchange between Cameron and Brown.

It's nice to see psychology being deployed in political analysis, but I fear that Martin was applying this particular theory inappropriately, at the wrong level of analysis, in a way that made it sound like he was just stating the obvious. Just to add insult to injury, the clip is labelled on the BBC site as "'Emotional Intelligence' at PMQs" - of course emotional intelligence is a quite separate concept from Prospect Theory, but never mind.

However, despite all this, it's well worth watching the clip, just to witness the sheer exasperation of Lord Charlie Falconer who was a guest on the show. He labels Martin a "psycho-neuron-surgeon", and his analysis as nothing more than "psychobabble".

Although Falconer's reaction was amusing, it's a shame that psychology was portrayed in this way. On the one hand, Prospect Theory is a hugely influential part of behavioural economics for which Kahneman and Tversky won the Nobel Prize - it just wasn't really relevant to analysing PMQs. On the other hand, political psychology is also a thriving sub-discipline, which has plenty to say about the way leaders present themselves, how they should form their arguments and about how voters behave. I haven't read it myself, but a review in the latest Psychologist magazine suggests this book could be a quality example of that.

Am I being too harsh on Martin? Do you think psychology came out of this looking bad? I'd love to know what you think: Watch the clip and have your say via Comments.

Link to clip from The Daily Politics Show broadcast on BBC 2 yesterday.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

1 comment:

Andy said...

This sums it up for me:

"Why are we talking about the precise detail of Gordon's personality traits... why aren't we talking about the substance of the issues?"

Falconer's bit in this is hilarious. "Psycho-neuron-babblist" - perfect :-D

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