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Opinion

February 28, 2018

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The recency error

Psychologists say that we human beings, by default or by design, make errors in judgement. Some of them are so ingrained in our psyche that we even make attempts to defend and justify them with the benefit of hindsight. One of them is the recency error, which is most commonly committed by politicians during elections.

Adept at using rhetoric, politicians choose the most recent issues and bring them to the limelight. The distant past and unforeseen future are skillfully replaced with the hype of the present.

The recency error is the outcome of the cognitive bias that occurs when a judgement is founded only on the readily recallable recent experiences and events from the environment in which one lives. In organisations, some employees tend to make use of this bias by performing well and trying to stay in the boss’s good graces in the period leading to the performance reviews. A naive boss tends to reward such employees without taking a holistic view of their performance.

In the political arena, people are unable to draw a complete picture of the performance and vision of different political parties before the elections. What they tend to do is make some sort of an episodic judgement. One significant factor that led to Hilary Clinton’s defeat in the presidential elections was the popping-up of the startling revelations surrounding her emails. Similarly, the killing of Osama bin Laden enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader and proved pivotal in his re-election in 2012. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan too had a profound impact on the election outcome.

Ideally, rulers need to be judged on the basis of their full-term performance across different parameters. Security, social welfare, relations with other countries and the economy are all important aspects on which to rate and rank governments. And while counting the number of projects and the amount of funds allocated for services, governments have to be watched closely in terms of efficiency, transparency and sustainability. The world has moved away from an input-based (budget allocation) performance to a result-oriented (social impact) one.

The media has a critical role to play in augmenting people’s short-term memory. Rather than hankering after daily ratings, the electronic media in particular should play clips, share stories and conduct surveys objectively about how much the governments have delivered on their promises. The partisan role of the media in matters of social significance may yield some short-term dividends, but it erodes its credibility as a conduit of information and public education. In the absence of objective reporting and a balanced analysis, people turn to social media to confirm their biases, which unwittingly affects the democratic ethos.

As the 2018 general elections draw closer, we will continue to be consumed by the usual mantras, told in a slightly different tone to create an election-specific sensory impact. Politicians will repeatedly tell stories of the corruption committed by their rivals to set the stage for a war of words; civil-military tensions will be played out of proportion; and new slogans of change, empowerment, patriotism, and Islamisation will be tossed in the air to make us forget the depressing past and wait for a yet-to-be-born bright future.

But we have to be vigilant of fashions and fads. While making our choices, we must transcend the bounds of our biradari, personal interests and emotional attachment that flow from race, language or region. A vote is a sacred trust which we should cast in a detached manner by empathising with the interests of the people and maintaining a holistic view of things from the perspective of a true Pakistani.

The writer teaches at the Sarhad University.

Email: zebkhan.ba@suit.edu.pk

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