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Warm Water

Published: Jun 22 , 2017
Author: Stephen White

In his excellent book Homo Deus Yuval Harari describes an experiment conducted by Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. A group of volunteers were asked to take part in a ‘short’ experiment - they were to place one hand into a bowl of water at an exact 14C (cold enough to be quite unpleasant) for 60 seconds. The same group were also asked to take part in a ‘long’ experiment – to place their other hand in a bowl of water at 14C for 90 seconds. However, unknown to the volunteers, a small amount of warmer water was added to this bowl in the last 30 seconds which raised the temperature to a slightly warmer 15C. Some did the ‘short’ experiment first, others did the ‘long’ experiment first.

7 minutes after they had completed their second experiment the volunteers were told they had to repeat one of the two experiments but they could choose ‘short’ or ‘long’. 80% of them chose ‘long’ because the thing they remembered most was the slightly warmer water.

I’m sure there are many interesting conclusions that have been drawn from this result. For this blog the important one is that our memory of the ‘better’ bit – in this case the slightly warmer water – makes us blind to duration – that in total the unpleasantness lasted for half as long again.

There have been countless explanations for the relative success of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent UK election, and the relative failure of Theresa May. Daniel Kahneman might offer us yet another. Prime Minister May was almost universally viewed as competent by the UK electorate until the four weeks leading up to the election. She had occupied the position for almost a year; came across as determined, driven, strong-willed and sensible. Comparatively Jeremy Corbyn during his second year as Leader of the Labour Party was considered by many Labour voters, and indeed by most Labour MPs as ideological, unpragmatic, weak and indecisive.

None of which mattered, because their performances in the last 4 weeks of the election campaign neutralised the whole of the previous year. Mathematically (and to be honest very simplistically) if a good week was scored 5 and a bad week was scored 1 Theresa May should have ended with an average score of (48x5 + 4x1 /52) = 4.7, whilst Jeremy Corbyn should have scored (48x1 + 4x5) = 1.3. But traditional Labour voters who swore that they wouldn’t vote for the party whilst Jeremy was in charge ultimately remembered the slightly warmer water. The rest is history.

This psychological phenomenon is the basis of the negotiating technique ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’. Having been battered by aggressive behaviour, the mug negotiator is willingly suckered into concession by a few minutes of pleasantness from the Good Cop. Unlike the UK electorate, Beware!




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Stephen White
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