The Boris bounce and the science of optimism

15 Aug 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 15 Aug 2019

Boris Johnson chairs his first Cabinet meeting

Before he took office Jacob Rees-Mogg said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson “must peddle optimism as if he were a steroid-boosted cyclist trying to win the Tour de France.” And so it has come to pass.


In his first speech, on the steps of Downing Street, Johnson said: “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters – they are going to get it wrong again. The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts…to all those who say we cannot be ready I say do not underestimate this country … after three years of unfounded self-doubt it is time to change the record.”

“No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country.”

Many in Ireland, north and south were alarmed by this. But the message was largely aimed at English voters in the General Election which will surely follow.

This prompts a simple question. How potent is political optimism and will his strategy work?

There is plenty of precedent.

In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt delivered an assault on political cynicism that has become one of the most quoted political speeches of all time: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Johnson’s own political hero Winston Churchill said:  "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." 

And the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini stated:  “Men do not move mountains; it is only necessary to create the illusion that mountains move.”

It is important to note that Johnson has yet to come up with a solution to the Irish backstop save only to say that if the United States could find a way to place men on the moon 50 years ago, “we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border.”

What he is offering is an escape from “the hamster wheel” of doom and attempting to re-brand a grave political and economic crisis into an opportunity something he sees as a “new golden age.” The proposition is to replace the current politics of pessimism with the politics of optimism.

This has been backed by a series of populist spending measures, from cracking down on crime to resolving the crisis in social care. Will this win an election?

Optimism has been well researched by psychologists over the past few decades.

Historically it has been associated with simplistic and delusional people. Freud called it “Illusory denial” and optimists are often branded “Pollyanna” after Eleanor Porter’s children’s book of the same name.

Yet research suggests that optimism is hard-wired into humans – an important evolutionary aspect of our continued survival. Research quoted in Positive Psychology suggests that 80% of us have an optimistic disposition.

We also know that optimism leads to better life expectancy, general health, mental health, increased success in sports and work, greater recovery rates from heart operations and better coping strategies when faced with adversity.

It follows that people are attracted to optimism in others.

Advertising agencies have long exploited this. The website Changing Minds gives a  guide to running successful campaigns. It has this to say about the power of positive messaging. “When a message makes you feel bad, you are likely to want to run away from it. On the other hand, messages that make you feel good attract you in as you seek more of those good feelings. Campaigns thus seek to create warmth, happiness and excitement that people find attractive and desirable.”

Earlier this week the Daily Telegraph published an opinion poll which appears to show that Johnson’s optimistic messaging is having an impact.

It revealed that, should MPs act to attempt to block Brexit, they cannot rely on the support of voters. Asked whether they thought Parliament was more in tune with the public than Mr Johnson, 62 per cent disagreed. Even amongst Labour voters the split was 50-50. And nine out of ten said that MPs were out of touch with the public. Fifty four percent of people say that Johnson has performed better than expected and his party has surged by 15% to 31% - a four point lead over Labour.

The battle lines seem clear – Johnson will go to the polls pitching his campaign as one of the can-dos versus the nay-sayers, the people versus the parliamentary elite and match that with a series of populist spending policies. He’ll frame it as the architects of his “golden dawn” versus the “doomsters.”

In so doing he and his team will have carefully studied the remarkable success of Labour’s 2017 Election Campaign whose manifesto exuded hope and optimism. It was widely predicted that Labour would be crushed, perhaps even annihilated. Yet  it saw its biggest improvement in voter share since 1945.

Afterwards Owen Jones, the leftist commentator wrote in the Guardian: “this was about millions inspired by a radical manifesto that promised to transform Britain, to attack injustices, and challenge the vested interests holding the country back.”

In an election between optimists and pessimists it would appear that the optimists hold the upper hand.

But regardless of how attractive they are, it does not follow that optimists get the best results.

Further studies have come up with some fascinating findings about the downside of optimism.

One piece of research cited in Positive Pyschology provides evidence that there is an inherent bias in publishing research which favours optimism. It suggested that there was an eight fold difference in the likelihood of studies being submitted for publication if results were positive rather than negative.

So the science itself may be skewed. And yes, there is also a downside to optimism.

Unfounded beliefs that peoples’ future will be full of positive events can lead them to take unnecessary risks.

One example is over finance. This explains, for example, the large number of people who choose credit cards with low annual fees but high APRs, even when their past behaviour suggest that they never pay their balances. The more logical choice would be to opt for the credit card with the lower interest rate.

Academics call this “optimism bias” which is one reasons why governments so regularly underestimate the full costs of large infrastructure projects, like rail projects and roads, which consistently turn out to cost more than planned.

It can also pose threats for both businesses and governments where the optimist’s tendency to lack attention to detail and to ignore unhelpful data can lead to poorly informed decisions. Both these traits have been observed in Mr Johnson.

But elections are won and lost on slogans, not detail. Pessimist Rory Stewart who unsuccessfully challenged Johnson for the leadership of the Conservative Party, gave a great example of this back in 2017. He wrote about the aspiration to improve educational standards across the world.

He wrote: “It doesn’t matter what the curriculum says, or how fine the classroom is, or the textbook, or how large the enrolment is, or class size, or how many marginalised children are in the school if the teachers themselves can’t read or write. Or if the ‘teachers’ you are paying simply don’t exist.”

He concluded: “By focusing more on the detail of real problems, and less on instant solutions, we could begin to restore some patience, trust, and common purpose in our politics. And perhaps, instead of hating ourselves for our inability to achieve the impossible, we could begin to focus instead on getting things done.”

Mr Stewart is right. But his attempt to persuade his party of the merits of this way of thinking failed.  In the current political climate it is hard to see such common sense pessimism prevailing in the impending General Election.




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