Conviction ministers who resist evidence-based policy know something analytical types don't

By Harley Dennett

August 3, 2018

There is no upshot for a political leader who changes their mind after taking a moral stance, new research shows.

A public flip-flop on greyhound racing from then New South Wales premier Mike Baird put a serious dent in his credibility. Likewise, Julia Gillard’s late conversion to support same-sex marriage after leaving office was mocked by all sides. New research now begins to explain why this occurs.

“Those who deviate from their initial moral views pay a price.”

It turns out there is no benefit for a political leader who, after taking a moral stance, changes their mind. Even when a flipped position is based on evolving attitudes or evidence, converts are seen as hypocritical rather than courageous.

New meta-analysis based on 15 studies involving more than 6000 participants showed leaders who reverse a public moral stance are perceived as less effective and less worthy of support.

The US-based studies were not constrained solely to politics. Organisation leaders who reverse principled decisions are also perceived as ineffective — for example a manager deciding to prioritise an environmentally friendly supply chain.

Even participants who agreed with the new position of a flip-flopper saw them as hypocritical, but not as strongly as those who disagreed with the new position.

However, the findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offered one hope to wedged politicians: a transformative event that sparked the changed position can mitigate some, but not all, of the reputation loss.

The researchers noted that previous research suggests only benefits to expressing moral positions — we see them all the time in public sector organisations, like supporting gender equity — but the new findings show why leaders might sometimes hold back.

“Moral talk is not cheap,” concludes lead researcher Tamar Kreps. “Those who deviate from their initial moral views pay a price … and leaders may do well to avoid it in the absence of true, enduring conviction.”

All analytical, all the time?

But not all ministerial decisions are moral decisions. Why then might policy shifts be rejected when even there is evidence, and no prior moral position to overcome?

Most public servants will at some point encounter a minister who doesn’t really want to listen to evidence-based alternatives. But how much of that clash is public servants only having one mode of persuasion?

Former NSW Premier and Cabinet secretary Blair Comley recently described the lack of one, usually-unmeasured, type of diversity in the public service to Institute of Public Administration Australia members with an example from his then-workforce:

“We’re mostly analytical types who want to use evidence to drive policy. When I was in the department of climate change, we got all the SES to do the team management index. One of the dimensions on the team management is the analytical/belief-based. We’re 100% analytical. A consultant said that’s not unusual. Almost no one gets to the SES of APS unless they’re analytical.

“Analytical are convinced by data, evidence. The belief-based people are convinced by whether it aligns with their general values, and in particular, do they trust the messenger, are they aligned with the messenger. Now, 60% of the population are belief-based. So we have a group thinking about policy that is not aligned, that is quite different from the group that they’re trying to take on a change management journey.

“I had a someone saying ‘I can explain climate change … here’s a graph.’ I said stop: you’ve just alienated 50% of the room. 50% of the room didn’t like maths when they were at school, they don’t like it now. It doesn’t matter what’s on that chart, they’re annoyed.”

At the time, EL2s in the department were 50% belief-based and 50% analytical.

Committed believers have a powerful impact

Beliefs, particularly when shared by committed opinion holders, are probably more important than many analytical types think.

It doesn’t take much for a belief to spread. When just 10% of a network strongly holds an opinion and proselytises it, this can shift the majority, according to a paper titled “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities” from the journal Physical Review E.

This occurs, according to their research, regardless of what role those committed opinion holders hold within that network.

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