Philpot and welfare – ‘What you see is all there is’

‘A vile product of welfare UK’ the Daily Mail proclaimed about Philpot.  A man who ‘bred’ babies to get benefits, a schemer who tried to turn funeral funds into Argos vouchers. Part of a ‘something for nothing culture’ a product of broken Britain. 

You can trace this mans life with a sense of predictably, broken home, council estate, unemployed, the criminal justice system, depravity and a sense of unfounded entitlement. It sounds compelling doesn’t it, it makes perfect sense.

Yet it doesn’t take more than a few seconds thought to realize this inference from welfare to depravity is a tenuous one at best. Just because this man was, on welfare and an abuser of the system, doesn’t mean the system was the cause of his depravity. In 2008, Christopher Foster a millionaire killed his family, burned down his home and then killed himself after falling into millions worth of debt. Did we interpreted that as the corruption of money, some probably did. In truth after a few moments thought most of us would accept that millionaires and benefit claimants are no more or less likely than everyone else to burn down their houses, I wish I had the stat.

Such ungrounded inferences, and the eye catching headlines that accompany them are far from rare – and there is no doubt that they are powerful, both for selling newspapers and for political rhetoric.  Tony Blair branded of the killing of James Bulger as “the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name” to great effect, when crime and social breakdown was a key issue in the 90s.  Individual stories, such as the fake kidnapping of Shannon Mathews and the tragic baby Peter case have been used again and again by the media to exemplify ‘Broken Britain’.

But if these inference are at times tenuous, why do they have such traction with the public. Its true we have a sensationalist media and politics, but those are symptoms. The real answer lies on a bit of a tangent – its the way our minds work. Daniel Kannerman, one of the greatist psychologists alive, coins a phrase in his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, “What you see is all there is”.

This describes how our minds construct explanations of events  – we look to connect the facts given to us into a coherent story and we judge our explanation’s validity on how coherent the story feels to us. We know the Philpot’s were on welfare, we connect that with laziness selfishness or greed and we associate it with other moral flaws, such as a disregard for the lives of children. In the same way we connect the killers of James Bulger and the parents of baby P to the idea of a depraved underclass, and so on. But in making these connections we don’t pay any regard to the underlying facts that we don’t have, what we don’t see. For example we ignore that fact that millionaires, tragically,  cause fires and kill their families and that there are normally far more deep rooted explanations for psychopathic behavior than a welfare culture. Philpot stabbed his teenage girl friend 17 times.

The moral of this lesson in psychology isn’t just a lesson in how we make unjustified jumps from individual stories to inferences about society as a whole – it informs much of how political argument is made.

George Osbourne’s driver’s disregard for parking rules show his apparent disregard for those vulnerable in society, when scant attention is payed facts such as that only 1% of welfare claiming house holds have two generation joblessness (as the Observer reported last weekend). And remember the plight of Joe the Pulmer in the 2008 US presidential election, when taxation was the key issue.  Our minds are ill prepared to compute facts and figures, we would rather take an example and use if to construct a story. When Blair linked the Bulger case to broken Britain to the lack of Tory compassion, and therefore funding for welfare, he captured and presented a story that the public understood and bought into. When Cameron described the big society, he didn’t have such a tool. Story construction and the fact that people think that way is a key part of why political rhetoric is necessary, and examples are a powerful way to tell such as story.

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