When presented with the facts, many people don’t automatically let go of their feelings or personal ideas. It is particularly easy in this era of rapid change, for some people to reach a conclusion based on their gut feeling rather than the evidence.
To get genuine contributions from the public, community engagement practitioners need to acknowledge what people need if they are to understand and comment on complex issues: time for thinking, type of information and the way it is delivered.
Fast thinking, which was explored by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), is that intuitive, emotional, instant response thinking which most of us use every day in forming opinions and making decisions. By comparison, slow thinking is more analytic, controlled and reflective.
Revealing research by Stoker et al in Fast Thinking – implications for democratic politics (2015) – shows the way fast thinking generally results in very negative voter opinions of politics and current issues.
When taken through a slower thinking process on political issues, many people in the study’s focus groups acknowledged their opinions may have been ill-informed, yet their fast-thinking perceptions were difficult to budge completely.
Continued research and informed voices are essential to public debate, but so too is a better understanding of people’s initial, intuitive responses and the reasons they feel that way.
Yes, we need to continue engaging voters using innovative digital tools, which often means issuing concise and abbreviated information and an expectation of receiving an equally immediate and brief response.
But governments also need to provide detailed, easy-to-read information that encourages analytical, slower thinking and the opportunity to dig a little deeper to understand why people have the opinions they do.
Deliberative engagement allows people the opportunity to make informed and, some would argue, better decisions. Government may just find that opinions change and public participation is more meaningful when government truly engages with the people.