Black Box Politics

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There’s a standard piece of advice frequently offered by psychologists and counsellors to people who are struggling to make sense of a challenging relationship. That piece of advice works pretty well when trying to understand politicians, too.

In science and engineering, the term ‘black box’ refers to a system that we understand entirely in terms of its responses to its external environment, without regard for what goes on inside it to bring about those responses. (This contrasts with a ‘white box’ or ‘glass box’ system, where we can examine and assess what’s happening inside.) We might treat something as a black box because our knowledge of what goes on inside it is limited or incomplete, because its inner workings are hidden from us even in principle, or just because the job of analysing or understanding those internal processes is too complex. The point is to focus entirely on the relationship between the inputs to the black box and the outputs from it — in other words, the behaviour of the black box in a given environment. It turns out that a great deal can be accomplished, in a wide range of fields, when we look just at what something does and set aside the question of how or why it does it.

A common piece of advice offered by some psychologists and counsellors to those who are struggling with a significant other — perhaps a friend, a parent, or a spouse — reflects a black box type of approach. It often plays out when a client mentions a problematic relationship to a psychologist or counsellor and comments “I just can’t understand why they do it” or “what’s going on to make them this way?” or “maybe it’s something from their childhood”. In each case, the client is doing their best to make sense of puzzling behaviour by trying to understand that behaviour from a perspective inside the head of someone else. When they try to imagine themselves doing what the other person does, it doesn’t make sense to them, so they try to figure out what must be different about the other person in order for them to behave the way they do. The suggestion sometimes offered is simply not to try to understand what’s going on inside someone else’s head at all and instead to focus on that person’s behaviour and the impact it has on the client themselves. The idea is to shift attention from the hidden puzzles of a third person’s motivations and thoughts and other internal machinations to one’s own observations and experiences. It is also to shift attention away from what the third person might claim about their motivations and away from trying to judge the accuracy of those claims; it is, ultimately, about prioritising what someone does and the impact it has on our lives, as distinct from the myriad possible stories they might offer or we might attempt to infer in order to explain what they do.

(Any mental health professional worth their salt will also take seriously the client’s own puzzlement and interest in understanding what the significant other is up to, and they may well take a deep dive alongside the client into that puzzlement. But they are much less likely to join in prognosticating and speculating about the third person’s motivations.)

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Importantly, this approach is not simply Skinnerian dogma, and leveraging it demands no particular allegiance to the body of thought known as behaviourism: rather, it is pure pragmatism. It is deeply practical in the sense that what really impacts the world is what someone does, not their private internal rationale or justification. From the point of view of a client struggling with a significant other, even if a full grasp of the third person’s whole mental landscape were somehow available to them, it still wouldn’t change the facts of their behaviour.

When it comes to politics, and especially individual politicians at election time, deliberately applying the black box approach can help us to separate the sometimes very carefully crafted message a politician wants us to hear from the facts of what they actually do. (This isn’t to deny that delivering the message is part of what they do; sometimes, it may be tempting to think that delivering the message is all that they do.) It can encourage us to evaluate their actions in terms of the impact those actions have on us and on the world around us, suspending at least some of the filtering and interpreting, the excuse making or second guessing, that otherwise occurs when we think we know what’s going on in someone’s mind — or when we simply want to believe in a story about what motivates them.

Successful politicians are often very good at creating stories, at delivering narratives that resonate with some aspect of our own experience or our psychological landscape. The black box approach can help us to be alert when a politician is trying to tap into our own psychological perspective, and to evaluate whether that attempt coheres with what else we can observe of their behaviour, both in terms of current actions and with regard to historical track record. And it encourages us to face the question: can a politician buy our vote merely by tempting us to believe that deep down inside, they somehow understand us or appreciate our experience?

If the answer to that question is affirmative, then the approach also highlights the importance of noticing whether whatever it is they are attempting to tap into within us is a part of ourselves that we would specifically choose to translate into action when running a town, a region, or a whole country. Is it a noble part, an insightful part, an honourable part of us? Is it a fearful part, a resentful part, or an angry part? The resulting vote we cast will impact the world around us more than the thoughts or feelings of being heard that we might have enjoyed while listening to the politician’s message.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a cynic, and I believe there are many good people in politics, people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. Some of them are even good at it! But setting aside what I might personally believe about their genuineness or their motivations, and focusing on what individual politicians actually do, it is easy to see just how wildly their effectivenes and their impact on the world varies.

Shifting focus away from the mysteries of what could be going on in someone else’s mind has helped many a client to manage a difficult relationship. Likewise, applying the black box approach to politics can help individual voters ensure it is their own ideals showing through at the ballot box, guarding against the best efforts of some political figures to persuade them to do otherwise. Choosing how to run a country is — and should be — hard, but it doesn’t have to be bogged down with speculation, poorly founded inferences, or just plain wishful thinking about what’s going on in a politician’s head.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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