“Solution Aversion”: Denying a problem when you do not like the solution

15 December 2014

For years I have been using a piece of wisdom from Mathew Taylor, current Director of the RSA and former policy adviser to Tony Blair: “before you try to get someone to agree with your solution, you have to win the battle over the problem”, or something along those lines.

His argument, which I still think is very sound and relevant to think tanks, is that people are more likely to agree to do what you suggest if they also agree that there is a problem that needs something to be done about.

A good example of this is inequality. Think tanks all over the world bang on and on about inequality fighting policies but their governments and other powerful groups still do not agree with the premise that inequality is a bad thing. Studies like the recent one conducted by the OECD on the effect of inequality on growth are therefore extremely important. This is a key function not many think tanks take on: identifying and explaining the problem.

Anyway, now there is a study that argues something slightly different to what Mathew Taylor said. It appears that people who agree with the problem might change their mind about it if they do not like your solution. Or that people who disagree with a problem might disagree based on their view on the solution presented rather than on the problem itself.

In Denying Problems When We Don’t Like the Solutions, Duke University researchers (Campbell, Troy H.; Kay, Aaron C.) have found something that is of great importance to think tanks.

The argument, in three easy steps, goes like this:

  1. Take a group of people who believe that humans are responsible for climate change.
  2. Present them with a policy solution.
  3. Those who disagree with the ideology underpinning the policy solution may go back and rethink their view on the problem and even deny that humans had anything to do with climate change.

The researchers assumed (as we would all) that once we’ve made up our minds about a problem (e.g. climate change is man-made or a real problem) the debate could move on to deal with possible policy options. It turns out, however, that if the policy options presented go against people’s believe we may have to go back to deal with the problem once again.

Researchers call this “solution aversion”.

This year in Peru I’ve come across an interesting debate on the future of the national pension policy. Peru has a mandatory pension scheme that forces workers to contribute to either a public or a few private pension providers. The model, most people agree, is not perfect and in desperate need for reform. But any proposal that appears to challenge private pension providers is met with fierce opposition that turns into a defence of the very system that all seemed to agree, just minutes go, was in desperate need of reform.

This has important implications to the manner in which think tanks engage with the wider public. But it can also inform the evidence based pouches sector that has, for the most part, assumed that there is an ‘anti-science’ group of people who refuse to use evidence:

“We should not just view some people or group as anti-science, anti-fact or hyper-scared of any problems,” Kay said. “Instead, we should understand that certain problems have particular solutions that threaten some people and groups more than others. When we realize this, we understand those who deny the problem more and we improve our ability to better communicate with them.”

For starters, think tanks need to pay greater attention to how they conceive their research projects. They must, there really is no excuse for not doing so, be part of larger policy entrepreneurship efforts. This means that research questions must address policy questions and these, in turn, must take into account the politics of the policy issue that is at stake.

We cannot assume that we are all on board (on the problem or the solution).