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Why someone refuses to see that they are wrong -
the example of the SingapoRediscover Vouchers

To boost the tourism and hospitality industries hit heavily by Covid-19, the Singapore Tourism Board announced the introduction of SingapoRediscover Vouchers (SRV), where every Singaporean aged 18 and above would receive S$100 worth of tourism vouchers that can be used on staycations, local attractions and tours. 

Redemption of these vouchers will expire in June 2021. But it is already April 2021, and over three-quarters of Singaporeans have yet to use their vouchers. 

So why do Singaporeans not use vouchers given to them for free?

 

A variety of reasons. Some might not be in physical condition to engage in local tourism activities. Others might be tied up with work. But the main resistance comes from the transaction costs. It takes a bit of work to actually redeem the vouchers. Singaporeans need to:

- pick between 5 third-party vendors

- trawl through what is offered by each vendor (inevitably, the question is should I be comparing prices offered by each vendor?)

- verify their identity through a national verification portal

- and then run through the administrative detailing.

Further, you can't book on behalf of the family or your partner. If 5 people in the family want to go to the zoo, for example, 5 different bookings have to be made.

That so many Singaporeans are not using free vouchers gives an indication of how much pain or perceived pain they will experience in the redemption process. It's hard to argue with 75% of the target audience.

Except, the Tourism Board has repeatedly indicated they see no problems with the SRV design.

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In a way, these arguments speak for themselves. They are not good arguments. To begin with, that fewer people are showing at physical touchpoints is a poor example to ascertain if redemption is difficult or not. 5 months have passed since the vouchers have been introduced and people might have just given up. Additionally, the answers given are a curious mix of "Yup it is working well and things are looking better and better", and yet still shifting the blame to the industry for not marketing their products well and the citizen for not trying hard enough or for waiting too long.

The question here is why? Why is STB so reluctant to admit their mistake, instead insisting on the opposite and shifting blame to everyone else but themselves? What shaped the thinking and behaviour of the CEO? And if we were in his shoes, would we think and act the same way? Will we really be that much different? 

To begin, we touch on something that is innate (at least to some extent) across everyone.

 

1. Once we have made up our minds about something, it becomes very difficult to change. 

There are 3 inter-related reasons for this.

The first is confirmation bias -  the inclination to search for, see, remember, and favour information that supports our existing views or beliefs.

[Infographic] Your ultimate guide to avo

The second is cognitive dissonance - the discomfort we feel when we are faced with conflicting beliefs or actions. To ease this discomfort, we reject, explain away, or avoid new information. For example, we might strongly believe that that we are very good at something. Yet when the results come back and show that we have not done well, we might come up with excuses that the test was not accurate or that you just under-performed on that day, but you are still very good.

We cover cognitive dissonance in greater detail here, including a terrific experiment by Leon Festinger, the man who came up with the theory.

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The third is fear. When we are faced with the prospect of being wrong, fear sets in. Being wrong is painful; for most people, it is somewhat humiliating. We want to avoid that. What then happens is that we summon our brains to develop reasons why we are not wrong, to find flaws in what others are saying, or to push the blame elsewhere. A natural defensiveness manifests, where we want to make sure that we protect ourselves (even though the best action we can take is to really evaluate what is true). 

An experiment by the University College of London beautifully captures all 3 effects.
 

  • Experimenters gathered 2 groups of participants. Each group has both Climate Change Believers and Deniers

  • Group 1 was told new research by scientists showed that climate change is much worse than originally thought

  • Group 2 was told the opposite - new research by scientists showed that climate change is far less serious than originally thought.

 

Does information change people's minds?

 

Yes, but only if it fits what they want to hear.

  • In Group 1, believers became more extreme in their position. They now thought that doom was impending. But the deniers became angry. They started to nitpick the data, claiming it is false, that the researchers were biased and corrupted.

  • In Group 2, the exact opposite. Deniers laughed off climate change as a hoax they always thought it was, while believers were now the ones to nitpick data, and blasting the researchers.
     

What's far more fascinating is when you put people into a brain scanner. What happens when you hear something that you don't like to hear? For most people, 2 things happen:

  • If the information comes from a non-threatening source, say a stranger or a computer that offers a differing point of view, not much happens. This different view doesn’t really register in our minds. 

  • If the information is not only different but threatens your view, your amygdala (which regulates fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression) and insular (which regulates moral disgust and norm violation) start firing. You feel all sorts of negative emotions, you become more prone to defending yourself, more conservative, less generous, less altruistic, and less patient.


The experiment is covered in greater detail here.

2. The influence of the environment we are in, and how it shapes us

Here, we examine how rising up through the Singapore Public Service influences the CEO to act and think in a certain way. 

 

  1. Governments around the world inevitably develop deep expertise in defending themselves. This is a necessity for good reasons. Society has many different interests, and it is not possible to please everyone. There is always some group that thinks that the decision should have been something else, hence it is almost always necessary for the govt to defend any decision. Politically, the govt also has to defend against rivals in parliament (through speeches mostly written by civil servants, of course).

    So defensiveness is already a natural inclination in most public services. But in Singapore, the context is even more unique. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has been the only government of the day the public service has ever known. The PAP has governed Singapore since elections were introduced, and consistently gets over 95% of seats in parliament. This is an implicit reflection that the electorate agrees with most of the decisions the government makes. That the public service gets it right almost all the time. If they are usually right, all the more they should defend themselves. 
     

  2. The PAP further influences the public service in another way. Its first leader, Lee Kuan Yew, gained power as a strongman politician, with supreme confidence in himself. LKY’s image has been shaped as a prescient leader of unparalleled intellect. He is never wrong and never makes mistakes, and naturally never needs to apologise, especially in the public eye. LKY’s influence over subsequent generations is extensive. The PAP government and the public service almost never admits to making a mistake unless it absolutely blatant. Being wrong is seen as a sign of weakness. 
     

  3. There is also the influence of a darker side of meritocracy. Over the years, political office holders and senior civil servants are branded as the cream of the crop, those that emerged from fair and equal contests to lead the country. These contests demonstrate that they are legitimately vastly superior to everyone.

    But if we consider what this translates to, meritocracy is about continued success. Good results lead to access to more information, better networking, and better opportunities, which leads to a higher chance of continued good results. The cycle runs the opposite way. Not ranking well once in the cycle of meritocracy, could lead to poorer opportunities, bad impressions, and a significantly lower chance of turning things around. In this way, the constant reward for success and the lack of rewards for those who learn from mistakes further carve into the mind the need to be right. 

 

So collectively, if we examine how a public service leader is moulded:

 

  • They are constantly reminded they are better than everyone else.

  • They have spent a lot of time defending decisions directly or indirectly throughout their career.

  • Success is heavily favoured. 

  • It is a weakness to be wrong. Learning from mistakes is an unfortunate outcome; it's much better to not make mistakes to begin with.
     

Statistically, it is very unlikely that one person will never make a mistake. But in public policy, there is a way to circumvent this. Every decision has trade-offs, and no decision, no matter how bad, is without some merit. So it is possible to always find a defence for any decision made while pointing out the cost of the alternative. Further, certain decisions are more defensible than others. If you can defend your decision, for example by pointing out that others could do better, well then it’s not really your fault. 

 

This is not to say that any point above is by itself absolutely wrong. For example, as pointed out earlier, defensiveness is necessary as part of governance. It might also be true that the Singapore government generally makes fewer mistakes than other governments. And, of course, every person is different. 
 

However, as a collective, this environment makes it more likely for a public service leader to not see or admit mistakes, and more prone to confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.

Finally, the fear of humiliation or pain from criticism is at least somewhat justified. People tend not to be very kind to political office holders or senior civil servants, even when they admit their mistakes. This is especially so in Singapore where the salaries of top officials are more than thrice that of the world average, with the constant narrative being that they deserve higher pay because they are simply the best.

 

When an office holder or public sector leader publicly change their minds about something, they tend to be accused of flip-flopping, or in local vernacular, a prata man. 

 

This further adds to the inclination of the public sector leader to defend himself no matter what, because admitting to a mistake triggers a fear response - he might be in for even more criticism. Whereas if he just buckled down and defended no matter what, it seems like business as usual. Some group is always complaining anyway about any decision made, and this is just a slightly larger group

 

So the real issue extends beyond the CEO.

If you or I emerged from a system like this, would we have acted in the same way, especially given our natural penchant for confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and fear response? I think that most of us would, at a far higher probability than we think.

A second takeaway relates to how mistakes by top government officials are viewed. Yes, mistakes will be inevitably criticised, as each decision the government makes by definition affects a larger number of people. And it is very hard to fight against the government. 

But if a top government official admits to a mistake especially as new information comes in, then perhaps citizens should take a kinder view. No one can possibly make no mistakes, and it takes bravery, humility, critical thinking and a sense of accountability to want to change when the results are not good. If citizens were to simply mock the government official for being stupid in making mistakes or flip-flopping, then all the more government officials would double down on their original stance, and everyone is worse off. 

 

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