The Wiki Man

Always obey your satnav? Then you can vote rationally on the EU

Human intuition is tuned to get questions vaguely right rather than precisely wrong. Ignoring it is a mistake

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

In many ways a satnav is a miraculous device. A network of US military satellites more than 10,000 miles above the surface of the Earth, each broadcasting a signal with little more power than a 100-watt light bulb, allows a device in your satnav or mobile phone to triangulate your location on the ground to within seven yards or so. The system is so finely tuned that the clocks aboard the satellites must be calibrated to run 38 microseconds a day slower than Earth time to correct for the effects of general and special relativity. This allows your phone to know your location and, after factoring in real-time traffic information, to calculate the quickest route to any destination with an astonishing degree of precision.

And yet, after all that, I still ignore the advice from my satnav quite a lot.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I had to drive to Gatwick to catch a flight. The satnav told me to take the M25. I ignored it, and instinctively took the A25 instead. (On the way home, by contrast, I was happy to follow my satnav’s advice slavishly.) Why was this?

Actually, I didn’t know at first — my decision to take the slower A25 was instinctive, not consciously reasoned. But, on reflection, I now realise that my instincts were right and my satnav was wrong. Gut Feeling 1, Silicon 0.

This is because the nature of the two journeys was totally different. On the way home, I simply wanted to get home by the quickest expected route — and so the satnav’s thoughts coincided with my own. On the way out, however, I did not want the fastest route: I needed the route which was least likely to cause me to miss my plane.

This was not an optimisation problem: I didn’t need the fastest average route, but a route with a low variance and a high level of autonomy. Yes, 90 per cent of the time the M25 is ten minutes quicker than the A25, but if, say, a lorry jackknifes at Clacket Lane, you are stuck for an hour with nowhere else to go. On the A25, I know I’ll arrive at Gatwick ten minutes later, but rarely more than that. And, if the A25 is congested, there are plenty of back roads to try.

So when you have to catch a plane, a satnav provides a perfectly precise and logical answer to the wrong question.

One of the risks of demanding that all decision-making should be perfectly rational is that you often achieve an apparent rational consistency at the price of either narrowing your frame of reference or distorting the question. Human instinct has not evolved to find a perfectly optimal answer to a narrow question; it exists to find pretty good and reliably non-catastrophic answers to wide-context questions, often combining many forms of incompatible information. Its job is to be vaguely right, rather than precisely wrong.

This is why it is absurd to denigrate people for deciding their vote on the Brexit referendum ‘simply using their emotions’. A question like this cannot and should not be answered any other way. The only way you can answer the question ‘rationally’ is by misrepresenting the question — as if it is simply a matter of maximising economic efficiency. If that were the only question, there might be a single right answer, just as the M25 is the best way for me to get home. But we need to consider more than that: which is more likely to go catastrophically wrong — in or out? Which offers more autonomy — in or out? What is the value of that autonomy? Much as our overeducated, technocratic elite want to pretend otherwise, this is a decision for Kirk, not Spock.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    The Leave or Remain campaigns are drifting into will you be better or worse off terrain that dominated the Scottish referendum debate. There is no right answer. The question people should ponder is do you want to be a nation or do you want to be part of a Union dominated by England or Germany.

    • Mary Ann

      The whole point of the EU is that it is not dominated by anyone, but having said that, if we had whole-heartily joined in we would probably be running it now. The only reason that Merkel appears to be in charge is because she is a strong leader, just like Maggie.

      • sfin

        The EU is the continuation of WW2 by other means – and it is utterly dominated by Germany.

        Chancellor Merkel, unilaterally, tore up the Dublin accord and has flooded the whole of the EU with uncontrolled, mass, third world immigration.

        And the point is, wether you agree with this policy or not, there isn’t a damn thing you or I can do about it.

        • Bonkim

          Germany is naturally superior financially and industrially to the others within the EU except Britain.

          • davidshort10

            Because they had iron and coal. And discipline. But we know where that led.

        • davidshort10

          Correct. And don’t forget Merkel was brought up in Stasiland which wasn’t that much different from the Germany run by the SS. Reunification should never have happened.

          • sfin


            It amazes me that no modern politician learns the lessons of history and continually repeats its mistakes.

            To be fair to Maggie, she had serious misgivings over German reunification given that country’s continual quest for dominance post Bismarck.

      • goodsoldier

        We don’t want to run the EU empire. We’ve had enough of Empire and have learned our lessons. Brexit is the wise decision, the only one that a rational Brit should take.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Love the way you contradict yourself: “not dominated by anyone” together with “Merkel appears to be in charge”. Why in any case should we wish to join, wholeheartedly or otherwise, a body dedicated to eroding our sense of national identity and our ability to govern ourselves?

      • Bonkim

        The reason is because most other larger nations are nearly bankrupt and the EU would not exist without the financial/industrial might of Germany. The rest are hangers on.

        • davidshort10

          The euro is part of the cause of the weakness of the other nations and part of the reason the Germans are cashing in. Let us hope this ‘might’ of Germany doesn’t become military might again.

          • Bonkim

            It was idiotic to start a new currency without a common central bank, and financial/political unity. Apart from Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, the rest of the Euro-zone countries are all practically bankrupt. The only way the Euro will survive will be if Germany doles out money to the poorer countries but that in turn will make Germany lose its competitive edge and lead to inflation – and all will sink.

            Any unrest/militarism in Europe will not be helpful to Germany and Europe/the world is now so grossly overpopulated and dependent on world trade for survival that militarism of any sort will not be tolerated – and old fashioned ethnic nationalism has lost its importance in today’s business world.

      • davidshort10

        “The whole point of the EU is that it is not dominated by anyone, but having said that, if we had whole-heartily joined in we would probably be running it now.” Where did you get the idea that the ‘whole point of the EU is that it is not dominated by anyone’? It is dominated by Germany and it is not just Merkel. Germany has wanted to dominate Europe ever since it was created as a country and it started doing so once it became one country again. It is not just about Merkel. The government under Churchill wanted to ‘whole-heartedly ‘ [sic] after WW2 by proposing a union between Britain and France. The UK wanted to join but were just out by De Gaulle, showing ingratitude that we effectively put him in power. The French establishment ever since have cosied up to Germany, despite the atrocities the Germans perpetrated on French soil, aided and abetted by collaborators such as the Milice. The French people of that generation did not forget or forgive. We are well out of it.

      • Lawrence James.

        Yes. It is not dominated by one power because a balance exists between the three senior powers. Britain, France and Germany. If Britain withdrew then the equilibrium would disappear and an axis between an overbearing Germany and a sickly France would replace it. Merkel would become the new Bismarck and dictate to the rest of the continent and overawe whatever state that dared resist her or her successors. As for Britain it will have shed its historic duty to prevent one power from dominating Europe.

        • Conway

          We have been consistently side-lined for 43 years. We need to be free in order to save Europe from the EU, so we will be able to live up to our historic duty of preventing one power (the EU) from dominating Europe.

  • Cameron Ottens

    Perhaps there is an other question that is better still.

    What if the frame was not how can Britain best avoid risk, whether through the wisdom of numbers or the wisdom of instincts, but how does Britain want to define itself by this decision?

    Will Britain forge a path of autonomy and cooperation with Europe?

    Or will Britain double down on a United Europe, choosing the path solidarity?

    It’s not just a question of risk avoidance but one of signaling. And perhaps the most important signal is what this decision signals to the British people themselves. The question then is: “in regards to Europe, who are we?”

  • Yup, it’s worst-case scenario versus average-case scenario. Under both metrics I think Brexit wins,

  • Mr B J Mann

    How many of the “liberals” who want to stay in the EU because it’s supposedly economically more beneficial than leaving would support the UK becoming the 51st state of the US if you could show them it was even more economically beneficial?

    And how many of the right on feminist EUrophiles would become pr0stitutes if they would be better off economically?!

    • Malcolm Stevas

      It isn’t “liberal” to wish to stay in the EU, but illiberal, since that body is erosive of national identity, collectivist, bureaucratic, and insufficiently accountable.

      • Mr B J Mann

        Hence the quote marks.

        • Malcolm Stevas

          I don’t know what you imagine the purpose of quotation marks to be in general, or their function in this instance, but I’m none the wiser.

          • Mr B J Mann


            “Scare quotes used to mean ‘so-called’ or to express irony:

            “The ‘fresh’ apples were full of worms.”


            “(also known as scare quotes) to draw attention to an unusual, ironic, or arguably inaccurate use:

            “Thank you for that unhelpful ‘advice’.

            “His ‘car’ was hardly road-worthy at all.”


          • Malcolm Stevas

            Wiki and Collins, well… I’ll check Fowler and Partridge.

          • Mr B J Mann


            Try emailing them!

  • jeremy Morfey

    It all comes down to a hunch whether the Germans are better at running the country than the British, which they are at the moment. Like an elderly person being forced to use technology in the absence of a younger person to do it for him or her, if we pushed Nanny Merkel onto the street, how would we manage without her?

    • Conway

      A lot better – we’d be able to say no to lots of invaders for a start.

    • Fraser Bailey

      I used to believe that the Germans were better at running things than we are. But no longer.

      • Frank

        I think that they are very good at high tech, but the relatively low tech Russian, American and British armies whooped their posteriors in WW2 (and the British American and French in WW1) so there may be a degree of hype behind the idea that the Germans are all conquering.
        As for Nanny Merkel, she has simply got a bit above her station in life.

  • sfin

    I can think of only one nation, in recent history, who have wilfully given up democratic accountability in those that govern it – the Weimar republic in 1933.

    There is a 100% record, in history, of left wing, collectivist, ideological, unfettered, political power (communism, nazism, the EU et al) causing mass human death and misery.

    There is a 100% record, in history, of the human condition advancing in wealth, health and happiness, under limited, accountable government, common law, and individual rights, responsibilities and freedoms.

    The choice seems fairly logical to me.

  • richard1949

    The DT is gradually closing down it’s comments section for readers and someone recommended I look at the Spectator, I had forgotten what an excellent publication it is

  • James

    If we leave the EU SatNav devices will not be able to navigate Europe.

    • Bonkim

      That will be splendid.

    • That’ll probably be project fear’s next wheeze!

  • Bonkim

    You don’t need the SatNav if you know where you are going.

  • Alison H

    Yes, putting your faith in a set of instructions of how to go on from some higher being, without actually understanding the route you are taking to your destination, then getting lost in some God forsaken council estate in Sheffield and going round in circles with the horrible voice telling you to ‘turn round when appropriate’ until you yank it out of the socket, only to find it hasn’t died and is now telling you to drive down a cul de sac from its new position on the floor by the back passenger seat does seem like a good metaphor for putting your faith in the EU.

    Whereas using your instincts and the old and trusty AA road atlas (which doesn’t turn itself the right way up every time you need to turn it upside down and back to front, like screenshots of Googlemaps do on the iPad) is like the idea of self reliance and independence and flexibility that would be the result of Brexit.

  • Jackthesmilingblack


  • Sort of. I believe that the rational arguments point to out while only the most hopelessly naive emotional arguments point to in.

  • tracery

    My instincts tell me that Britain should leave the EU, and that is what I will vote for come 23rd June. VOTE LEAVE.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    If you like satnav-obedience, you quite likely also like this:

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    One thing SatNav can’t do is push when you get stuck in mud.

  • Bluesman_1

    EU? Beam us out Scotty.

  • Conway

    My satnav is inconsistent (it tells me to keep in the left lane if I come directly from the south, but to keep in the right lane of the dual carriageway if I come from the east), so I choose the way I know is quickest and shortest (keeping in the right lane). I’ll be voting to LEAVE.

  • Child_of_Thatcher

    The EU would be a good idea if it was genuinely European had a border and was a democracy in more than name. Since in my opinion it fails on all these points I am voting out.

  • Frank

    You always write interesting articles, however on this issue you can simply look at who is urging what and vote accordingly, eg anything uniting Corbyn, Cameron, Mandy and Blair has to be wrong by much more than a country mile!
    The same thing was true of the Vichy Government (and a number of current governments), you only had to look at the characters on that bandwagon to know that they were the political scum!

  • Marketthinker

    The Remain tactics are eerily similar to those used by the Global Warmists. Step 1, scare people with apocalyptic visions. Step 2. Sell them your solution – which inevitably involves more government power, higher taxes and a transfer of income from their enemies to their friends – with quite a bit sticking to their hands on the way through. Step 3. When questioned on cost benefit of above, immediately appeal to authority – 97% of scientists, UN, or CBI, Bank of England, Treasury, IMF etc Step 4. If that fails move onto ad hom attacks – deniers, little Englanders, racists. Meanwhile bring in the propaganda machine, the BBC, Guardian, etc and feed them the line; people will lose 4000 pounds a head, the Maldives will disappear under water, polar bears are almost extinct etc.and keep repeating it until those countering it run out of energy (or access to publicity). Step 5, go back to step 1 and repeat.