Are the answers to the question right in front of us?

There’s an old tale about a man who loved drinking coffee but suffered migraines, so he asked the doctor to prescribe pills to sort this out. Instead, the doctor told him he needed to stop drinking coffee. So he went to numerous doctors who all told him the same thing, until eventually he found a doctor who told him what he wanted to hear. You can carry on drinking coffee. He went home satisfied with pills in his pocket.

This little tale addresses our aversion to accepting the solution to the problems we face. We are experiencing precisely this with the dystopic science fiction-like Covid-19 pandemic where numerous people have challenged, resisted and even defied the best advice on how we need to keep safe.

This is the subject of much research, including a very interesting feature published on 28 March 2020 in the Scientific American titled Why Some People Resist Advice on How to Behave in the Pandemic: the reason is a phenomenon called “solution aversion. It is authored by Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay, both of them are research academics at Duke University in the USA.

They first published on solution aversion in 2014, looking at climate change, and taking into consideration the views, ideologies and beliefs of people who either supported solutions to climate change mitigation or not.

They conducted a number of studies on the views of Republican versus Democrat supporters in the USA when faced with choices
regarding climate change. The authors write: The solution aversion model proposed here predicts that people will be skeptical of scientific evidence supporting the existence of the problem, to the degree that the existence of the problem directly implies solutions that threaten a person’s cherished beliefs and ideological motives.

U.S.A. President Donald Trump

The largely Republican fossil fuel industry lobby, supported by President Donald Trump is averse to conceding the climate change problem and aligned solutions because it threatens their stake in fossil fuels, while the Democrats are constantly raising climate change acceleration and what to do about it.

In a subsequent study the authors then inserted a solution that was friendly to both parties’ ideology, driven by the fact that climate change is a problem but if the solution lies in additional free market opportunities, such as for example,
address air pollution or offer handsome tax incentives to develop renewable energy plants, then perhaps many more people, irrespective of their political beliefs, would be more receptive to acknowledging there is a problem and embrace the solutions. They found it was indeed the case:

The findings provide a robust combination of experimental and correlational support that Republicans’ skepticism toward climate change science is linked to beliefs about the policy solutions. Further, the findings indicate that when the policy solutions of climate change are made salient, solutions that favour a more freemarket policy approach rather than the more
popularly discussed restrictive policy approach may lead Republicans to be less skeptical of the available climate change science.

The same applies in South Africa in relation to Eskom for example. The problem South Africa is facing is an energy shortage and one of the solutions (of many possibly) is to increase the number of independent renewable energy power producers. But the solution does not favour coal miners and those who prescribe to fossil fuels. It clearly illustrates that even though everyone agrees there is a problem with Eskom and energy production, the issue comes down to the solutions put on the table.

If there could be follow through on the much discussed training and transition of coal miners to green energy jobs; decentralisation of renewable energy plants through attractive tax incentives for investors; and a compromise between labour and capital where labour has a share in the benefits, then we would have less solution aversion to the energy shortage problem.

In Campbell and Kay’s latest research of people’s response to Covod-19, what they further highlight is that the real issue is again not the problem itself but the solution. They further raise once again the strong connection between ideology, beliefs and solution aversion.

Trump is an example of this, where, for an extended period he did not want to acknowledge the enormity of the Covid-19 problem for the USA because of the impact on the economy. Those who favour the functioning of the economic system above all else, tend to be in denial of a solution that they feel would have greater, disastrous economic consequences.
This follows the utilitarian ethics school that says as long as the majority are better off, we should go with that option.

Ultimately Trump had to acknowledge the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the USA as the number of people in the USA who were infected and tragically started dying, escalated exponentially. But throughout the pandemic he felt the need to assert his power as President rather than take the advice of experts, namely eminent scientists and doctors, about solutions
to addressing the problem, including when and how to return to work in the best health interest of the nation.

South African President
Cyril Ramaphosa

We are fortunate to have in President Cyril Ramaphosa a leader who is able to set aside ideology in his responsible decision-making over the Covid-19 crisis and to rather base it on expert advice. No doubt he agonised with cabinet over the decision to put the country into lockdown, knowing the economic toll, particularly on small businesses and marginalised communities who don’t have the resources to withstand several weeks of closure. In this regard, Ramaphosa arguably followed the virtue ethics school. In short, save lives and we will collectively try to address the economic consequences later.

No doubt he agonised again about the when and how South Africa can safely return to work, but again he sought expert advice and he needs to be applauded for his decisiveness and commitment to do the best for all South Africans, irrespective of party politics and ideologies.

The authors explain it requires sophisticated leadership and approaches to understand the broad spectrum of people’s beliefs, ideologies and needs in order to find the middle ground that can get the majority if not all of the people to buy into solutions to a given problem. Make no mistake the leader who makes a decision based on the virtue ethics school will always
face a tougher decision than one who follows the utilitarian school.

Hence, it’s not easy and Campbell and Kay make the point that to achieve this, leaders need to be careful about the words they use, as words have very different connotations to different people. In South Africa, for example, land expropriation without compensation meansvery different things to people according to their ideology and whether they own land or not. The
majority of people in South Africa acknowledge that South Africa is unequal and whichever way you put it, it is about economic stakes, but it is how the solution to the problem is addressed that is all important.

In closing, the solution to solution aversion is that there is no one size fits all, and you cannot apply blanket measures and assume everyone is going to buy into the solution. However, as Campbell and Kay say, if you can try to take ideology out of the solution, you can significantly increase buy in—by as much as 40% according to their studies. Once you swing the balance of buy in, then more people feel the pull to come on board.

With the Moody’s downgrade, we are going to have to look long at hard at all the structural reforms required in our country once we get back to work, and this will demand of all of us to find the middle ground between polarised ideologies. At a time like this, we either sink or swim together as we are in an economic crisis.

Hopefully we can come up with solutions where everyone feels they have something to give, and the nation’s interests can prevail. This is the challenge and opportunity of leadership. This is what will determine how the dice of our future falls, and we need to maximise the chance of a favourable outcome, because it is up to us to decide whether it falls on a 6 or a 1.

Professor Owen Skae,
Director of Rhodes Business School

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