Opinion Change – Judgement and Decision Making

Geert Wilders – Dangerous Populist or the Voice of Discontent?
November 2, 2010, 5:16 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Geert Wilders. A name which brings about a mixed bag of opinions depending on your religion, where you live and how much you know about current events. Wilders is a Dutch politician with an extremely controversial opinion. His views have brought such a forceful response that he is now the most threatened politician in the Netherlands (Hayes, 2010) requiring 24-hour protection (Attard, 2009). The controversy arises from his strong, offensive and much vocalised views of the Islamic religion. Wilders advocates for strict immigration laws to prevent Muslims from immigrating to the Netherlands, leading to what could be called a ‘pure Dutch’ Netherlands and voices his views worldwide. Most recently, he visited New York to demonstrate against the rebuilding of a mosque at Ground Zero (Wilders Steunt Demonstranten Tegen ‘Moskee’ Ground Zero, 2010). He has likened the Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has described the Islamic religion as ‘retarded’ and ‘fascist’ (Hayes, 2010). His controversial, 17 minute movie, ‘Fativa’ (Traufetter, 2008) displays exerts from the Qur’an alongside images of terrorism and has resulted in hundreds of death threats from Muslims world-wide as well as general international shock and anger. His actions have caused him to be temporarily banned from the UK and he is currently under trial for hate-speech in the Netherlands (Houlton, 2010).

Upon learning about Geert Wilders, one may also feel emotions of shock or anger and immediately judge him to be a racist, extreme, right-wing politician who should not be allowed in a position of power. It is very reasonable to make such a decision based on personal social, moral and societal values. However, these opinions are also biased on a hot cognition process as well as a number of other judgement and decision making prejudices such as the false consensus effect, availability heuristics, incorrect intuition and the media.

My initial thought was that nobody could possibly be supporting Wilders’ policies however the facts show that his popularity is growing both at a national and international level. Not only is Wilders the third most popular party in the Netherlands (De Telegraaf, 2010), he has also been receiving much support from like-minded people world-wide including countries such as Germany and America (Boyes, 2010; Davis, 2010). Does Wilders have some well-based justification for his actions and views? Is he simply the voice of people’s unspoken concerns? Or are these people also falling prey to their own decision making fallacies? Take a moment to consider this matter and, based on what you know, determine what your opinion is on this issue. This essay will discuss the aforementioned biases people have concerning Geert Wilders and his views, which can also be applied to other politically controversial issues. Holding a well-based opinion and an understanding of judgement and decision making limitations is important, particularly when these issues have a universal impact on society with potentially severe consequences.

Before claiming your opinion should be the only opinion, it is important to look at how well based that opinion actually is. Are you possibly falling to a bias or heuristic? Firstly, people feel ‘safety with numbers’ particularly with such topics that have been linked to violence. This issue in the Netherlands lead to the assassination of two important figures – Pim Fortuyn, a well-liked Dutch politican in 2002, and Theo van Gogh, a film-maker in 2004 (Attard, 2009), both popular, more diplomatic, strong advocates against Islam. Due to this ‘safety in numbers’ feeling, people are often prone to the bias of a false consensus. This occurs when people wrongly over-estimate the number of people whom support their belief due to the wish to have their own belief supported (Gilovich, 1991). This decision to be pro- or anti-Wilders has lead to a great divide between people (what pro-Islamic person wants to hang out with an Islamic-hater?) and thus peoples’ social circles and environments are more likely to be comprised of like-minded people, thus encouraging your belief. This however, lessens your interactions with people who disagree with you and gives you a false sense of how ‘right’ you think your opinion is. A look at the votes by municipality from the recent June 2010 elections shows that those in support of The Party for Freedom (Wilders’ party) are located in the south of the country, the majority of them in Wilders’ home province, Limburg (De Telegraaf, 2010). It is also in these areas that the number of foreigners is substantially less than in other areas. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that those residing in the south are finding their opinions confirmed by like-minded people, and having less exposure to foreigners also contributes to their bias of a false consensus, strengthening their belief further.

Another bias people often are influenced by is the confirmation bias, whereby information confirming one’s preconceptions is selectively searched for and favoured regardless of the accuracy or truth of the information (Remmerswaal, Muris, Mayer & Smeets, 2010). This holds especially true for emotionally significant issues where any disconfirmation would cause you to become defensive. This bias can also be related to issues with hot cognition decision making and ambiguous information. A decision made using hot cognition involves emotions as they are motivated by a positive effect on general wellbeing where as cold cognition is based on facts and evidence (Magridal, 2008). People tend to manipulate ambiguous information in such a way that it satisfies the emotional motivations for their beliefs and thus confirms their belief despite the possible neutrality, or ambiguous interpretations of the information (Gilovich, 1991). Those against Wilders will find no problem in gathering a plethora of information painting him in a bad light.

Statements made by him such as “Islam is a retarded religion” (Hayles, 2010), his wish to impose a tax on the burka (Davis, 2010) and the amount of protests and threats against him worldwide only confirm this opinion. He seems to come across as an uneducated, extreme man with very little knowledge of the Islamic culture and people. One only has to dig a little deeper to discover some facts which may make you think twice. For instance, Wilders actually spent several years living and working in Israel and the surrounding Arabic countries before returning to the Netherlands (Hayes, 2010) and makes regular visits back to these regions. His views do not come solely from a close-minded perspective, rather, a somewhat educated view of the people and the religion itself. He also makes a distinction between the Muslim people and the Islamic religion, claiming “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” (Hayes, 2010) with a basis from his experiences in Islamic countries. It is very easy to overlook such information if your opinion against Wilders is based on an emotional motivation as such information could slightly undermine your belief.

The availability heuristic is another common phenomenon which results in errors in decision making. People fall subject to an availability heuristic when information that supports their belief is more readily available and accessible in their minds, thus strengthening support for their belief (Riddle, 2010). Citizens living in Dutch cities such as Rotterdam which have a large, Islamic demographic located in closed, high-crime suburbs (AD.nl, 2009) may also find data readily available to support their anti-Muslim opinions. This works both ways with the same heuristic affecting those whom are anti-Wilders, also possibly influenced by their social circle, media coverage and the desire to have their belief supported.

Another important bias which is extremely relevant to this topic is the issue of intuitive statistics. It is intuitive for many of us to make moral-based decisions. We have learnt that racial prosecution is not something to be applauded and social conditioning has lead us to suppress or modify rude and offensive behaviour. We have come a long way from the days of the White Australia Policy, American black and white segregation and much effort is put into an internationally integrative community. However, it is still important to question those intuitions, despite our morals and social conditioning in order to ensure we are not missing something significant. For example, Wilders’ has repeated in many interviews that he believes Islam is a “retarded religion” (Attard, 2009; Davis, 2010; Hayes, 2010). Our first instinct is to react with shock and disbelief and condemn these very offensive words. However, after listening to his interview, he attempts to define what he means by ‘retarded’ and uses it in such a way that the Oxford Dictionary (Retard, 2010) intended – he believes Islam to be a religion that holds back development or progress. Although his statements are offensive and rude, listening to his views and reasons in their entirety is important to ensure we do not fall subject to incorrect intuitions and condemn him for the wrong reasons. From an international perspective, it is easy to overlook the reasons for his opinions as we do not live in the Netherlands and thus do not have easy accessibility to the country’s situation. However, in order to ensure we do not fall subject to incorrect intuitions, it is important to have an open mind to full information. The Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (2010), (the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics) shows that Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague hold the highest number of Islamic immigrants from countries such as Turkey and Morocco. Islamic communities are located in particular suburbs and are associated with higher levels of crime and lower income (AD.nl, 2009).    The number of crimes such as breaking and entering, vehicle theft or damage, vandalism and street assaults in these cities are among the higher end of the scale (AD.nl, 2009). Although there are obviously several factors involved, reports from a small, informal self-survey of young, university educated adults living in Rotterdam also report the link between crime and this particular group and this is further confirmed by reports by Pakes (2006). I am not attempting to persuade readers into believing Wilders’ actions are correct, I am simply trying to remind readers of the potential negative effect of intuitive statistics. Allowing one’s intuitions to guide their decision making will not always provide a well rounded foundation thus a combination of facts and awareness of our decision making limitations are required when forming an opinion, regardless of what opinion that is.

Finally, an obvious although essential bias which must be discussed is the source by which the majority of people receive their information – the media. So how good are the data? As we know, the media can be highly biased by the way in which they report the news and significantly impact our judgement and decision making abilities. Surprisingly, I have found written news articles to be fairly neutral with sentences simply stating the events and comments made by Wilders and other relevant people. These articles also state Wilders’ explanation for his outrageous comments thus allowing for some justification to be read by the public, rather than allowing the public to form their own interpretations based on one- sided information. Although the high controversy of this topic reasonably warrants against written articles providing strong views, this neutrality is somewhat ambiguous, thus people are able to twist or omit information to suit their beliefs.    The actual Dutch situation is also not well-covered by the media in international news thus non-Dutch people are not sufficiently knowledgeable on this topic and may dismiss Wilders’ claims and views without sufficient facts and thus, for the sake of efficiency, fall subject to their own biases and
heuristics. Having insufficient knowledge due to less-than-perfect sources can also lead you to question whether or not the data actually contradicts what you believe. For instance, during my survey, I discovered several of the non-Islamic Dutch participants, whom are directly affected by another set of Wilders’ policies, were insufficiently knowledgeable about these policies and had fallen subject to their own confirmation bias by focusing only on what the media had stated and ignoring the details. For those particular participants, the details of the policies were not actually relevant to them. The initial news had caused them to use hot cognitive process when forming their opinions thus biasing their opinions.

By analysing the effect of a false consensus, confirmation bias, availability heuristic, intuitive statistic and the quality of information sources, it can be seen that forming an opinion about particularly controversial issues need to made carefully. An awareness of these phenomena and a complete, reliable information base is important when deciding on your position. Although your opinion may remain the same after reducing your subjection to these biases, knowing that it is based on objective, cold cognitive processes with a fair account of consideration for both sides will only strengthen your opinion further.


AD.NL. (2009). AD Misdaadmeter [Crime Meter]. Retrieved from http://www.ad.nl/ad/nl/1401/home/integration/nmc/frameset/nieuws/misdaadmete r.dhtml

Attard, M. (Interview) (2009, June 19). Dutch MP Geert Wilders – dangerous populist or the voice of discontent? [Radio interview].Sydney, Australia: 702 ABC. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2009/06/18/2601990.htm

Boyes, R. (2010, October 5). Geert Wilders Rallies Berlin Before Trial. The Australian. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/geert-wilders-rallies- berlin-before-trial/story-e6frg6so-1225934019866
Centraal Bureau Voor de Statistiek. (2010). Population and Population Dynamics. Retrieved from http://www.cbs.nl

Davis, M. (Video Journalist). (2010, August 20). Dateline. [Television Broadcast]. Sydney, Australia: SBSONE. Retrieved from http://www.sbs.com.au/dateline/story/watch/id/600717/n/Mr-Controversial

De Telegraaf. (2010). Tweede Kamer Verkiezingen 2010. Retrieved from http://www.telegraaf.nl/verkiezingen/tk2010/index.jsp?gem=li&xml=512&id=512

Gilovich, T. (1991). How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York, NY: The Free Press

Hayes, L. (Television Presenter). (2010, May 23). Sixty Minutes. [Television Broadcast]. Sydney, Australia: Channel Nine.

Houlton, S. (2010, January 01). Islamic Critic Geert Wilders to go on Trial in the Netherlands. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from http://www.dw- world.de/dw/article/0,,5146840,00.html

Magridal, R. 2008. Hot vs. Cold Cognitions and Consumers’ Reactions to Sporting Event Outcomes. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 18(4), 304-319, doi: doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2008.09.00

Pakes, F. (2006). The Ebb and Flow of Criminal Justice in the Netherlands. International JournaloftheSociologyofLaw,4,141-156. doi:10.1016/j.ijsl.2006.08.001
Retard. (2010) In Oxford University Press, Oxford Dictionaries Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com

Riddle, K. (2010). Always on My Mind: Exploring How Frequent, Recent, and Vivid Television Portrayals Are Used in the Formation of Social Reality Judgments. Media Psychology, 13, 155-179. doi: 10.1080/15213261003800140

Traufetter, G. (2008, March 27). A Missionary With Dark Visions. Spiegel Online International. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,543627,00.html

Wilders Steunt Demonstranten Tegen ‘Moskee’ Ground Zero. (2010 September 11). NRC Handelsblad. Retrieved from
http://www.nrc.nl/buitenland/article2618436.ece/Wilders_steunt_demonstranten_tegen_m oskee_Ground_Zero


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