This blog won't change your mind either

On elections, decision making and (not) returning home

I’m not sure whether prime minister Orban has visited the London School of Economics since 2011 but I know for certain he had not enjoyed a warm welcome that year, when I was a student there. According to the protocol, his limousine had to pass the statistics lab several times. LSE students, known for their inventive political participation, decorated the lab windows with a super-sized claim: “ORBAN YOUR REGIME IS NOT POPULAR HERE EITHER“. After his public speech, members of the Hungarian Society gathered in a small reception room to shake hands and receive some well meant advice from Viktor Orban. The meeting was short and formal. He mentioned how lucky we were to study at a world class institution such as the LSE, that we should use the opportunity to stay in the UK for as long as it takes to get rich and then return to bring the wisdom and wealth back to Hungary.

LSE Statistics Lab, 2011

Charismatic, authoritarian leadership is not scarce in CEE. And there is some good explanation why whatever you may think about leadership or returning home from abroad, neither this blog, nor mere facts in any form will change your mind. As pointed out in a recent Atlantic article, facts won’t change your opinions, ideas, constructs, stereotypes or any thoughts you hold true. Propaganda, extremism, authoritarian leadership and any manipulative form of shaping public opinion succeeds largely because of cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning and evolution.

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory is included in the first lectures of every social psychology class and explains the discomfort (psychological stress) of processing and believing in contradicting ideas/perceptions/impulses simultaneously. It’s less known and still significant sister theory, motivated reasoning, talks about the act of holding on to existing beliefs by deliberately selecting data/facts/arguments which support those beliefs and ignoring, dismissing, fighting the ones that oppose them. These processes are frequent, ordinary human fallacies and they lead to false beliefs, the ultimate enemy of truth. No one chooses self-deception, we all want to make good decisions, but not all of us and not always are prepared to go the extra mile and revise what we once considered right. But what is more important is that this is not that important at all. Because when it comes to decision making from an evolutionary perspective, the truth is less valuable than what your social circle thinks. Our sense of belonging has developed for a reason, to protect us from danger like no information ownership ever will. Most of the time, we won’t pick the truth over social acceptance. Anyone who has ever worked in a team or functioned in a group knows the power of groupthink and how it kills ideas.

I have been observing a strong wave of returnee support in my home country, partly as response to brain drain and low quality leadership, two big issues Slovakia has been struggling with for decades. I am a big fan of all organisations campaigning and motivating young people to build careers at home or to return home. This is a noble goal and besides actually educating and uniting the public, I can’t think of more useful agendas for education institutions, governmental or non-governmental organisations supporting innovation and education. What I do mind is the criticism and judgement those who decide to leave or not return are facing as a consequence of false beliefs that never made it to fact check.

Just a few from the myriad of arguments why we shouldn’t judge are:

1. Many people living and working abroad have achieved great success there and their example is our best PR. They also create new opportunities and partnerships for Slovaks and many of them influence the public remotely.

2. Some of these long gone people are actually really happy in more advanced, more tolerant and more inclusive societies than our own, and unlike their critics tend to believe. These people raise children in advanced, tolerant and inclusive environments. Let’s not forget that this offspring has Slovak / Central European roots. Given they stop being criticised, they may add value to our society in the future also because of the environment they were raised in.

3. Many of those who have tried to come back, weren’t lucky enough to be offered jobs in organisations that are ready to accept and acknowledge their skills and worldly mindset. Our private and public sector sets limitations to the achievements and learning opportunities these people have aspirations to encounter. Not mentioning the lack of role models and mentorship that convinces many people to prefer places where leadership is about creating more leadership rather than about practising control.

4. Another good reason not to judge is because it’s just healthy. Simply choose not to get on an opportunistic wave of glorifying return as if it was mainly about heroism and sacrifice. The majority returns because of circumstance rather than sacrifice. They were given an opportunity and they used it. I returned for a combination of reasons, love was the most important one, also because I was exhausted from travelling and because miraculously, I found a job that was exactly what I wanted to do. I also knew the competition I will face at home will be significantly less fierce than abroad, i.e. I will do more interesting things faster. I was impatient. Some of my more patient friends are now enjoying the fruits of hard work abroad. I picked the easier path. I believe it's not easier to leave, it’s easier to stay. I don't think it's easier to build a life anywhere outside your comfort zone. Home is comfort zone. It may be smart, but you are no hero for returning when there is a good opportunity offered to you. Frankly, I only know very few people who have returned for a single reason, to improve our country. They are minority and in my experience, it’s not them who decide to fuel the false belief that Slovaks abroad have chosen the easier path.

This, of course, won’t change your mind.

Also, if you believe in a leader, whether it’s fully or partly because your social circle believes in them, it will be more difficult for you to review your decision. Facts won’t help much. It’s usually experience and emotions that ultimately make us change our minds. The world is experiencing an overload of negative, authoritarian leadership that is driven by greed and using fear to remain in power. There are 4 elections (including the one happening today) in the coming 1.5–2 years in my home country. We may not possess the truth but we do own our future . Voting is a right we must use. Most people in my circle know their favourite political candidates already. We have chosen, we’ve expressed stands overtly or covertly. Many have done their factual homework and they will hold on to these truths, even when those facts will change over time. We all do that.

I wish the state of leadership in my home region would dramatically change in the coming years and I know for a fact that brain drain isn’t helping. Still I don’t fear a lack of good options to choose from. Smart people with valuable experience are returning to Slovakia every year prepared to fill important positions. I may live an international life and work globally and still put in substantial effort to shape things at home. What I worry about is critical thinking, our ability to go the extra mile and check the facts. Good leadership isn’t luck, we must actively seek it. Knowing the natural process of decision making and fallacy formation helps, but most of all, we must use our power to choose well and hold accountable those who will lead us.