Judging by the television channels in international hotels, Europeans must think Anglo-Saxons are the most boring people in the world. While Italian, French or German stations show a mixture of soap operas, game shows and other cheerful nonsense, English-language channels are confined to news bulletins and the kind of rolling financial programming once parodied by The Day Today.
This means I am often reduced to watching foreign television simply to relieve the monotony. A rare high point was when I beat both contestants on Des Chiffres et Des Lettres, the French precursor to Countdown, with an eight-letter word, though admittedly the word was ‘minigolf’. The strangest moment came when I was watching a mainstream German station and, in what seemed to be a Teutonic version of Wainwright, three sturdy middle-aged couples in walking boots hiked around the Bavarian Alps, enjoying the beauties of the landscape. This continued for about 15 minutes, at which point they removed their clothes and… well, let’s just say it all got very guttural. (Since this is the kind of stuff Middle Eastern homes are picking up on satellite every night, it’s unsurprising they think Westerners are decadent: the influence of porn on national perceptions has been underestimated.)
Anyhow, the answer to my problem is to download British television to my laptop before I go abroad using BBC iPlayer. Don’t tell my employer, but this is one reason why, when my old laptop needed replacing recently, I asked for something with a much larger screen and big speakers. The trouble is, unless I wait months, this will mean getting an Apple MacBook. What’s the problem? Rationally, none at all, except that I have considered myself a PC person for the past ten years, and will suffer a strange loss of identity if I switch. I feel about as comfortable holding a Mac as Ian Paisley would feel holding a reliquary.
This question of identity — and how it affects the decisions we make — is one I have written about before. But I have since discovered a very good book on the subject by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton, called Identity Economics. This describes how our concept of self-image is often a far bigger factor in our decisions than the conventional economic notion of rational self-interest.
Any politician or psephologist would do well to read this, since it is essential to understanding — well, almost anything, from African American speech patterns to political allegiance.
Take the recent upheaval in voting patterns caused by the coalition. It’s irrelevant that what Nick Clegg did was probably both ethically and pragmatically right: anyone oblivious to their own identity would quickly acknowledge this. But most Lib Dems are people whose political identity is ‘Not Tory’, and they are now experiencing the same sense of personal betrayal Mac users felt when Apple got into bed with Intel. A high proportion of Labour supporters are the same — and they will now feel unable to vote Lib Dem tactically. Yet those more traditional Labour voters who occasionally defect to the Tories, and Tory supporters who tactically vote Lib Dem, are no less likely to do so. Draw the lines between parties based on this identity-based reasoning and a new picture emerges. Exacerbating things still more, most Scots, it appears, now chiefly define their identity as ‘not English’. The sense of ‘what I am not’ is a more powerful influence than ‘what I am’.
It’s possible this won’t last — few Mac users still flinch at the Intel connection. In years to come, I may even grow comfortable brandishing my MacBook. But for now I’m buying a large, plain case to hide it in.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.