The hidden psychology of the Scottish Referendum

Most of the comment, analysis, debate and prediction regarding the Scottish referendum implicitly assumes that voters will make their decision by coolly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of independence. But this flies in the face of everything scientists have learned about the psychology of human decision-making in general and voting in particular. In fact, most voters follow their hearts, not their heads, and my prediction is that this will lead to a comfortable win for the “No” campaign on September 18th.

In his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents a wealth of evidence that our brain has two systems that run at different speeds. While we like to think that the slow, deliberative, logical system is in charge, most decisions are in fact made by the fast system, which is based on hunches, feelings and emotions. For example, when asked to make some complex prediction – such as the relative costs and benefits of a particular technology, or how well it will do economically – people generally completely disregard the facts, and make their guess solely on the basis of how much they personally like the industry in question[i]. And so it is with politics. Studies have consistently shown that people decide whether or not a particular political argument is plausible mainly on the basis of how much they like the person making it[ii][iii]. So, if you like Alex Salmond, you believe that Scotland can keep the pound, waltz straight into the EU and outperform the rest of UK economically. If you don’t, you think the opposite. In fact, one study showed that when pictures of the candidates were flashed up for just 1/10th of a second, people’s gut responses could predict the winner in over two thirds of races[iv].

Admittedly, the Scottish referendum is a bit of an unusual case, as people are voting for a country rather than a person. But the lesson here is that the rival camps would do better to focus on making the emotional case for either an independent Scotland or a united Great Britain rather than a financial one Again, the available research backs up this idea. For example, one classic study[v] found that the same party achieved more votes amongst households that had been sent an emotive pamphlet than those that had been sent a pamphlet that focused on its economic policies. This is a lesson that the “Yes” campaign has arguably learned better than the “Better Together” campaign, which has tended to emphasise the potentially dire economic consequences of independence.

Nevertheless, I expect the “No” campaign to win, and win by a bigger margin than has generally been forecast. My prediction is based on two further psychological factors that are rarely discussed, but that could prove decisive[vi][vii]. The first is a phenomenon known as the bandwagon effect: In elections and referenda – like pretty much everything else in life – people hate to end up on the losing side. Of course, this isn’t going to affect the hard core, but the crucial floating voters who will determine the outcome could easily be swayed. In fact, the bandwagon effect could well be even stronger here than in a parliamentary election, as losing voters will find themselves living not under a government that they didn’t vote for – and who will probably be booted out within 10 years – but in a country that they didn’t vote for, probably for the rest of their lives. The difficulty in such a close-run contest is working out which side has the bandwagon effect in its favour, but I’m going to plump for the “No” campaign which – despite a relative collapse – has ever lost only a single poll.

But perhaps the most important relevant psychological phenomenon – though one that I have not seen discussed anywhere with reference to this referendum – is loss aversion. Let’s say I offer you the following wager: We flip a coin, your call. If I win, you give me £100. If you win, I give you £150. Would you take the bet? Most people would not, which – when you think about it – doesn’t make much sense, given that the odds are 50/50 and you stand to gain more than you can lose. In fact, most people won’t take the bet until they stand to win around £250. That is, we see losing money as more than twice as bad as failing to win the same amount. Can you see where I’m going with this? My bet is that, come the 18th, Scots will decide that losing the country that they already have – one which, on a global scale, is a pretty good one – is much worse than failing to gain one that may be slightly better.

Test your own intuitions, and discover the hidden psychology behind everyday life, in Ben Ambridge’s new book Psy-Q, out now from Profile Books in the UK (US release from Penguin Random House in December/January). 

[i] Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). The affect heuristic. In T.Gilovich, D. Griffin & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases (pp.397–420). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[ii] Lau, R.R., Redlawsk, D.P. (2001) Advantages and disadvantages of cognitive heuristics in political decision making. American Journal of Political Science 2001, 45:951–971.

[iii] Teven, J.J. (2008) An examination of perceived credibility of the 2008 presidential candidates: relationships with believability, likeability, and deceptiveness. Human Communication 2008, 11:391–408.

[iv] Ballew, C.C. & Todorov A. (2007) Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104:17948–17953.

[v] Hartmann G.W. (1936). A field experiment on the comparative effectiveness of “emotional” and “rational” political leaflets in determining election results. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 31:99–114.

[vi] Nadeau, R.; Cloutier, E. & Guay, J.H. (1993). New Evidence About the Existence of a Bandwagon Effect in the Opinion Formation Process. International Political Science Review,14 (2): 203–213.

[vii] McAllister, I., & Studlar, D.T. (1991). Bandwagon, Underdog, or Projection? Opinion Polls and Electoral Choice in Britain, 1979-1987.


  1. have you placed a bet at the bookies? 🙂

    what are your thoughts about the length of time people have had to makes a decision – min 2 years (UK government agreed to referendum in 2012) to max 7 years (2007 SNP won elections)


    1. No – I think the odds on “No” are pretty short

      I’m not aware of any studies looking at the effect of decision time, but I’d guess it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference either way. If, as the studies show, most people tend to go with their heart not their head, their choice was probably set even before 2007!

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