And The Real Winner Of The Referendum Is Behavioural Economics
Written by Monkey-See
26 May 2011
Anyone looking to explain the landslide “no” vote in last week?s referendum on the Alternative Vote could do worse than consider the latest thinking in behaviour economics.
The discipline helps explain not only why the “yes” campaign struggled but why there was such a huge and unexpected swing away from them when voters finally read the actual question in the polling booths.
The question used was: “ At present, the UK uses the 'first past the post system' to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the 'alternative vote' system be used instead?"
The coalition government, led by a team in the Cabinet Office, has done excellent work in the area of behavioural economics and two of their findings are especially relevant here:
- that we tend to follow default options when they are offered to us,
- and that we are naturally biased towards social norms
Behavioural economics theorists have frequently recorded the presence of the “status quo heuristic”, a bias we all have towards keeping things the same. Thaler & Sunstein talk about this bias in their book Nudge, noting that,“people have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo”.
Nudge is said to be a must read in Tory (but perhaps not Lib Dem) circles.
That the wording of the AV referendum question used would appeal to voters? instincts to follow the status quo, there can be little doubt. It kicks of with unequivocal message, “At present, the UK uses the 'first past the post system' to elect MPs to the House of Commons.”
Research was conducted by Define Research & Insight for the Electoral Commission to check the clarity and neutrality of the referendum question. And bizarrely, given the findings from behavioural science outlined above, the wording of the question used was chosen precisely because it supported the status quo.
“The first sentence helped people to understand the status quo”, reported Define Research in a document prepared for the Electoral Commission.
It is also interesting to note that the question the Electoral Commission went with was not the first option it considered. The first option considered was worded:
“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the „alternative vote? system instead of the current „first past the post? system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Common?”
Although this formulation of the question also makes clear which voting system we have at the moment, it has nothing like as strong or prominent an emphasis on the all-important status quo.
For research aficionados, it's also worth noting that Define asked respondents directly if they thought the original question was neutral. Their report says that most thought it was but a few inevitably picked holes – what you would expect as they were asked to do so.
The irony is that this direct questioning (often likely to mislead) almost certainly resulted in a less neutral question being used at the end of the day.
Don't make the same mistake when researching your brands!
By Helen Nuki Co-founder, Monkey See Research
11 May 2011