Je Ne Regrette Rien? Brexit & Behavioural Science

Unfortunately our emotions do not always reflect our best interests given they are based on gut reactions rather than deliberation and analysis.

New reports show that significant numbers of people regret the decision they made in the EU referendum. A Survation poll claims that 1.1 million Leave supporters wished they’d voted Remain. The poll also shows that nearly 700,000 Remain supporters wished they’d voted Leave . So why did this happen and how can communications professionals help people make better decisions?

The immediate fallout suggests that many people used simplified decision strategies. Rather than weighing up all the evidence to make a considered evaluation of the Remain and Leave options, people made their decision in a much simpler way. For example, by focusing on a small part of the available information or simply choosing on the basis of the emotions generated when thinking about the two options. Behavioural science helps to explain why this happens.

Insight from behavioural science shows we all have difficulty making decisions. We have particular difficulty where there is complex conflicting information, the information or future is uncertain and where the decision impacts the medium and long-term. All of these factors were characteristic of the referendum decision. To deal with these difficulties, people use thinking shortcuts and deploy decision simplification strategies. In the case of the EU referendum, it seems like many of the simplification strategies pointed towards Leave.

Four of the strategies that are likely to have been used are described below:

1. People often simplify complex, multi-attribute decisions by making a choice based on just one factor or attribute rather than taking a more balanced approach which takes account of a broader range of factors. In the case of the referendum, it seems that Leave’s ‘sovereignty’ argument won out over Remain’s ‘economics’ argument. By focussing relentlessly on economics, the Remain campaign arguably legitimised decision making based on just one factor rather than a balanced approach taking account of a broader range of factors.

2. People are heavily influenced by the affect heuristic and tend to make decisions based on emotion. When considering the merits of different options we tend to choose based on asking ourselves: how does this option make me feel? Unfortunately our emotions do not always reflect our best interests given they are based on gut reactions rather than deliberation and analysis. In the referendum, the feelings evoked by concerns over immigration and sovereignty were probably stronger than the feelings evoked by economic uncertainty so guiding choice towards Leave.

3. People tend to follow trusted others and choose in accordance with advice given by these individuals. There is lots of evidence to suggest a wholesale decline in the general level of trust in institutions, authorities and experts in the UK. These groups are often seen as acting in accordance with their own interests rather than those of the public. Where there is a lack of trust in institutions and experts people tend to draw more heavily on the advice of people that seem similar to themselves, given that this similarity increases trust.

During the referendum, Boris, Gove and Farage did a better job of demonstrating an ‘everyman’ status, leading to increased trust and a strong tendency to follow their advice. Whether they can maintain that trust remains to be seen.

4. Even before campaigning began, leading behavioural researchers speculated that voters would use attribute substitution to simplify their decision. When people have a difficult question to answer they substitute it for an easier one. In the referendum decision this might involve people replacing the difficult question (whether stay or leave the EU) by an easier one (has the current status quo considered my interests and concerns and those of my immediate community). The results and feedback suggest that attribute substitution may have happened. Significant numbers appeared to use their vote as a protest against the out-of-touch political elite and unpopular austerity policies.

All four strategies are likely to have led voters to ignore aspects of the referendum decision that were, in reality, important to them. In the days following the referendum these voters have been reminded of the importance of these other factors leading them to question their original decision.

More analysis is needed, but there are several lessons for communications professionals:

  1. Make trust-building a primary objective of all communications so that information and advice is considered by the public rather than rejected because it is seen as self-serving and biased. Trust-building needs to be a long-term commitment and can’t be something that’s only nurtured when things go wrong. In practical terms, this means words need to be backed up by actions. And there is a strong argument for more balanced and nuanced arguments that reflect actual risks and uncertainties.
  2. Discourage single attribute decision making. We need to find ways to encourage people to recognise that decisions have many attributes which all need to be considered in order to come to a choice that reflects genuine preferences. Communications campaigns need to be informed by a broader set of coherent messaging to encourage a more rational assessment of the pros and cons of different choices. As a B2B marketer, you might score a quick win with the single attribute approach but you won’t build a strong long-term relationship.
  3. Recognise that fear and emotion are powerful, but can be very hard to control. Obvious, but communications campaigns need to appeal to the heart and to the head. And playing purely to fears can backfire. Emotion is very complicated. In this referendum fear went a different way than was intended.

Campaigners need to devise and roll-out communications strategies that recognise the influence of emotion, but also encourage a more rational decision making process. This approach is more likely to lead to outcomes that reflect people’s genuine preferences. By doing so, more of us should be able to happily sing along to Edith Piaf’s most famous song.

Simon Maule and Professor John Maule
Director and Associate

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