The Brexit Referendum Through a Behavioural Lens

I’ve written previously about the gap between mainstream policy-making and systematic, knowledgeable use or understanding of behavioural science. And here I am again, suggesting that the wording of the Brexit referendum could have been smarter, and that the Leave campaign tapped into our cognitive biases much more effectively than did the Remain camp. So … was it cognitive bias wot won it?

The Wording

My interest from a behavioural perspective was first piqued back in September, when it was reported that the draft referendum wording had been changed. My instinct was to agree that the Yes/No question initially drafted (“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”) would indeed favour stay, due to status quo bias. But I was concerned about the agreed final version, which I felt had an inbuilt bias the other way. I tweeted this at the time, to – let’s be honest – very little interest:


My rationale is that if you were looking for a balanced choice, the key words would form a semantic pair. I think that, technically, we are talking here about complementary antonyms. On/off is an example. Stay/leave works, in my view. But Remain/Leave doesn’t; remain carries a higher cognitive load to process than does leave, as it is less idiomatic. Depart would be a better pair with Remain.

This matters because, when faced with a higher cognitive load, we process information less well. It’s why a lot of my work with local authorities includes an element of making sure that we use everyday language. We want people to make good decisions.

Is it a big deal, though? The more reflective a decision is, the more it relies on  System Two thinking, so the less significant are the biases and heuristics of System One. And this decision, considered over many months, perhaps shouldn’t be influenced by something as seemingly ephemeral as the question wording. But, in the privacy of the polling booth, particularly if you enter it as a ‘don’t know’ …We’ll never know, because there is no control sample – and no voter would be aware of the effect influencing their decision.

Effects triggered by Leave campaign

“Vote Leave, Take Control” was very, very clever. Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling recently wrote on cognitive bias and politics and called it a ‘stroke of genius’. My rationale is different to his, which focused more on how people feel about inequality.

My thoughts refer particularly to the ‘Take Back Control‘ slogan, or, as shown here, ‘Taking Back Control From Brussels’.

I think two powerful behavioural effects are at work here. And I partly recognise them because I’ve used them – together – to great effect in my work. But before I explain, put yourself in this scenario:

Imagine calling a mobile phone company to cancel your contract. You might half-expect to be put through to a Retentions team who might offer you more texts or 100 extra minutes per month as an incentive to stay. With me so far? But what happens is that Retentions say, “Oh, look. There are 100 extra minutes per month on your account. What do you want me to do with them?”. Pause for a second and think about it. They’ve completely reframed your call: you now immediately understand that you have this thing, that you are at risk of losing. It wouldn’t work on everyone, but I’m pretty sure I’d be more likely to stick with my current provider if they tried this, than if they didn’t.

What this imaginary phone company and ‘Take Back Control’ have in common is combining Endowment effect and Loss Aversion. In a nutshell, endowment effect is the value I instinctively ascribe to something simply because it is mine. Coupled with the (more widely understood) loss aversion, whereby I acutely feel the potential loss of what is mine, this is a powerful combination. The expertise with endowment effect often lies in communicating very succinctly that there is something I have, that I may not have been aware of at the start of the sentence (or, in my  phone contract example, at the start of the call). In Public Health, we are using endowment effect when we write to someone to say ‘Your NHS health check is due’ (my italics) which, all other things being equal, gets more people attending. So what is so clever about the use of endowment effect in the concept of ‘taking back control’? It is the way that a status quo ante is implied by the word ‘back’, a time when I had control. Further, it is very hard to contradict once it has been used; as they didn’t reframe with an alternative, vivid understanding of what it was to be ‘in control’, Remain were essentially saying “it’s OK to have lost control”.

Finally, think how much more effective ‘take back control’ is than ‘take control’. That, as Jonathan Flowers said to me when we were discussing this, sounds like hard work.

Leave’s missed opportunities

It’s not hard to make a case that the main flaw of the Remain campaign was in allowing the debate to be framed by the Leave camp. Framing isn’t a behavioural effect as such, but how something is framed provides the context for decision-making – and biases – to play. Taking just one example, the Leave side managed to get ‘freedom of movement’ spoken about as though it’s a one-way street. And this is still true; listen to news pieces even today about the issue, and it’s all about EU citizens’ right to move to the UK, not about UK citizens being able to live in any of 28 countries, as a result of being EU citizens.

How could the campaign have been run to reframe this? I’ll offer just one example: loss aversion is good to tap into. For UK citizens like me and my family, the Leave campaign was about removing our right to live in 27 of those 28 countries. Expressing it more vividly, they want to take 95% of my/your passport away. Leigh Caldwell, a fellow behavioural practitioner, wrote about this, evocatively and emotionally, before the vote. But I’m trying to be hard-nosed here, and I don’t think you have be a super-creative at Saatchi to imagine something visual and vivid to bring this home. I’m picturing something involving Mr Farage, a passport and pair of scissors. Alternatively, for the more nostalgic among you, how about a “No more Auf Wiedersehen Pet” message, with a picture of that nice Jimmy Naill?

Clearly, some good ideas – that would have worked hard behaviourally – were around, but not acted on, as this article in Campaign makes clear. This draft poster, in particular, could have been expected to trigger status quo bias effectively:



So – was it cognitive bias wot won it?

I’m not saying that these were the issues that settled the vote – that with more self-awareness of our cognitive biases, the result would be different. We don’t know; there’s no control sample. But I do hope that people in the Remain campaign would now look back and inwardly facepalm.

 Is it too late to reframe the debate and decisions?

Most, if not all, readers will have witnessed the emotional fallout from the Brexit vote, even if they did not feel it themselves; the sense of voicelessness and loss that has even led to the publication at short order of a new national weekly newspaper. It’s not clear what will happen now, as many authoritative voices advise us, so perhaps there is time for those who are in favour of the UK staying in the EU to move away from using purely economic language, and begin to talk about these issues in a way that recognises how we really make decisions.

Before I go …

One rider to all of this: friends have encouraged me to write down what I’ve been saying out loud recently, and here it is. I hope these things are worth saying, because the referendum did happen. Sure, it could have been done better. But my view, for what it’s worth, is that referendums are almost always the wrong thing to do; so no referendum at all is preferential to a behaviourally literate referendum. This 2010 post by Paul Evans is a good overview of why, though Noel Gallagher puts it more vividly.








Consumers are people, too

This blog isn’t about sustainability. It’s about decision-making – and especially framing. But I need to quickly explain something first. My background in sustainability makes me alert to issues around consumption. Why? Because the resource use required for the levels of consumption we have is literally unsustainable if humans are to carry on thriving. And also because increased consumption goes hand-in-hand with a host of problems including inequality, crime and mental illness, as our lives become ever more about the status that consumption signifies.

So it’s no surprise that I have a problem with the frequency with which people are described as ‘consumers’, rather than as residents, citizens or, erm, “people”. It happens a lot, and it annoys me, because there is so much more to us than what we buy and use.

I think we can now see a demonstrable problem with the way the word (and concept) frames debate and decision making. This might interest you even if you don’t give a monkeys about resource use or wellbeing. Its’ from the recent Government strategy on ultra low emission vehicles (which doesn’t include bicycles, I should point out). This screengrab on developing the market is telling, I think.

1.54 of ULEVS

Note how people are referred to as consumers; in the Strategy, this happens nearly as often as people referred to as ‘drivers’. Is it possible that this is affecting the way policy is framed? When we have a decision-making class that has unquestioningly pursued GDP growth for decades, this framing makes a positive outcome more likely. “Consumers” consume; and when you’re chasing growth, this is good.

The commitment made in this strategy is considerable: £500m six years infrastructural investment, from 2015-2020, and an office has been established at DfT dealing solely with low-emission vehicles. Cyclists (and potential cyclists, which is the vast majority of people), however, get a much poorer deal from decision-makers, who never refer to them, in the act of travelling, as consumers (the Government’s recent policy document on cycling doesn’t use the word once). So it’s no surprise that, even though this was seen by Government as something to trumpet, cycling is receiving a (imho) laughably small investment of £148m (some of which is local funding) – with no commitment beyond two years, despite the existing legacy of next to no investment.

This matters, because active travel (walking and cycling) offers an major benefit to the economy and to public health. It would address many of the UK’s deep-seated problems. But it remains marginalised in policy terms, blighted by poor design and assumptions about the primacy of motorised vehicles. The result is that cycling is not easy or normal; despite the hype, there is no cycling boom.

I don’t suppose we’d ever be able to run a real-world experiment where policy discussions are restricted to referring to individuals as ‘people’, extended to ‘people who … [cycle/drive/ buy things, etc]. If we could, the outcomes would be interesting. In the meantime, if you want to influence decision-makers, keep talking about consumers.

Doing it better

Below is a post I wrote for the Behavioural Design Lab a short time ago. The aspect that has attracted the most interest is the use of proposed use of defaults to move from a project management-centric view (where residents make a fresh decision at each stage of the process that has been mapped out) to a citizen-centric approach (where, once someone has chosen to have a warm home, the default is that they are taking part.

Two quick points, drawing on conversations that I’ve had with people since writing this.

First, this is a really good litmus test for whether we are comfortable using behavioural insights. Personally, my view is that our choices always have a context, and that framing the choice in this way makes it clear and easier to make a decision that is salient to the person making it. But I know that some people not used to working with behavioural insights are a little uncomfortable with it; because it seems a little, well, sneaky. In a world where there are numerous websites on which I can click a ‘buy now’ button, before verifying a host of details, I’m comfortable with it, and that’s why I see it as a litmus test: it only seems sneaky if you compare it with a context in which people have to repeatedly decide.

Second, reflecting that most of the feedback I’ve had has been of the “what a great idea!” variety, there is so much that we can do better in public services, and it is within our grasp. I hope that this helps demonstrate the value of what I’ve been trying to do with With The Grain over the past couple of years. There are so many behavioural effects that we know can affect our decisions; and there is an ever-growing body of evidence of how and when they work. So let’s generate new approaches drawing on this knowledge. This idea was generated in a workshop of stakeholders brainstorming ideas based on different effects, of which defaults was one. Most of them hadn’t been exposed to much behavioural science before; if they can do it, so can you. This is one of our best chances of meeting the demand management challenge.

“Did I just use behavioural science? But I’m not a designer!”

So said a dozen or so stakeholders of a project aimed at retrofitting 160 draughty homes in Crawley, West Sussex. With good reason. They had co-produced a wide-ranging set of design and communication ideas for the project.

The project offers work such as external wall cladding, funded by the Energy Companies Obligation, through which the Government is obliging utilities to fund energy efficiency work on Britain’s coldest, draughtiest and most energy inefficient homes. The problem many have found is that, in the absence of existing demand (that is, people who are aware that they want their home retrofitted but haven’t been able to do it yet), building demand for something free is tricky. Price perception tells us that if something is free, it doesn’t have value. Homo economimus might see free cladding as a no-brainer; real people don’t.

So, when introducing the opportunity to people, we decided to frame the choice as being between a cold home and a warm home – not as the chance to choose a named process or product. And we avoided terms (such as ‘retrofitting’), known by professionals but which may provide a barrier if not familiar to residents. Crawley-ECO-leaflet-section

Adding the use of behavioural insights to the team’s existing expertise in community engagement had a major impact immediately, speeding up recruitment 4-fold, compared with similar projects being undertaken elsewhere in the South East.

Another innovation is that, when people say ‘yes’ to a warmer home, this becomes the default setting. So, instead of initially agreeing to an “assessment” which leads to another choice once the surveyor has visited, householders make a single choice: the surveyor will make a recommendation of the measures to adopt “ … unless you drop out”. From a project management viewpoint, we’re moving from a process whose success depends on people saying ‘yes’ at several different stages to a process designed to support and prove people’s positive choice to have a warmer home.

There are a dozen other ways in which we are using – or plan to use – behavioural insights. Rob Bennett, who leads the community engagement team, says, “It is really important that we find ways to encourage communities as a whole to get behind these initiatives, So whether it’s the initial decision to participate in a scheme, or ensuring that residents communicate what works best by sharing good practice and experiences – we expect behavioural evidence to play a critical part in successful ”delivery”.

We think we’ve learned what the With The Grain tool has also demonstrated in other settings: that behavioural insights are accessible and usable; that these insights help make approaches more people-centric and therefore more efficient; and that it’s possible to get away from the default setting of trying to persuade people.

So we now have a platform for using behavioural insights in the future. And we have a group of stakeholders who are comfortable with knowingly using behavioural insights to affect the context within which people make decisions.

In the future, this won’t be unusual. Right now, it feels revolutionary.