How does the electorate really think?

Back in 2010, an edition of ALDC’s Campaigner contained this piece from me, which I’ve lightly updated before republishing given how relevant it still is:

Knowing why people vote the way they do is tough. It’s not just because people may be reluctant to be honest to others about their motivations, but people are also often bad at understanding themselves.

In fact, one of the findings increasingly coming out from research into how we make decisions is that often we make a decision using our subconscious and only afterwards come up with a justification for it. Our subconscious decides, our conscious rationalises.

It is an intriguing – and in some ways, scary – finding that is best illustrated by a clever experiment where people were shown two photographs of similar, but different, people. They were asked to pick which one they thought was the most attractive. They were then given that photograph and asked to explain the reason for their decision.

Except that what the researchers did was try out a bit of sleight of hand, so sometimes the person was actually given the photograph of the other person. Yet for the vast majority of the time, people did not notice that the photograph has been swapped and, moreover, went on to give detailed reasons as to why they’d picked that photograph – even though in fact, they had selected the other one.

This power of rationalising a decision after you’ve made it – even if in fact you didn’t actually make it – has wide implications in the burgeoning field of behavioural economics and is touched on in more popular treatments such as Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink.

What is common across the research is the power of subtle signals which we pick up subconsciously. One of the challenges is trying to understand when we should trust such subconscious decision making and when we should try to subordinate it to our rational, conscious mind. Gladwell gives many examples of when the subconscious actually makes better decisions.

So what does this all mean for political campaigning?

It reinforces the point increasingly made in recent years about how people don’t just vote based on careful consideration of competing policies, but also on more impressionistic grounds such as whether someone seems honest, credible or competent.

Ironically, there is in fact a decent rational argument for stepping away from detailed policy considerations, because so often events come up which were unpredicted at the time of an election and require decisions that were not discussed in the campaign or itemised in manifestos.

This is a point which Charles Kennedy often made (and which I wrote about previously). The issues on which he, William Hague and Tony Blair campaigned in 2001 turned out to have very little relation to the major issues that dominated politics in 2001-5. Tuition fees and Iraq most notably were major issues in the Parliament but almost completely absent from the preceding election.

Understanding Tony Blair’s personality – and the moralistic sense of duty fuelled by his religious beliefs, as evidenced over Kosovo – would have been a far surer guide to Labour’s subsequent foreign policy than the details which happened to be highlighted on page 39 of the 2001 Labour manifesto about Labour and the UN. (“We support a more modern and representative Security Council, with more effective peace-keeping” since you ask).

For campaigning then there are three (of course) things to remember.

First, when presenting a candidate for election, remember to present not just their policies but also why they are the right person in terms of judgement, skill or experience for the job. It’s why when asked in academic research what the most important attribute for a candidate is, British voters overwhelmingly said s/he should be local (“sharing the same political views” came first; everything else lagged behind being local). “Local” is used as a proxy for understanding the area and being clearly committed to it. A candidate doesn’t have to be born there to count as local, but they do need to show those values to count as local. It’s why being local comes out so powerfully in this and other research.

Second, candidates need to show how they understand and respect the perspectives voters are coming from. Do they understand and share the values of those people? Politics is about choices – and choices between competing values – so this doesn’t mean becoming an amorphous middle of the road blob. But it means – for example – understanding and respecting how important their family is to many potential Liberal Democrat voters, and the message it sends if the party locally never talks about families in all their many varied forms.

Third, small details can influence those subconscious decisions which often trump the rational mind. “Action photographs” which repeatedly show a candidate all on their own send a subconscious – and unflattering – message, for example. You almost certainly won’t find a voter saying, “Your candidate seems a bit lonely” on the doorstep, but it can still influence views, even if the post-decision rationalisation for the views talk about something else. Whether it’s a food stain on your top when canvassing or choice of photographs that always make it look like there aren’t many Lib Dems around here, the details that people rarely mention as influencing their decisions actually often do.

Our campaigning should aim to do more than simply accept people’s views and attitudes are they stand. But unless we understand how they work we won’t be able to effectively work with or influence them.

One response to “How does the electorate really think?”

  1. This is very interesting. However we must remember that the people that we are talking about include ourselves. This is the way we make decisions.
    When you think about it, this results from our need to survive. Elementary psychology textbooks often talk about the need for rapid decisions making when our ancestors were threatened by a tiger looking for a meal. It is claimed that they had to act quickly. So we started moving without thinking, or of course we hid if we could.
    Today the equivalent though is the busy road. Every day I see people seconds from death when crossing bust roads. In general their decisions result in getting to safety. If you time them though there is no time for them to think.
    We all have actions which we can use for decisions.
    Perhaps therefore we should consider carefully the implications of this when we are are writing leaflets. Or talking to people. We are engaged in an interaction where probably neither is behaving rationally!

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