Are no voters more scared of spiders? By using the latest technology to tap into the human mind, we may be able to learn if someone will vote for independence before they know themselves, Jack McKeown discovers.
We are clever, rational people. When it comes to the independence referendum the most important decision Scots have made in 300 years we will base our decision on the evidence before us. When we step into the polling booth on September 18 we will have watched the televised debates, listened to the experts thrash it out on the radio and read the opinion of intellectual heavyweights in our nation’s newspapers.
All of that will help us make an informed choice. Or will it?
A new programme suggests our minds may not be our own nearly as much as we think they are. For instance, if you are scared of spiders you are more likely to vote “no”. It sounds crazy but as Dr Rob Johns of the University of Essex explains: “There is a growing body of evidence that links susceptibility to fear to ‘big C’ conservative views.
“People who feel fear more strongly are more likely to think we should have harsher penalties for offenders, are less likely to support progressive policies, and are more upset by deviant behaviour of any kind. When it comes to the referendum, it means they are more likely to vote in favour of the status quo.”
Political scientist Dr Johns, 38, showed 40 referendum voters a photograph of a large spider straddling a person’s face. They were asked to rate how scary they found the picture, on a scale of one to ten. Separately, they were asked how they intended to vote in next month’s referendum.
“‘No’ voters averaged a seven on the fright scale compared to ‘yes’ voters who only averaged a five,” he explains. “We are, as humans, hard-wired to react strongly to our emotions. We use our head and our heart while making decisions, but the heart plays a much larger role than most people realise.”
Dr Johns is one of a range of academics and neuro-scientists who took part in a documentary, Mind Games, to be broadcast on BBC2 Scotland tomorrow night.
Broadcaster Ken MacDonald explores what psychological techniques both campaigns are using to influence how people will make up their minds ahead of the historic vote.
The programme also uses the latest neuro-science techniques to look at people’s brain patterns and determine whether or not they are going to vote for independence.
In one experiment, an undecided voter has a skullcap attached to her head and watches a series of Yes Scotland and Better Together campaign videos while an array of devices measures her reaction.
The results show that she paid more attention to the messages in support of the Union. She also skim-read a fact sheet on the case for independence but spent more time reading statistics in support of Better Together.
Juliane Schulz of Mindlab International, which carried out the experiment, said this is an example of confirmation bias.
She says: “Confirmation bias is where you spend more time looking at the side that you support. If you’re subconsciously leaning towards one side or the other, you’re going to look for reasons to support your subconscious feeling. She quite clearly looked at more images supporting the Better Together campaign.”
Professor Laura Cram of Edinburgh University is conducting a range of experiments including MRI scanning to determine what role psychological techniques have in swaying voters.
“Our research has shown that something as small as showing a person a flag while they are being asked a question does change their answers,” she says. “I do think we have a choice but what we’re trying to find out is how strongly these factors influence us. The question ‘do we act rationally’ is not as easy to answer as you think.”
The documentary makers also visit Quebec, which has had not one but two independence referenda, and see the same patterns of fear versus optimism as are currently being played out in the Scottish debate.
Professor James Mitchell at the University of Edinburgh says the Yes campaign has many more troops on the ground, chapping on doors, while the No campaign has the nation’s media in its pocket.
“It’s very much a case of a ground war versus an air war, to an extent that we rarely see in politics,” he says.
Social media has made us used to getting messages in bite size packages. “Have you heard the expression on the internet, tl;dr?,” asks the University of Chicago’s Professor James Fowler. “It means ‘too long, didn’t read.”
He examines the campaign literature on both sides, concluding that the Yes campaign has the much sharper, punchier message.
Leafing through a Better Together booklet, he says: “There are lots of pretty pictures here but there is too much writing and I’m already losing interest.”
He picks up a flyer that states, simply: an Independent Scotland would be the most powerful nation in Europe.
“This one is spectacular,” he reckons. “There’s, what, 10 words there, with a picture showing you have the power in your hand. This might not only change your mind but it might get you to talk about it with friends.”
Mind Games, BBC2 Scotland tomorrow 9pm.