If you read last week’s Alex Massie blog, you may well be aware that one of the biggest cheerleaders for the union in 2014, has since the EUREF, started to change his tune on indyref2.
This week, in the Times of London, he is even forecasting how independence might win over risk-averse No voters. It all boils down to the framing of the choice.
In his article, Massie bases his argument on the work of psychological researchers,
The concept of “framing” was a new and bold idea when Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli psychologists, discovered — or invented — the concept more than 40 years ago. As they put it: “What constitutes a gain or a loss depends on the representation of the problem and the context in which it arises.” Preferences and, thus, choices are dynamic, not static. They change depending on the circumstances — the “frame” — in which they are made. Consider this example: Kahneman and Tversky found that if you offered people a guaranteed $500 or a lottery ticket that promised a 50 per cent chance of winning $1,000 most people took the guaranteed $500. People tended to act in a risk-averse manner. So a bird in the hand was preferable to the possibility of two birds in the bush. This was consistent with the standard economist’s view of decision-making.
But Kahneman and Tversky had the idea of reversing the premise. They asked their subjects if they would prefer to have a lottery ticket that offered a 50 per cent chance of losing $1,000 or, instead, a certain loss of $500. Most people preferred to take their chances on the lottery ticket. Suddenly people embraced higher risk if doing so might insulate them from certain loss.
He goes on to argue that in 2014, many No voters thought independence too risky.
They thought they were doing fine in the UK and they thought independence could go either way, so they decided to stick with the situation they know. For them, that situation was pretty good anyway so why throw that away in the off chance of getting something better. If there were to be a second referendum to coincide with the UK leaving the EU, then Massie argues things would be different. Independence would still be seen as a risk, but it would be a risk that people would be comparing to what they might perceive as a sure and potentially significant loss. The psychology tells us that people are much more likely to take a risk if they think it may enable them to avoid a sure loss.
So, if Massie and the Psychologists are correct, an important part of winning indyref2 is the framing of the choice.
We need to frame Brexit as a sure and significant loss and we need to minimise the risk element of independence. If we get the timing correct, I don’t think the first part of that equation will be difficult. As Massie points out in his article, pretty much all predictions about Brexit from serious sources are bad. Our argument on that front will be bolstered by many organisations and businesses who don’t support independence. Around the time of indyref2, there should be a cacophony of voices warning about the imminent financial and societal losses.
The second part is the part we need to get right. Independence will always be seen as uncertain but everyone knows there are some questions we need to answer better next time. Not least questions surrounding currency, pensions and deficit reduction. Already, if rumours are to believed, the powers that be might be about to put their foot in it again with regards to currency options. We can’t afford to be making the same mistakes twice.
Still, I agree with Massie that the Psychology of risk has shifted in our favour.
If we get the message right, then a lot of No voters might just be willing to take what they see as a plunge in order to try and avoid a definite loss.
On a similar subject, we did a blog on the run-up to the indyref1, about how the uncertainty of independence was overblown. We argued that staying in the union was just as risky. Turns out we were not far wrong. You can read that blog here.