• Final Mile

To B, or not to B, that is the question


The ‘B’ in the title stands for Brexit- the portmanteau monicker given to the possibility of Britain’s departure from the European Union. This June, many British citizens will face their second referendum on secession in three years. Their bone of contention is the burdensome legislation from the European Council- seen by many Brits as an infringement of their gleefully miserable approach towards language, food and life in general. Since the seeds of European integration were sown, the island nation has experienced bouts of collective outrage- on Brussels deciding how bendy British bananas should be, or how sausages should be renamed as emulsified high-fat offal tubes. Some of these stories have turned out to be practical jokes planted by journalists or even pure satire- the sausage story was in fact an episode of Yes Minister. But the resulting outrage in every case has been real and present. It is with this long-term cynicism of continental appropriation, as well as coercion from extreme right-wing groups such as the UK Independence Party, that Prime Minister David Cameron decided to announce the referendum last month.

Pertinent to the referendum discussion is the syntax and construction of the question that will be posed before voters. Some may consider this a minor detail, but the Electoral Commission of the UK has conducted eleven detailed assessments on it since 2001 alone. Learnings from behavioural science justify the earnestness shown by the election watchdog, and evidence from the following historical referendums further corroborates this claim:

Scotland, 2014

The framing of the question for the 2014 referendum- where Scottish citizens decided whether or not to remain a part of the United Kingdom- became a contentious issue. The Scottish National Party, who were in support of their independence, had originally proposed this question:

Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

  1. Yes

  2. No

The Electoral commission pointed out the leading nature of the question. Behavioural science calls this  technique of influencing responses as ‘framing’: the manner in which the question was constructed would encourage neutral voters to vote ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. This also follows from the claim that people are more likely not to disagree with a notion that is presented in a somewhat coercive manner.

Earlier during the movement, those in support of the ‘let’s stick together’ campaign preferred this question instead:

Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?

  1. Yes

  2. No

Here, the negative connotation of the word ‘leaving’ would make voters experience loss aversion- a state where the prospect of negative outcomes looms larger than that of positive outcomes. At the pivotal moment of a voter making their choice, loss aversion would likely bring to their minds, all the risks and tribulations were Scotland to exit the UK, thereby encouraging them to tick the ‘no’ box. Additionally, considering this nation-of-many-countries has been at peace for seven decades, secession exists more conspicuously in a negative frame than independence does in a positive one.

The Electoral Commission, which pointed out that the final question should be presented in clear and neutral terms, eventually had both sides agree on the following format:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

  1. Yes

  2. No

Although the majority voted against independence, the marginally positive framing of the final question may have impacted the overall numbers supporting independence- which at 45%- amounted to a far closer race than was expected.

Greece, 2015

The Greek Bailout Referendum was put before its citizens ten days after its announcement by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in June 2015. The poll asked Greeks if the government should accept the bailout conditions set by the European Commission and International Monetary Fund. A ‘yes’ would mean years of spartan hardship for citizens and businesses, but a ‘no’ would lead to a possible exit from the Eurozone.


On voting day, the question featured in the ballot was as convoluted as the Euro crisis itself: it included sixteen page appendices, and the ‘no’ option was placed above the ‘yes’. It may not come as a surprise that 61% of the voters rejected the IMF’s proposition, and the government received a handsome political payoff- domestically and internationally- for its snap poll.

Nazi Germany, 1938

Many would describe such industrial-strength nudging by governments as unethical and distasteful. They are likely to find the arrangement of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options of the 1938 German referendum (asking Germans if they wanted to reunite with Austria and ‘vote for the list of the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’) as astonishing as the revelation that the Third Reich actually bothered themselves with such an extensive democratic exercise. The large circle isn’t merely a nudge, but also a hint.


Learning from history and from convoluted referendum forms in its own past, the Canadian parliament passed the ‘Clarity Act’ in 2000 that restricted questions on secession from being overtly complex. Since then, length of referendum questions has reduced from 36 words- in the case of Quebec- to the six words for Scotland. But constraints of brevity may bring with them nudges of their own- which leads us back to the referendum facing Britons this June. The Electoral Commission has already recommended a somewhat long-winded question. But it manages to nullify all the behavioural biases that would plague the standard ‘should the UK leave the EU’ or ‘should the UK stay with the EU’ formats:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?

  1. Remain a member of the European Union

  2. Leave the European Union

Whatever the results turn out to be, it will be heartening to note that sub-conscious behavioural science will not play a role in deciding Britain’s vote, and by extension the fate of the European Union. It is important for nudge units and behavioural sciences firms across the world to question the ethics behind nudges that tilt public opinion to any one side in a democratic debate- particularly where neither side has engaged in violent, illegal or commonly-accepted immoral behaviour. Renaming Chicken Tikka as ‘high-flavour skewered British roast’ would, obviously, be an example of all three.

Images Sources: Merkel-Cameron: Business Insider/Greek Bailout: Wikimedia/Germany Ballot: BBC

Articles Cited

#framing #LossAversion

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