serious stuff

A Psychological Post-mortem of the Scottish Independence Debate

posted on Bella Caledonia – 29th DEC 2014


Should Scotland be an independent country; YES or NO? This was the question posed to us on the 18th of September 2014. It was, arguably, the most important decision we have had to make in the last 300 years, if not in our entire history as a nation. The level of engagement was something never before seen in Scottish politics and it has left a mark on the Nation’s psyche. As the world watched, we made up our minds. As we look back, we try to understand how we came to our decision.

All decisions are not equal. They range from the mundane and routine, such as what shirt will I wear today? To those which influence our destiny. As psychologists, our working lives are spent trying to understand people’s decision-making. Why are some people compelled to self-harm, isolate themselves or become pre-occupied by hand-washing? We hope that our training and experience help us to understand what drives these decisions, and to work with people to develop more helpful alternatives. Often, a powerful force in decision-making is fear, a frequently understated part of the human condition. During the referendum fear was cited as a staple of the better together campaign (BT), yet more detailed examination was overlooked.

From the outset we must acknowledge our own bias as three committed YES voters. We cannot separate ourselves from our convictions or prejudice, even as psychologists. The views we express here are not necessarily those of our profession, employers or colleagues. We are not attempting to offer a comprehensive or definitive answer to the question of why Scotland voted NO. Similarly, we do not wish to infer that a NO vote was wrong, or could not have been the result of a rational decision-making process. Instead, we are offering a combined, personal reflection on some of the psychological factors that may have been at play during the referendum, and how the better together campaign may have made a YES vote more difficult for some. In order to do that, we need to examine the role of fear in our decision-making in closer detail.

Fear and the Old Brain: React First, Think Later

Our purest fear is generated in the limbic-system of our ancient mid-brain, which developed early in our evolutionary history. Primal fear is experienced by many living creatures and is a survival mechanism. It is part of our so-called fight-or-flight response; designed to alert us to threats, and seek safety. At this level fear is primordial, and generated by what psychologists call primary cognition: thinking that is intuitive, sub-conscious and difficult to control. This is an obvious survival advantage when you consider our automatic reactions to loud noises, heights or poisonous creatures. Each could represent a risk to survival and so it makes sense that over the aeons we have become instinctively averse to them. However, this system can also malfunction. It can be overly-sensitive and make errors that prevent us from taking healthy risks.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a theory of motivation originally developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, states that humans have three basic psychological needs: control, competence and relatedness. In environments where these needs are satisfied we are generally happier and healthier. If these needs go unmet, we are more susceptible to a host of negative outcomes, to feeling unfulfilled, and to lack confidence. Meeting these needs has helped us to survive as a species, so it makes sense that some of our primitive and universal fears represent threats to these needs; fears of uncertainty, failure and separation. Consider then, the strategy adopted by the BT campaign in relation to each of these needs.

Our sense of control was undermined and uncertainty escalated by refusal to pre-negotiate any terms on leaving the UK, while at the same time absolute answers were demanded on issues like currency and defence. As individuals, we were told that our personal economic circumstances would suffer from price hikes and risks to our pensions and investments. Lord Reid allegedly suggested ‘If in doubt, vote no’ as though, in the face of such a momentous decision, a Yes vote must feel 100% risk-free. Our competence was questioned and the risk of failure was played upon by claims that our industries were incapable of supporting us and only successful because of support from our place in the Union. We were told we would lose power on the international stage and “it just doesn’t add up” as though independence was a simple equation that the YES camp had failed to calculate properly. When it came to our relationships and fears of isolation, independence was labeled “separation” and discussed in familiar, negative and evocative terms such as “divorce” and “break-up”. Our membership of the EU was cast into doubt, even as the UK Government contemplated leaving the EU itself. Newly formed borders would make us ‘foreigners’ and world leaders would shun us. On the other hand, we were the darling sweetheart of a “family of nations”, with a rich history of achievement and co-operation, wherein we were already the fortunate recipients of significant powers and soon more to be hurried through to Edinburgh. We were ‘love bombed’ by MPs including the Prime Minister as well as celebrities, the Saltire was raised above Downing Street and British identity was promoted.

Of course, one might be tempted to put this all down to careful consideration and genuine concern. Yet, even the BT campaign chief, Blair MacDougall, acknowledged that the negative focus of this campaign was chosen primarily because it was so successful. Effectively, it was a means to an end. As polls drew closer, how willing were BT to push the fear factor? All-in-all, the effect was to heighten our instinctive, sub-conscious fears on the one hand, and offer reassurance in the status quo with the other.

Fear and the New Brain: Rational thought, or not?

Clearly, as humans we are not just emotional automatons, we are also considered, rational and logical. This type of thinking originates in our neo-cortex and particularly our frontal lobes, a relatively recent addition in evolutionary terms. When making decisions we examine evidence, weigh-up the pros and cons and consider the implications. We like to think that we make decisions with our heads, as well as our hearts. However, it is also the case that even our conscious, considered thoughts are primed and influenced by threats to our basic needs. Partly, this is down to the fact that our minds operate under what has been termed the “efficiency principle”. The brain uses short cuts to preserve energy in a world full of information. This is great for efficiency, but a consequence is that our decision-making becomes heavily biased.

Faced with decisions, we tend to choose options only with known outcomes (The Ambiguity Effect), we stick to what is familiar, with change interpreted as a loss (The Status Quo Bias), we tend to pay more attention to bad news (The Negativity Bias). We don’t change our minds easily, preferring to search-for and interpret information that upholds our existing beliefs (The Confirmation Bias). In fact, changing our minds creates a specific form of mental anguish termed Cognitive Dissonance; an unpleasant state characterised by holding opposing sets of ideas at one time. These new beliefs or ideas are often dismissed in an effort to regain a more comfortable psychological state.

While it is true that examining our thinking and challenging our pre-existing beliefs can lead us to change our mind, this is usually an uphill battle (as most psychologists will tell you!). To change our minds we have to be presented with challenging information that is personally relevant. It also has to be there long enough, and presented consistently enough, so that we don’t simply dismiss the discomfort it creates. This raises the importance of access to impartial media as part of the decision-making process. Consider then Professor John Robertson’s claim that the mainstream media was highly biased in favour of BT. In particular, the very formats that are most difficult to avoid and carry most authority with the general public (TV, Radio, Print) were those that seemed most in favour of NO.

What about Personality?

Clearly, we’re all different. Individual differences are also likely to have played a role in the decision-making process. The field of Political Psychology provides some interesting findings that suggest ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ personality types. In particular, two personality traits, “conscientiousness” and “openness to experience”, have been linked to political persuasion. ‘Conservative’ types tend to score higher on conscientiousness: pre-disposed to being organised and self-disciplined. They also score low on openness to new experience: preferring familiarity, concrete thought and tradition. Conservatives also seem to be more sensitive to threat-related information than liberals, and on average demonstrate an enlarged amygdala, the brain’s threat ‘trip-wire’. Conversely, those with a more ‘Liberal’ personality type are more likely to have lower levels of conscientiousness, tending to be more flexible and relaxed and score highly on the openness to experience; more likely to be creative, curious and abstract thinkers.

In the referendum, not only did a YES vote imply a range of new experiences, it also became associated with a more liberal political ideology. The NO campaign, however, seemed to endorse the existing hierarchy of the British establishment and maintenance of the status quo. Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 2000 voters suggests that political persuasion did influence how people voted, Conservative voters were the most staunchly Unionist, with 95% voting to reject independence. Further, we become more conservative when we are frightened; therefore, Better Together’s ‘Campaign of Fear’ may have influenced the political persuasion of some from the bottom-up.

Winning Hearts and Minds

In this context, it is surely remarkable that 45% of the population voted YES. It was also unusual in political terms that 19% moved from NO to YES, with opinions usually staunchly polarized. It goes against political and psychological trends. So why did they do it? Why did people endure uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, choose the ‘riskier’ option, and opt against the status-quo?

For some it seems likely this arose because their basic needs were not being met. Self Determination Theory argues that we will be more motivated to take risks if we a chance to better meet our needs. Indeed, Lord Ashcroft’s Poll suggests that those from the highest areas of deprivation were more likely to vote YES. In their book ‘The Spirit Level’ epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett report that growing socioeconomic inequalities contribute to disempowerment. While this disempowerment may have made it more difficult for people to have the confidence to vote against the status quo, the YES campaign focused their positive message on areas of deprivation. They provided people with support, information and the promise of tangible change. This might have empowered people with the confidence to take a risk.

Access to alternative sources of media (including social media and emergent websites such as ‘Bella Caledonia’ and ‘Wings Over Scotland’) may also have informed people. This may have contributed to a wider shift in attitudes by challenging threats and alleviating concerns. This may be reflected in the greater levels of support for Independence from the younger demographic, to whom these outlets are more accessible.

The Way Forward

We argue that one effect of the BT campaign was to escalate fear in a way that may have made the risks involved in a YES vote more difficult for some to take. Given that the BT campaign has acknowledged the strategic use of fear, it raises questions about the validity of their claims. Since access to accurate and impartial or balanced knowledge provides one of the most powerful antidotes to fear, questions about media bias are important to reflect upon. It is possible that one failure of the Yes campaign in this context was a seemingly steadfast resolve to their opposing, positive message. Hope is also an antidote to fear, but has to take it into account. This is especially true for the people who’s minds the Yes camp were trying to change. An alternative may have been to better acknowledge a more realistic level of risk, and outline its management. When a range of opinions are given fair voice we have the opportunity to make empowered and enlightened decisions, rather than choice driven by fear.


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