The Undecided: Should we stay or should we go?

The Undecided: Should we stay or should we go?

As a professor of consumer research I’m supposed to know something about how people make choices.  Well, we’re three weeks away from making the biggest choice ever, or at least the biggest choice in a generation: should we choose to stay in Europe or should we choose to leave? The problem is we’re not very good at making choices.

In two recent poll-of-polls the FT has Remain at 46%, Leave 43%, and Undecided at 11% while The Guardian has it at Remain 42%, Leave 45%, and Undecided 13%. So in my average-of-the-poll-of-polls Remain are at 44%, Leave at 44% and Undecided 12%; it’s neck-a-neck and most people have already made up their minds.

In order to help us make our choice and given that 88% have already made it, why are we still being provided with lots and lots of information? The assumption here is that when given the appropriate information we can weigh up the relative merits of that information and arrive at a sensible and rational choice. 

But we won’t do that because the manner in which we make sense of this information will be determined by the position we already occupy. A Remainer and a Brexiter will treat the same piece of information in a completely different manner. Here’s how.

Let’s take the Brexiters trump card in the information onslaught – the EU costs the UK £350m a week. The Remainers have countered this statistic with another one – the EU only costs us 30p per day per person.  

Now, let’s assume that you lean towards staying in then you will probably dismiss the £350 million as factually incorrect (it doesn’t take into account the rebate we get; the grants we receive etc.) and this will reinforce your view that those presenting this information are not to be trusted. 30p a day however, sounds like good value to be part of the largest single market in the World.

On the other hand, if you lean towards leaving, then the £350 million figure will reinforce your view that the EU rips us off and we’re better out so we can spend that money how we want to – saving the NHS is often invoked here. They too will either ignore  or dismiss the 30p a day figure as unreliable and dismiss the source of that information, the Remainers, as untrustworthy.

But what about the Undecided? How will they interpret this information? It’s highly unlikely but one thing an Undecided might try and do is to compare like with like. What does £350 million a week become if we convert it to per person per day? So: £350 million a week = £50 million per day and there are 64.6 million in the UK so this is 77p per day. Alternatively they may do the calculation the other way. So: 30p x 64.6m x 7 = £134.7m. If an Undecided were to make either of these calculations they would be able to conclude that the EU costs either 77p vs. 30p per day per person or £350 million vs. £134.7 million a week.

But it’s unlikely an Undecided will make that calculation and, as such, they will be subject to a framing effect. Clearly, £350 million-a-week is a lot of cash but 30p per person sounds quite reasonable. One figure is huge and scary; the other is the price of half a Mars bar. One appeals to our emotions while the other is more sensible and rational.

Brexiters’ appeals appear more appealing because they invoke an emotional response. Choice is rarely rational, even really, really important choices like this one.

Two emotional responses, in particular, are prominent: anger and fear. Anger is invoked by the £350 million sent every week to Brussels, when it could be spent on saving people’s lives through extra funding for the NHS. And fear is invoked by the hundreds of thousand of immigrants who are ‘flooding’ the country, ‘stealing’ jobs, and burdening public services. The irony of course it that the NHS couldn’t exist now, or in the future, if it weren’t for hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

How the Undecided vote will determine the final outcome of the referendum. I doubt very much that any of them will make a list to help them assess the pros and cons of both sides of the argument. I’ve tried and it was useless. How do you trade off ‘no wars between the major nations of Europe for 70 years and access to the biggest single market in the World’ with ‘the anti-democratic nature of having decisions made for you in Brussels’ and ‘being in charge of our own immigration policy’?

Rather they’ll continue to be confused by statistics that one side trots out, that are then immediately undermined by the other side. They will probably chat about the decision they have to make with their families and friends and are more likely to be swayed by this conversation than they are by politicians and their increasingly polarized polemics.

I suspect they will enter the polling booth, still undecided. They will pick up the pencil and, as it hovers over the in or out box, the choice they make, at that moment, will be an emotional one.

While writing this blog I remembered that The EU anthem is based on “An Ode to Joy.” Emotions don’t have to be negative. My fingers will be crossed that they will follow in the footsteps of the people of London and choose hope over fear and joy over anger.