OPINION9 May 2011

The devil you know


Proposals to adopt the Alternative Vote were roundly trounced in last week’s UK referendum. Was it Cameron? Was it Clegg? Was it a well-funded ‘vote no’ campaign? Or was it, as Helen Nuki suggests, a perfect example of the ‘status quo heuristic’ in play?

Anyone looking to unpick the landslide “no” vote in last week’s referendum on the Alternative Vote could do worse than apply some behavioural economics theory, which might help explain not only why the “yes” campaign struggled but why there was such a resounding defeat in the polling booths.

The coalition government, led by a team in the Cabinet Office, has done excellent work in the area of behavioural economics and two of their findings are especially relevant here:

  • that we tend to follow default options when they are offered to us,
  • and that we are naturally biased towards social norms

Behavioural economics theorists have frequently recorded the “status quo heuristic”, a bias we all have towards keeping things the same. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk about this bias in their book Nudge, noting that “people have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo”. Nudge is said to be a must-read in Tory circles – but perhaps not among Liberal Democrats, who were the main supporters of a “yes” vote.

So let’s take a look at the referendum question that was used:

“At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post system’ to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

It is interesting to note that the Electoral Commission preferred this question, in part, because “The first sentence helped people to understand the status quo” – precisely what you might look to avoid if you wanted to mitigate for the status quo heuristic.

The wording originally proposed was:

“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Common?”

Although this formulation of the question also makes clear which voting system we have at the moment, it has nothing like as strong or prominent an emphasis on the all-important status quo.

Helen Nuki is a co-founder of Monkey See Research.


9 years ago

A good point, although the strength of status quo bias in different contexts is not known precisely. In fact, I think this process started even before voters saw the referendum question itself - with a further status quo effect built into the language of the campaign. This was cleverly exploited by the No campaign: http://www.knowingandmaking.com/2011/04/av-status-quo-bias-and-definitions.html

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9 years ago

So if people favour the status quo what happened to the hundreds of LibDems who are no longer Cllrs?

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9 years ago

They also played on BE in their campaigning by highlighting how few other countries used AV (social norm bias).

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9 years ago

I'm not convinced this is a good example of the status quo heuristic as there is not a default option in a behavioural economics sense. Yes, we have an existing (or default) electoral system, but the nature of a referendum made it just as easy to vote in favour of AV as to vote to keep the existing system (since in either case voters had to go to a voting station and mark a box). If, instead, there had been a requirement for over 50% of the population to go to a voting station in order to change the voting system to AV then this would have been the status quo heuristic at work. This happened in the 1970s when, despite larger numbers voting for devolution than against it, numbers fell short of a 50% of population threshold.

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