How do people really think?

The last edition of ALDC’s Campaigner before the start of the election contained this piece from me:

Knowing why people vote the way they do is tough. It’s not just because people may be reluctant to be honest to others about their motivations, but people are also often bad at understanding themselves.

In fact, one of the findings increasingly coming out from research into how we make decisions is that often we make a decision using our subconscious and only afterwards come up with a justification for it. Our subconscious decides, our conscious rationalises.

It is an intriguing – and in some ways, scary – finding that is best illustrated by a clever experiment where people were shown two photographs of similar, but different, people. They were asked to pick which one they thought was the most attractive. They were then given that photograph and asked to explain the reason for their decision.

MRI scan of headExcept that what the researchers did was try out a bit of sleight of hand, so sometimes the person was actually given the photograph of the other person. Yet for the vast majority of the time, people did not notice that the photograph has been swapped and, moreover, went on to give detailed reasons as to why they’d picked that photograph – even though in fact, they had selected the other one.

This power of rationalising a decision after you’ve made it – even if in fact you didn’t actually make it – has wide implications in the burgeoning field of behavioural economics and is touched on in more popular treatments such as Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink.

What is common across the research is the power of subtle signals which we pick up subconsciously. One of the challenges is trying to understand when we should trust such subconscious decision making and when we should try to subordinate it to our rational, conscious mind. Gladwell gives many examples of when the subconscious actually makes better decisions.

So what does this all mean for political campaigning?

It reinforces the point increasingly made in recent years about how people don’t just vote based on careful consideration of competing policies, but also on more impressionistic grounds such as whether someone seems honest, credible or competent.

Ironically, there is in fact a decent rational argument for stepping away from detailed policy considerations, because so often events come up which were unpredicted at the time of an election and require decisions that were not discussed in the campaign or itemised in manifestos.

This is a point which Charles Kennedy often made (and which I wrote about previously). The issues on which he, William Hague and Tony Blair campaigned in 2001 turned out to have very little relation to the major issues that dominated politics in 2001-5. Tuition fees and Iraq most notably were major issues in the Parliament but almost completely absent from the preceding election.

Understanding Tony Blair’s personality – and the moralistic sense of duty fuelled by his religious beliefs, as evidenced over Kosovo – would have been a far surer guide to Labour’s subsequent foreign policy than the details which happened to be highlighted on page 39 of the 2001 Labour manifesto about Labour and the UN. (“We support a more modern and representative Security Council, with more effective peace-keeping” since you ask).

For campaigning then there are three (of course) things to remember.

First, when presenting a candidate for election, remember to present not just their polices but also why they are the right person in terms of judgement, skill or experience for the job. It’s why when asked in a piece of academic research last year what the most important attribute for a candidate is, people overwhelmingly said s/he should be local (“sharing the same political views” came first; everything else lagged behind being local). “Local” is used as a proxy for understanding the area and being clearly committed to it. A candidate doesn’t have to be born there to count as local, but they do need to show those values to count as local.

Second, candidates need to show how they understand and respect the perspectives voters are coming from. Do they understand and share the values of those people? Politics is about choices – and choices between competing values – so this doesn’t mean becoming an amorphous middle of the road blob, but it means – for example – understanding and respecting how important their family is to many potential Liberal Democrat voters, and the message it sends if the party locally never talks about families.

Third, small details can influence those subconscious decisions which often trump the rational mind. “Action photographs” which repeatedly show a candidate all on their own send a subconscious – and unflattering – message, for example. You almost certainly won’t find a voter saying, “Your candidate seems a bit lonely” on the doorstep, but it can still influence views, even if the post-decision rationalisation for the views talk about something else. Whether it’s a food stain on your top when canvassing or a postal address on a ballot paper that fails to make clear the candidate lives locally (unless you’ve got a detailed knowledge of postcode districts), the details that people rarely mention as influencing their decisions actually often do.

Our campaigning should aim to do more than simply accept people’s views and attitudes are they stand, but unless we understand how they work we won’t be able to effectively work with or influence them.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Suffield 19th Apr '10 - 2:23pm

    To be fair, X Factor contestants may cry because a production assistant went around bullying them into it. That show is highly synthetic, and carefully produced to get the sort of reactions they want – because they understand this sort of thing. They’d rather put on a highly emotional contestant than a highly talented one, as people will rationalise themselves into liking a weak contestant with a compelling narrative.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Apr '10 - 8:24am

    Pedants’ corner: you have “rationale” twice where you should have “rational”.
    (Oh, go on: I wouldn’t have read that far if it hadn’t been an interesting article!)

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