Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights (Part 3b)

Towards a two-pronged choice architecture

People’s inclination for taking the loss avoiding, conventional choices at critical moments will play its role on the referendum day. Benefits of the EU membership are known; that is to say, Britons hold them in hands and they are tangible. To the contrary, benefits that are going to accrue after breaking from the EU are yet to be experienced. This makes the job of Eurosceptics much harder. Going back to the poll figures, I would suggest that, considering the above mathematics, only a two- or three-fold percentage point advantage prior to the referendum day would be enough for them to hold a hope of winning the vote.

The insight for the campaigners from both camps is that they shall make all efforts to ensure that the debate enables people to overcome various mental traps of intuitive decision making and to make choices which are informed by what they want to have in terms of their wellbeing, rather than being driven by what they may currently (rather short-sightedly) prefer. Consider the following.

Think of people making choices about their summer vacations. Every year they decide whether to stay somewhere close to home or to go abroad, and where to go, where to stay, what sort of activities to undertake, and so forth. In so doing, the majority do not engage in complicated calculations but rather allows their emotions of that moment to drive their decision making, even though they try to make their decisions sound as well-reasoned. And sometimes they are: like, for example, driving to some local resort and camping over there, in order to save money for children’s education. What is characteristic of this process is that everyone knows that the decision they make has only an effect limited to this year (except for some really disastrous choices or simply bad luck) and the next year they will be free to do something different.

Now suppose that the same people are given a chance to permanently change their residence, for a better life (as the offer claims). This is an opportunity with an array of attractive features but also unpredictable consequences. Plus, it means leaving behind the house they have lived for years and are somehow accustomed to, the social environment and neighbourhood friends, the job, you name it. Most importantly, this is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime choice which cannot be revisited on an annual basis, and therefore the responsibility for the outcome is enormously high. As one can imagine, people may have numerous reasons to opt for the offer or to turn it down, and they will do so by exercising their right for a free choice. Moreover, there is no right or wrong choice, as long as people know what exactly they are going to gain—and not only at the point of trade but many years down the road.

Freedom of choice has always been highly regarded by people. It is also one characteristic feature of democratic society we take pride of. However, as famously noted by Dostoyevsky, there is price to pay: ‘What human being wants is just an independent choice, whatever the cost of this independence and whatever it may bring about.’[7] But here is the trick with the referendum—because, unlike ordinary everyday situations, in this case it is not enough anymore to merely employ some intuitive methods and quickly form a judgement. This task requires some considerable mental activity, an effortful computation, lots of evidence and perhaps, some guidance. In short, this implies that people who make life-changing decisions cannot be left alone in respect of their freedom of choice—they shall be assisted.

In the case of the EU referendum such an assistance shall come from the intermediaries—the campaigners and the media. I shall note that the idea of (implicitly) assisting people in making their policy choices is not new; almost a decade ago the behavioural scientists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced ‘nudging’ as one method of helping people make policy choices that are in their best long-term interest.[8] What I suggest here is a bit different: it is not about directing people towards a certain predefined ‘default option’, but about setting a fair competition between two camps in introducing their respective choices, and doing so in close cooperation with citizens and their organised groups. To borrow from Robert Buckman, a businessman who put knowledge management at the heart of building a successful enterprise, the best way to address the organisation’s growth (read, the competitiveness and market survival) challenges is to follow its customers: ‘Look where they are going. What do they want right now? In five years from now? In ten years from now?’[9] Similarly, the job of the campaigners is to learn what people need and want, immediately and in a medium term period, and to demonstrate how each offer meets their particular requirements and expectations.

It should be made clear to Britons what do they get as a result of their choice. Their concerns and expectations differ quite significantly between various social groups and across the localities—it is very clear from the publications in the press, interviews, and the on-line discussions and is something that should have been expected in this respect. Therefore, costs and benefits of each choice shall be made relevant to the concerns and aspirations of every large group of stakeholders—something that is known in policy analysis as ‘net assessment.’ Generalisation and vague statements won’t do in such situation. Whatever the referendum’s outcome, the debate will be considered meaningful and achieving its primary objective (that is, to help people make decisions which are based on full and relevant information tailored to their circumstances) only if Britons make their rational judgement on the day—the one that treats the threats and the opportunities equally.


[7] Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864), pt. 1, ch. 7 [translation is mine – E.A.]

[8] Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

[9] Robert H. Buckman, Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 235-236



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