NEW YORK - Psychologists call it the “framing effect”: Presenting the same information in different ways can influence how people respond to identical scenarios.
By allowing the Sept. 18 referendum question to be framed as “Should Scotland be an independent country?” the U.K. government may have unwittingly skewed the outcome — in favor of a “yes” vote.
If I offer you a burger stuffed with 25 percent fat, there’s a higher chance you’ll opt for the chicken salad than if my menu promises a hamburger of 75 percent lean beef. Never mind that the burgers are indistinguishable; describing objects and situations in positive terms makes them more appealing than when negative words are used.
As an illustration of the phenomenon, Noam Shpancer, professor of psychology at Otterbein College in Columbus, Ohio, offered this thought experiment in the journal Psychology Today in December 2010:
I’ll give you a technological invention, a breakthrough that will increase the country’s wealth, make us more efficient, more productive, and make our lives much more fun. The only thing I want in return is that you let me swoop in every year, take 40,000 people at random and kill them. Do you take the deal? If you said no, then you’re a bit too late. Because in fact, you have already taken the deal. It’s your car. Now that you see it from this perspective, are you willing to give up your car?
These findings add to a body of studies, including the 1969 “Pollyanna Hypothesis,” by Jerry Boucher and Charles Osgood, which used numerical language analysis to show that positive words appear more frequently than negative ones.
“There’s lots of experimental research showing that a strong positivity bias exists,” Andrew Colman, a psychology professor at the University of Leicester, said in response to e-mailed questions. “The ‘Better Together’ campaign, or perhaps the U.K. government, made a mistake allowing the ballot question to be as it is. It is obviously easier to campaign for ‘Yes, we can’ than ‘No, we can’t.’ If the U.K. government wanted to keep Scotland in the union, then the question should have been ‘Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?’ ”
Recent opinion polls are split on what the outcome will be. An ICM Research poll for the Sunday Telegraph showed 54 percent supporting the “yes” vote, and 46 percent in the “no” camp, excluding undecided voters.
Three other weekend polls showed the anti-independence campaign ahead. The margins of error in polling mean the result could go either way.
Colman said he suspects a “shy unionist” bias in the polling that may mean the U.K. will endure.
“It may appear unpatriotic to admit out loud that one is against independence, but in the privacy of a polling booth it may be easier to express one’s true beliefs,” he said.
Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.