Human psychology suggests the ‘Remainers’ will be rocking all over the world come Friday…

By June 21, 2016Public Affairs

status quo

Social scientists call it the ‘status quo bias’.  It’s an emotional preference for the current state of affairs which creates the perception that any deviation from that position should be considered a loss.

The status quo bias has some interesting implications for politics in general, but nowhere more than here in post-indyref Scotland where the upcoming decision on EU membership is being sized up by voters.

Whilst most of us, whichever way we voted, like to think that significant decisions like that made in September 2014 are a result of informed decision-making by an electorate that had a lot of time to consider the question in detail, the truth may be more challenging, especially for those pushing for change. A growing cross-current of thought believes that, on balance, the results of referendums have more to do with human psychology and our predisposition toward favouring the status quo.

We can accept that, on the whole, human beings are not especially rational and prefer things the way they are used to having them – especially the older generation who are often credited with saving the union.  But why is that?  Is it because we are too lazy to seek out change?  Quite possibly. Take the example of gas and electric bills where evidence shows that in many cases switching your provider could save you hundreds of pounds – yet 80% of the population can’t be bothered.

A more interesting argument is that when humans are faced with complex decisions and when the status quo has been established for much longer, then the desire for change is less.  So with arguments around fiscal frameworks, monetary unions and common agricultural policy set against a background of a UK Parliament which has been in existence for 300 years and an EU community which can trace its roots back to the 1950s – are the yessers and the brexiteers handicapped by small-c conservatism hard-wired into the ‘average’ voter’s psyche?

It’s clear that in 2014 the Yes supporting parties emerged much stronger from the referendum process, with inflated memberships and a strong grip on Scottish Parliamentary arithmetic.  This success may simply have been because, in a lot of cases, they were able to win the emotional argument for change, but perhaps not enough to break through the psychological barrier. Perhaps they will at the second time or third time of asking, though the experience of the Quebec freedom movement, moribund after three referendums, may also be reflected here in Scotland.

The Yes campaign argued for the idea of a new, fresh exciting Scotland and pinned many of our political problems on what they deemed to be an ancient and tired Westminster system.  Yet while it’s true that a significant proportion of voters felt alienated by that system, it’s also clear that a majority had higher priorities elsewhere. As someone commented at the time, while the ‘Yes’ campaign were rushing down a hill shouting ‘Freedom’, the ‘No’ campaign were standing a little behind saying: “Have you considered the financial implications of this?”

Experience from 2014 shows us that arguing for the status quo comes with a political price tag and it is yet to be seen what shape David Cameron’s government will emerge in post-referendum.  Battered for sure, but will the Brexiteers be able to land the knockout blow, even if they fall short at the referendum?

So come Thursday, if the result of the referendum doesn’t bring you ‘Whatever You Want’ then perhaps your anger should be directed towards thousands of years of human psychological development and not our political leaders.

Colin McFarlane is a Senior Account Manager at Indigo


This month voters in the UK will go to the polls to decide whether we, as a country, prefer to stand alone outside the European or continue to try to lead the international agenda from within it.

In the run-up to the referendum we will be posting a series of blogs, client stories and interviews from across Indigo’s networks, taking a sideways look at whether we can balance the advantages of strong networks against the freedom to stand out from the crowd.

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