Behavioural science in politics

Behavioural in politics

Another year, another electoral shock. Back in February, we at System1 Research asked 2000 people for their emotional reaction to prominent UK politicians. We weren’t asking about voting intention, but our results backed up the polls as they stood back then – people were happier with Theresa May than Jeremy Corbyn, even though a lot of people felt Contempt for both.

That was February, though, and February feels a long time ago. This afternoon, we have a minority Conservative government propped up by Northern Ireland’s DUP, and a Labour Party that’s seen its biggest vote share gain at an election since 1945. Yes, some of the frustration felt by Tories and elation felt by Labour supporters is down to the anchoring effect – if you set expectations with a low number, a much higher one feels a lot bigger and more surprising. Ask a Labour supporter in 2015 if they’d take a 9-point surge at the next election and they’d have taken the offer immediately. Ask them if they’d take still being 2 points behind the Tories and the reaction would have been a lot more muted.

Still, it’s clear Labour did a lot better – and the Conservatives somewhat worse – than any data would have predicted a few months ago. What happened?

From a System1 perspective, most decisions we make – including complex ones like voting – are “fast and frugal”. We make them quickly and instinctively, guided by unconscious rules of thumb, and if we need justification we can search for it afterwards. So it’s to these rules of thumb that we have to look for what guides votes.

The three most important rules of thumb, for brands and politicians alike, are Fame, Feeling and Fluency. Fame is all about availability – if something comes readily to mind, it’s a good choice. Feeling concerns emotion – if something makes you feel good, it’s a good choice. And Fluency is to do with recognition – if you can recognise and process something quickly and easily (like a slogan, a policy, or a politician), it’s a good choice.
At the start of the campaign, Theresa May had a distinct advantage on all three of these, and looked set for a win on a historic scale. Over the course of it, she managed to jeopardise them all.

FAME: Away from elections, people simply don’t pay much attention to politics, so it’s actually quite easy for an incumbent leader to run up a huge Fame advantage. They are likely to be the only politician regularly on TV or on newspaper or website front pages – people become very familiar with them very quickly. This was true of Theresa May, who our data showed was far more familiar than Jeremy Corbyn to voters. But an election campaign gives opposition politicians more screen time, increasing their possible reach (by making people who don’t know them more familiar with them). Usually, incumbents can limit the effect of this because they are on TV a great deal themselves. But Theresa May’s media unfriendliness – culminating in her no-show at a leaders’ debate in front of 3 million viewers – gave Corbyn the opportunity to dramatically reduce the Fame gap.

FEELING: Corbyn’s profile was also raised by a Conservative campaign which focused very strongly on him as an individual, to take advantage of his supposed unpopularity. This culminated in the traditional hysterical tabloid attacks, but was a thread throughout the Conservative campaign. May’s offer to the electorate was emotionally negative – driven by anger and fear – and prevention-focused: stopping something happening rather than making something happen. Corbyn’s Labour campaign, meanwhile, was far more positive, focusing on feel-good offers to voters like free University tuition fees and more money for the NHS. It’s exactly the same mistake that the Remain campaign made in the EU referendum, and that Hillary Clinton made in the US election: asking voters to vote against, not for. A positive campaign with big promises has a built-in emotional advantage – the more people feel, the more they vote. And because people make decisions with System 1, they don’t always activate their System 2 to look at the economic small print, however much opponents wish they would. If approval ratings are any guide, Corbyn and May began the campaign with vastly different public perceptions, and ended it far closer together – as the vote showed.

FLUENCY:  Finally there’s Fluency, which is how far people see you as distinctive and recognisable. In politics, this is often expressed through very clear, tangible policies and via powerful images and slogans. Donald Trump, for instance, had his signature red caps, his “Make America Great Again” slogan, and his core campaign promise of a border wall – a tangible, physical offering which made his policies feel real to voters.  
Fluency was the 2017 election’s most fascinating and volatile battleground. Jeremy Corbyn offered a range of policies, none of them quite as instant as the wall, but with several, like scrapping tuition fees, known to be popular in the country. May, on the other hand, initially billed the election as a mandate for Brexit, but with only the small Liberal Democrats actually opposing Brexit, the EU was far less of an issue than she hoped. Instead her most distinctive policy became known as the “dementia tax”, and she was forced into a hasty U-Turn on it. It’s an example of how in an election situation your opponent can define your assets for you.
The other big distinctive asset of the 2017 campaign was the Tories’ election slogan, “strong and stable”, which appeared multiple times on every piece of Conservative campaign literature. Getting an idea across via repetition can be a great way to appeal to System 1, but do it too much and something called psychological reactance kicks in – the brain notices the repetition and reacts against it. This probably happened with “strong and stable” – its sheer ubiquity made people tune it out or push back on it.

It would be wrong to say that the Conservatives’ use of Fame, Feeling and Fluency was all poor – after all, they also gained a large number of votes, even if they ended up in a worse position relative to where they began. But it’s true to say that Labour, despite an apparently weak hand, tapped the 3 Fs far better than expected. With a huge gap to close, Jeremy Corbyn deployed several useful psychological tricks. For instance, he held huge rallies in safe seats. Critics claimed this was self-indulgence at best, but in fact the safe seats were very near marginal seats. People in those marginals would see pictures and reports of massive crowds and get the System 1 impression that Corbyn was very popular – hence, a safer choice.

What are the lessons for small parties – or small brands – trying to “do a Corbyn”? We feel there are three.

  1. NEVER SHUN EXPOSURE: For a challenger brand lacking familiarity and Fame, every opportunity to reach new buyers (or voters, in this case) is valuable. It’s not quite true that any publicity is good publicity, but in an election campaign becoming more mentally available to voters is critical.
  2. BE POSITIVE: All three of the “shock” results of the last 12 months – Brexit, Trump and now the 2017 election – have involved one side pushing a positive story and the other side warning against dire consequences. Every time, the positive story has won. Feeling matters.
  3. BE FLEXIBLE WITH DISTINCTIVE ASSETS: Distinctive assets are the building blocks of your brand, and of your eventual success. You always need to be aware and agile about which of your assets are creating Fluency and which aren’t. By the time the Conservatives realised “Strong and Stable” was being laughed at and May herself was losing popularity, they’d built their entire campaign around them.

With the possibility of a second election this year not out of the question,  political parties and candidates should pay attention to behavioural science sooner rather than later.

Photo credit: Vibrant Pictures |