UK voters chose Brexit and from the comments on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, it seemed that the reaction of my friends was one of shock and disbelief that anyone could have voted “leave”. Not a single friend on the Facebook feed supported the leave campaign as far as I could observe. When one of my best friends asked me what I thought would happen the day before the election, I said perhaps leave wins on account of the negativity effect.
I first encountered the negativity effect when Jill Klein made her presentation to be recruited as a marketing professor at Northwestern University some 30 year ago. Her research on presidential campaigns in USA demonstrated what was known as the “negativity effect” in psychology. While Americans report in surveys that they dislike negative advertising by candidates who try to tear down opponents, the fact remains that negative ads still work. They are more likely to be processed by the voter, “stick” in the voters mind over time, and likely to lead to action.
Applying the negativity effect to Brexit would favour the leave campaign for at least three reasons.
- First, when encountering positive and negative events of equal magnitude, people tend to see the negative events as more salient. And, as the event gets closer, negative events are perceived to be increasingly more negative than positive events are perceived to be positive. That is, the negative gradient is steeper than the positive gradient as the event approaches. It was easier for the leave campaign to frame their argument as it was focussed on how being part of the EU led to negative consequences for the UK while the remain campaign was focussed on the benefits of being in EU. (Though in fairness the “remain” campaign did try to frame the debate in terms of the negatives of leaving EU but it was called “remain’ and vote “yes”.) This is called negative potency in this research stream.
- Second, negative dominance refers to tendency to put greater weight on the negative factors (compared to what they objectively deserve) when combining negative and positive items in making an overall decision or judgment. This is also consistent with “loss aversion” bias where people dislike losses more than the value gains of equal magnitude. Thus those voters who had to weigh the benefits of being in the EU versus the losses would put greater weight on the negative factors such as immigration (beyond what they should in objective terms).
- Third, when describing negative versus positive events, our conceptualization and vocabulary when describing negativity is much more salient, elaborate and rich. This negative differentiation means that those arguing the case on behalf of the leave campaign and the negative consequences (such as the bureaucracy, the costs, the inward immigration) of being part of the EU could more easily gain the rhetoric upper hand in the debate.
This was a very rich area in psychology and also has many implications for management and marketing. Some of the best work on negativity effects was being done by two psychology professors, Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske, when I was following it. But that was more than three decades ago. I am sure there is much more recent research worth seeking out if you are interested.
The other issue that Brexit and also Donald Trump in USA have made salient is the demographic split on immigration and globalization. If you are young and educated, you see the benefits more clearly of having access to the world as you pursue your life. The youth in London have grown up in the world’s most multicultural city, and as result, they see diversity as something to be embraced and celebrated. Their wages and opportunities are global.
On the other hand, if you are less educated then the competition from lower wage workers, especially immigrants, is starkly facing you every day. The global wage is having a compression effect here rather than the higher equalizing effect at the upper end of the spectrum.
Finally, the older you are, the more you have observed the change in society, and as a result, the more intensely you feel the loss of national identity. Change is scarier, the older you are.
The reason that my Facebook feed reflected only one side of the debate is symptomatic of this. They are admittedly part of the global educated elite, highly mobile and valued. Though of course, they are not young anymore despite their assertions that 50s is the new 30s! Brexit has revealed the split between the optimistic cosmopolitan elites and discouraged nationalistic working classes. The increasing inequality is having a profound impact not just on opportunities but also cognition. All the elites, especially the economists and central bankers were in favour of remain, but their credibility with those who ultimately voted not to remain was very low. The financial crisis of the last decade has decimated their reputation with this population. The elites now pretty much just talk to each other.