Why Scotland's Referendum Ballot Is Biased

There are two psychological effects at play in getting people to vote "Yes."

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The future of the United Kingdom hangs on six little words: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" The answers are straightforward, check X for Yes or No. This is a shocking simple ballot slip for such a loaded issue.

Who wrote the ballot?

The United Kingdom Electoral Commission, an independent elections watchdog, was the official organization overseeing the details of the referendum. They had final say over the wording on the ballot, campaign financing, and which parties could be included in the campaign.

When discussions of the referendum first began, Scots proposed the ballot question, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yes/No." This wording was not allowed, because "The words ‘Do you agree’ potentially encouraged people to vote ‘yes’ and should be replaced by more neutral wording," explained the Commission. As an alternative, they suggested the final phrasing, "Should Scotland be an independent country?," and Scottish officials agreed.

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Why is it biased?

Consider the framing effect: "A 'framing effect' is usually said to occur when equivalent descriptions of a decision problem lead to systematically different decisions," explains psychology professor Craig McKenzie.  If someone is trying to sell you an expensive coffee machine, they can either say, "This is a high end, luxury coffee maker, it retails for $400," or they can say, "Wow, can you believe the average person spends $800 at Starbucks a year? This coffee maker is so much cheaper." The framing creates the answer.

The Wire spoke with Noam Shpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University who studies the framing effect. We asked Shpancer if the phrasing "Should Scotland be an independent country?" was biased.

"That's an interesting question," he excitedly replied. "There is a framing war going on. Framing always happens, consciously or unconsciously. Any time you phrase, because anything can be phrased in multiple ways, any question, any sentiment. I can say, 'I want to go home' or 'I wish I was homeward bound' or 'I wish I was home already.' It's always a framing war."

When I told Shpancer the phrasing had been changed because "Do you agree" was believed to be too biased, he gave the question a more direction answer, "Well, then you have your answer there. It was changed. There are always framing effects at work. Whether it is done on purpose or not is a different story."

Shpancer believes this could all have been avoided with a series of short experiments before the wording was finalized. "Ideally, you would get a large group of Scots and give them a few frames of the questions. The original frame, this [final] frame, and some alternative ones, and see how the results distribute. Then you would have evidence that the frame affected people in certain ways and could decide on it. As it is, we can't know because we do not have a competing frame. What ever the results are, you can always say maybe the framing did it."

What could it have been instead?

Strip the "yes or no" out of the ballot.

There is a second psychological effect at work on this ballot: the Pollyanna Principle. Jerry Boucher and Charles Osgood first proposed this in 1969, when they found across a number of cultures, languages, and communities "that there is a universal human tendency to use evaluatively positive words more frequently and diversely than evaluatively negative words in communicating." Our brains prefer "yes" to "no," immediately making this ballot biased.

Andrew M. Colman, a professor of psychology at the University of Leicester, determined that the most "natural" form of the ballot would have been "Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?" However, the Pollyanna Principle would then work in favor of the United Kingdom. Then again, all political questions are biased in one way or another.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.