The principles of psychology can be used to explain every decision we make, every day of our lives. We aren’t sure how or why just yet, not completely, but we do know that social conformity – the desire to be liked, accepted or correct – is one area of psychology that plays a big role in the way we choose to look and behave. From the clothes we wear and the products we buy to the causes we support, so many everyday decisions can be at least partially attributed to social conformity. In situations of ambiguity, people are more likely to conform because they believe others are better informed than them, even if there’s no logic behind the assumption. This is known as Informational Social Influence; in other words, safety in numbers. A week after the EU Referendum, the British electorate seems to finally understand what a Brexit vote means, and while some Leave voters stand by their convictions, too many feel they have been deceived, or at the very least, not informed. It is perhaps easy now to look back with the benefit of hindsight – we know now what effect a vote to leave the European Union does to British politic s- but before June 23rd, the entire subject of the EU was a minefield of misinformation. Could it have been social conformity -the opinions of those outside the political arena – that tipped the balance for voters?
Psychology students will be aware of Jenness’s classic ‘Jellybean Experiment’, and although he investigated a somewhat trivial situation, Jenness’s results are still significant seventy years on. Put simply, Jenness presented participants with a glass jar full of jellybeans, and asked them to independently estimate how many jellybeans there were in the jar. After collecting these initial estimates, he found that they varied greatly. He then asked participants to share their initial predictions with the group, and submit a group estimate. Finally, he asked participants to submit a second private estimate. The results showed that the participants’ second estimates were much closer to the group estimate than the far-ranging results of the first, despite none of the participants knowing how many jellybeans there really were in the jar. In short, the judgement of individuals was affected by majority opinion, in an ambiguous or unfamiliar setting. This study has been criticised for its lack of meaning, and yet, the participants still conformed. If the situation is trivial, why does being correct matter?
The effects of Informational Social Influence are only enhanced in the Digital Age. The pressures of social media burden many with the desire to appear sociable, aware and informed, and Brits from all generations have taken to social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to voice their views in the EU debate. A certain distrust of politicians is often expressed on social media, so if we are instead exposed to the views of our friends, (people we like, trust and respect) surely we’re more likely to pay attention to them. With the campaigns of both sides being labelled as ‘Project Fear’ and a complete shambles, the assumption that other people knew better than we did was even more apparent. As the 23rd June drew closer, the truth and the facts seemed only to become more obscure. From the misleading ‘£350m a week’ slogan, on the Leave campaign’s bus, which has now been retracted, to the threat of financial ruin from the Remain camp, so many voters didn’t know who or what to believe. Considering this referendum carried far more weight than guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, the effect of Informational Social Influence has arguably been even greater.
Despite not being a type of Social Conformity, Conditioning (learning through association) has a subtle, perhaps even unconscious, effect on the opinions of the electorate. The Brexit campaign was supported by high-profile politicians and personalities such as Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins, the latter of whom is infamous for her comments on just about everything. All three are associated with far-right ideologies, racism, Islamophobia, sexism…the list goes on. Of course the ‘Remain’ campaign had its virtues and appeals, but for the ‘undecideds’, being associated with the concepts listed above had to be unappealing. I imagine many Brexiters aren’t any of the above, yet the reputations of the campaign’s most high-profile supporters arguably created a biased assumption in the minds of some voters, despite there being legitimate and valid reasons for Britain’s exit from the EU. Considering Brexit was victorious, it is perhaps associations to ideas, more so than people, that won over undecided voters. A key selling point of the Leave campaign was ‘Take Back Control’ – a vague and ambiguous statement open to interpretation, and here the echoes of Donald Trump’s infamous ‘Make America Great again’ mantra refuse to be silenced. Perhaps then, an association to the so-called glory days, be it of the empire or the age of affluence, tempted voters to mark ‘X’ for leaving the European Union. With the end result being as close as it was, it’s these details and subtleties that we must pay attention to, even if we’ve never considered them before.
At this point, you may be thinking that you can be immune to conditioning, social influence and the pressures of a social group, but studies have consistently shown that peer pressure has a far greater impact on our decision making abilities than we think, and can even encourage us to buy things we have no initial interest in. A recent study by Pedro Gardete at Stanford University considered the behaviour of passengers during a flight, and his results were analysed by Washington Post’s Jeff Guo. “I think we all are very surprised at the magnitude of the result,” said Guo, in an interview for Huffington Post. “What Gardete found was that if someone sitting next to you on an airplane bought something, anything — it could have been an in-flight movie, it could have been a drink, it could have been a snack — you yourself were 30% more likely to buy something as well.” The European Referendum did not require us to purchase something, but it did require us to make a decision, and the pressures of conformity, suggestion and not knowing what to do were very real. As Guo goes on to say, “we like to think that we are independent souls, that we are in control of our own actions, but what his study showed was that the power of conformity, the power of suggestion, all of these influences that we think don’t affect us that much, really are important.”
Naturally, the psychology of voting does not hold all the answers, but in this unique political situation, it cannot be ignored.