Why facts aren't needed for the EU referendum

16 June 2016

  • Decisions often taken on instinct and then given reasons afterwards
  • Emotion plays a bigger role in our judgement than we think
  • Facts used to back up decisions already made
  • Implications for both sides campaigning in the EU referendum

Voters may be clamouring for facts in the EU referendum debate but behavioural science has found our gut instinct and emotions often shape our decisions and we then find facts to back it up. 

Professor Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, revealed the uncomfortable findings from behavioural science on BBC Radio Four’s The Human Zoo and says experiments have shown that emotions often come before reasoned argument.

Related article: The Human Zoo reveals women can't multi-task either

“We like to believe that we gather all the facts and then sift through them to make a reasoned decision, but behavioural science has shown that is not necessarily what happens,” said Professor Chater.

“Quite often the position we take is formed before we consider the arguments and the facts. What we are really doing is trying to justify what intuitively feels right, rather than first amassing the facts and then coming to a conclusion.”

An experiment by Petter Johansson, of Lund University in Sweden, asked people to pick which face they preferred out of two. They were then given the one they didn’t choose and asked why they picked it. In the vast majority of cases people didn’t notice the switch; and went on to give reasons as to why they chose that face, even though they didn’t.

“This very neat experiment suggests that our mind is able to justify and rationalise our thoughts, feelings, and choices - even to the point of rationalising choices we didn’t actually make,” said Professor Chater.

Related article: Why we are programmed to think the old days were better

“Our minds are often focussed on being consistent with what we have said, felt and thought in the past, and much less concerned with trying to work out the real truth by careful investigation and analysis from first principles.”

Emotion also plays a bigger role than people realise in their decision-making. Neuroscience has shown that signals to the emotional part of the brain can arise very rapidly, and earlier than parts of the brain involved with complex thought.

A study by Jennifer Lerner, of Harvard University, showed people news footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to illicit fear or anger. People who were exposed to the ‘fear’ footage then had a heightened perception of risk and their policy preferences were reflective of fear. While those who were shown video to illicit anger had a diminished perception of risk, and their policy preferences were in line with hostility and aggression.

Professor Chater added: “Emotion is a powerful influence and marketing and political campaigners have been using this for some time. Fear tends to make us stick to the status quo; anger encourages us to change the status quo. Both emotions have been in play in debates over the EU referendum.

Related article: The Human Zoo finds voters are easily manipulated

“And, of course, once you have adopted a particular emotional perspective, you tend to focus on the facts that make sense of that the emotion.”

To listen to the first episode of the new series of The Human Zoo click here.

To find out more about behavioural science sign up for Warwick Business School free online course The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology.




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