The EU Referendum: The logic behind the negativity

With a near constant stream of doomsday prophecies of life outside the EU, the ‘remain’ campaign has definitely earned the moniker ‘project fear’. From the Treasury’s prediction that households will be £2,600 worse off post Brexit to the PM’s claim that a weekly shop will rise by the 3%, the focus of the ‘remain’ campaign is clear and it isn’t ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’.

This brand of statistic-abusing, fact-stretching hyperbole is not unique to the ‘remain’ campaign; the ‘leave’ campaign is equally guilty. Proponents of a Brexit would have you believe that a vote to remain condemns Britain to rapid overpopulation from immigration, which would gut the NHS, topple the housing market, and leave Britain culturally unrecognisable.

Clearly then it fair to say that negativity is a theme of referendum campaign, but why is this the case?

It is a fact of human nature that, when presented with an uncertain outcome, people are predisposed to choose the least risky option rather than the option that could deliver the most desirable outcome in a best case scenario. This is particularly true of undecided voters, of which there are many in this referendum. This phenomenon is well established in economic game theory and is borne out in the results of major constitutional referenda around the world, including in last year’s Scottish Independence referendum. Therefore, in order to win over those crucial undecided voters, the two campaigns are ramping up the fear factor at the expense of a more positive message.

If negativity is one theme of the referendum campaign, another is a consistent and flagrant disregard for facts.

The standard of factual accuracy in the referendum campaign so far has been lamentable. Claims from both sides stretch the limits of plausibility to breaking point, as evidenced by the extensive work of fact checking website, Full Fact. The UK Statistics Authority has even felt compelled to intervene on the ‘leave’ campaign’s oft-repeated claim that EU membership costs £350 million per week, which ignores the sizeable rebate which is applied before the UK pays a penny.

These egregious distortions of the facts are not solely attributable to a statistically illiterate political class. As with the negative character of the campaign, the factual misrepresentations are designed to cynically exploit voter psychology.

It is well established that the voting public has a poor grasp of facts, particularly where those facts are politically charged. For example, an Ipsos Mori poll conducted in 2013 found that the British public on average believed that 31% of the UK’s population is comprised of immigrants, whereas in reality the figure is 13%. Similarly, those polled reported that they believed £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is fraudulently obtained; in reality it is 70p in every £100.

Given this sizeable disconnect between measurable facts and the public’s perception, one might expect the campaigns to take a more factually accurate, informative approach that aims to address these misconceptions. However, this would be to ignore a psychological phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect’. This describes a peculiarity of human nature whereby, when confronted with facts that directly challenge a firmly held belief, people will counterintuitively become more convinced that they are correct, rather than incorporate this new information into their world view. Political parties therefore stand to gain more by pandering to the electorate’s established prejudices rather than by challenging their beliefs.

Both campaigns have been willing to vastly overstate the facts, even where they will not stand up to scrutiny. Examples of this include the £350 million a week figure, the treasury’s cost of leaving estimate, and UKIP’s claim that 75 per cent of UK laws are made in the EU (the Commons Library figure is between 15 and 50 per cent). This plays to another cognitive distortion in which people’s estimates are heavily influenced by the first figure they hear, regardless of plausibility. This is known as ‘anchoring’. The two campaigns are therefore more concerned with how often and how loudly they are repeating their so-called ‘facts’ – the ‘anchors’ – rather than with accuracy or truthfulness.

Even by the standards of political campaigning, the EU referendum campaign has been poor. The shameless cynicism of the campaign alone is a strong argument against large-scale constitutional referenda in general and certainly against government participation in the campaigning.

The outcome of the referendum will be almost meaningless as a reflection of the electorate’s judgement of their best interests; they are simply not in a position to know.