Young, undecided and in the front line of Scotland’s indyref mindgames

By Paul Aitken, University of Aberdeen

To make an obvious point, the younger generation’s opinions on the referendum have not been formed by as much experience as those of the older generation. Many potential voters were not alive throughout Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and were not politically conscious during those of John Major or even Tony Blair – remember that 16-year-olds were only nine when Blair left office. I myself was just eight when Scotland’s devolved parliament was established in 1999.

Though surveys indicate that young voters are less likely to be undecided than the population as a whole, their lack of experience may well make them easier to influence. If the political strategists can succeed at influencing them, it may well swing the vote in September.

Spin when you’re winning

Just like in any election, voters have to contend with spin, propaganda and the opinions of those with power and vested interests. Every word written or spoken to us, every image used and even details down to things like politicians’ facial expressions will usually have been carefully considered by a panel of individuals intent on persuading us and influencing the outcome of the referendum.

Some of this will be in plain sight, but decision making can also be influenced by manipulating what we in psychology call the “cognitive unconscious”. As most people will be aware, the power of associations is extremely important in psychology.

Ivan Pavlov’s classic study of 1902 showed that if a bell is played enough times before a dog is fed, eventually the sound of the bell will cause the dog to salivate.

Pavlov’s dog, slaved by the bell!
Alan, CC BY-SA

This so-called classical conditioning occurs in humans too. A persuasive study by the well known US psychologist John Bargh nearly 20 years ago looked into the power of unconsciously formed patterns of information. Participants were asked to make sentences out of groups of words – some had to work with words related to politeness, some with words related to rudeness and some with neutral words.

Then participants had to walk down the hall and present their work to a professor who was conversing with someone else. Those who had worked with polite words waited longer to interrupt the conversation than those in the neutral group, while those working with rude words interrupted it faster.

Old dogs, new tricks

In another experiment, some participants had to form sentences with words related to old age while others were given words that were unrelated to it. The old age group got up and left the room more slowly than the others did. Such studies show the power of unconscious activations on decision making and behaviour that can happen without people being consciously aware that they are being manipulated.

There are numerous examples of such associations in the present debate. The saltire has become synonymous with independence, for instance, and so has the use of Yes in a particular font. On the other hand the pound has become a hallmark of unity.

It is important to know where our opinions and attitudes come from and why we hold them. Doing so allows us to maintain power over our decisions. Even if your opinions are based on those of your parents, this is preferable to having opinions based around selectively presented facts, biases and – in some cases – all-out manipulations.

Studies have shown that it becomes more and more likely that people will fall back on their attitudes to help them make decisions as the opportunity to use available knowledge decreases – something that may happen because of perpetual mind games and disinformation that can get in the way.

The best tool we can arm ourselves with to avoid the manipulation of our unconscious in this way is information. Inform yourself as best you can with objective and impartial facts. In a political world where things are rarely said or shown by accident, real facts are the best way to make informed decisions.

The Conversation

Paul Aitken does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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