The judgement heuristic, or why the Scottish Referendum voting turnout was so high

In the last few months, the country has been gripped by the prospect of Scotland voting to become independent from the rest of the UK.  Whether you believed one way or another many of you will have been interested in the outcome in some way.  

What was more interesting than the outcome itself, was the number of people who turned out to vote on polling day.  84.5% of the Scottish population turned out to vote (1).  That’s the second highest since universal suffrage was granted in 1950.  

In stark contrast, the last two British general elections saw a turnout of approximately 60% (2) and the European elections this year, voting turnout was only 34%.  Consider that voting is not a mandatory requirement in any British country, the comparison between the two is quite striking.  

To date, most people are talking about the result, and the turnout.  Nobody appears to be asking why.  Why did the people of Scotland turn out to vote for a referendum, yet they would not turn out to vote for representation in Parliament or Europe?  

To answer that question, we could look to eminent behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman and his ground-breaking book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (3), we can find a plausible reason why the voting turnout was so different.  

In his book, Kahneman refers to an experiment conducted by a professor at Princeton University, Alex Toderov.  In his experiment Toderov showed test participants a photograph for no more than a few tenths of a second.  The test participants were then asked to rate the photos on various attributes, including liability and competence.  

The test participants were not told that the photographs they were looking at were in fact photographs of electoral candidates in upcoming elections.  Following the test, Toderov analysed the results of the election and found that there was a correlation between how likeable and competent his test subjects rated candidates and what the overall outcome was.  

Kahneman says ‘There is no evidence that these facial features actually predict how well politicians will perform in office. But studies of the brain’s response to winning and losing candidates show that we are biologically predisposed to reject candidates who lack the attributes we value - in this research, losers evoked stronger indications of (negative) emotional responses.'  Kahneman calls this concept the 'judgement heuristic'. 

Think of that for a moment, we do not base our choice of who to vote for on which political party is most aligned to our beliefs.  We use the judgement heuristic to vote for the person we like and trust the most based upon physical appearance.  With that concept a person is more likely to not turn out to vote if they don’t particularly like the look of someone who technically aligns with their political beliefs.

Many people may never see the person representing their local area in an election.  They will see the leader of the party on the television or in the press.  They then make a decision on whether to vote based upon their face alone, it is unlikely that they know this is what is happening. 

When we examine the Scottish Referendum, the electorate were not voting for a political party or a type of government.  They were voting for a faceless state, independence or the United Kingdom.  Without that face to base their judgement upon, voters were forced to make a decision upon their own beliefs.  Standing up for your beliefs in this kind of situation is clearly a stronger motivator for voting than choosing someone you like over someone you don’t.  

It would be very interesting to see what the outcome of a general election was, if the electorate never got to see the face of those who represented it.  The choice of the vote was based purely on the overall party stance, and what their local candidate offered.  Would the turnout and outcome be vastly different?

1 - Source, The Guardian, Monday 22nd September 2014

2 - Source, UK Political Info, http://www.ukpolitical.info/

3 - Source, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ Daniel Kahneman