Why the polls are so close, Part 2

Remember, some days ago I asked myself (and you) why the polls are still so close, given that most economic heavyweights in the world have warned against Brexit. The OECD, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have all come out against Brexit, as have many British businesses, banks and politicians. Besides that, the Leave-campaign hasn’t presented a viable model for the future relationship between the UK and the EU after a potential Brexit yet. Nevertheless, the polls are fairly close. Neither the economic warnings nor the Leave-side’s lack of clarity seems to make a big difference to voters.

I have to admit, I did not really solve this riddle when I published my first post about it. Thankfully, I came across Andre Spicer in the meantime, Professor for Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School in London. Andre proved to be a reliable source before. I have interviewed him many times for my stories for DIE WELT. This time again, Andre didn’t let me down. On the contrary, he provided a thoughtful explanation for the phenomenon described earlier.

According to him, people tend to make quick decisions about important issues on the basis of their past beliefs or the first pieces of information they are presented with. “We then search for information which justifies our decisions”, Spicer said. “Many members of the public have already made up their mind and now they are looking for information confirming their existing beliefs while ignoring any information that challenges them.” Humans, the professor stated, are good are overlooking expert judgements and instead rely heavily on the judgement of their peers – a fact that can be observed every day in social networks like Facebook where you are presented with content that matches your interests and opinions.

Spicer’s research at Cass Business School shows that people tend to only follow economists’ advice when it is about a technical issue. “When opinion is about a highly symbolic issue, like the EU, the public ignore economic experts and rely on their pre-existing beliefs”, Spicer said. That shed some light and helped me understand why the flurry of economic studies that have been published recently hasn’t had a stronger impact on polls.

Spicer had some more unpleasant insights for me. “Expert advice can also harden opposing views”, he explained. “When members of the public are exposed to economic analysis that contradicts their own beliefs, non-experts become more strident in their views. They seek out information which discredits expert opinion and ignore information which supports it.” Hang on a minute. So instead of first listening to economists and then making up their mind, people tend to make up their mind first and then don’t listen to economists anymore? That is, to say the least, quite interesting.

At the same time, it’s a devastating truth that Spicer presented me with. Contrary to common belief, George Osborne, Christine Lagarde and other prominent spokespeople could actually be doing the Leave-side a favour by warning against voting for Brexit. Professor Spicer confirmed exactly that: “This can create a backlash where expert opinion results in swaying public opinion in the opposite direction”, he said. And, to add to that, this not only happens in economics but also in health (in anti-vaccination), technology (think of genetically modified food) and the environment (climate change denial).

So that’s where the Leave-side takes all their “scaremongering”-accusations from. They don’t want to listen to what economists might say about the potential economic consequences of a Brexit because it contradicts their views. Oh well. Maybe David Cameron should stop making war and peace-comparisons when he talks about the consequences of Brexit then. That will, according to Mr. Spicer’s findings, just lead to a hardening of opinions on the Leave-side.

But what about all the voters that are still undecided? The most recent FT poll puts their share at 13 percent of the electorate, enough to make Leave win a majority (they are currently at 40 percent vs. 47 percent for Remain). For those people who haven’t yet decided on which way to vote, the economic studies and forecasts could actually be helpful, even if the long term consequences of a Brexit are hard admittedly to predict. Who knows? Maybe the undecided voters will listen to the economists. Or, maybe they will behave similarly to all the others and vote the way their peers do.



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