Status Quo on Brexit

The world is eagerly waiting with bated breath for the Brexit referendum results. Battle lines are drawn, last campaigns have ended, politicians have made their pitch (David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn on the “Remain” faction versus Boris Johnson on the “Leave” faction), world leaders have weighed in on the subject (Obama saying “I hope you will stay”) but the contest is still too close to call. This is proving more nail-biting than Euro 2016 football matches.

Brexit PollsThe poll of polls on the issue from ‘What UK Thinks’ show a 50-50 split between the “Remain” and “Leave” factions. The Economist puts it at 44% for the “Remain” and at 43% for the “Leave” factions with 11% undecided – it was 14% yesterday.

Which way the referendum will swing will depend a lot on these 11-14% undecided voters. What would the undecided voter do? One of the key factors will be a well studied bias – the status quo bias, the preference for the current state of affairs. Prospect Theory explains status quo bias as a result of people’s tendency to overweight losses from a change in the status quo when compared to the gains thus leading them not to prefer a change at all. To complicate matters for people already uncertain about the vote, the issue at hand is mightily complex; it has economic, political, and even racial impact. Uncertainty breeds status quo.

The easiest option for undecided voters is the one that allows them to go on with their lives with the least amount of disruption – not having to make the decision at all. On the other hand, if the undecideds do vote, these votes are likely to be for the “Remain” faction – the status quo option. So all that the “Remain” campaigners should do is to encourage the undecideds to vote and they should have it!

One thing is sure, framing of the Brexit question will not play a part in the decision because of wise moves by the Electoral Commission. We have already covered that aspect in our earlier blog – To B or not to B, that is the question.

Our paper on sex trafficking nominated for ESOMAR best paper award

One of the most challenging assignment undertaken by Final Mile was to understand the decision making process of vulnerable populations on both Demand and Supply side of sex trafficking. We used Ethnolab – Our proprietary Behavioral and Decision research tool to unearth behavioral insights that can help prevent trafficking. This project has been funded by My Choices and the foundation went beyond mere funding to take an active part in the research process.

We presented the paper at ESOMAR APAC conference held in Tokyo on 18 & 19 May 2016. We are delighted that the paper was nominated for Best paper award. Sex trafficking is one of the most inhuman acts and one that requires high attention and this nomination is a small but important development. This problem requires support from research community as there is a strong need to match Passion with insights.

Read more about the nomination here.

Who is likely to win? Depends on How you ask



The race is heating up. And so are the experts that are conducting, interpreting and concluding opinion polls. As the focus of US presidential election is moving away from on primaries to the final competition, we should expect results from hundreds of opinion polls predicting the winner.

A recent NY times article suggested that Clinton leads Trump by around 10 percentage points. If you believe these polls, then you may be hopeful or concerned depending on which side you are on. But there is a small issue. The result may not be accurate.

This article indicates that there is a significant difference in the results of polls conducted online vs over the phone. The lead comes down four percent when surveys are conducted online. One the reasons cited is the social desirability bias – a desire to project a positive image when one is worried of being judged based on their response. People may go at any lengths to avoid the discomfort and embarrassment of stating an unfavorable response even if that is their honest response. But in a situation of anonymity, I may go back to my preference.

The problem is not new and its not limited to presidential polls. The issue has been discussed extensively in market research. And it becomes much more pronounced in sensitive areas of financial and health care related decision making. Imagine talking to a individual undergoing financial hardships and being delinquent on their debts. Or a conversation around understanding why someone is not adhering to their antibiotics regimen.

Clearly, we need more sophisticated research methodologies to deal with such sensitive matters. In our work in the social sector, we have regularly innovated our research processes to mange these issues. For example, in one of our projects in Africa we used a gamification based research tool wherein the format incentivized true responses over socially desirable response. The research methodology was recognized by The Esomar Congress 2015 where Final Mile won the Best Case History award.

Innovative tools for learning voter’s preference also exist. The Iowa Electronics Market established back in 1988 is one of the early pioneers. Even changing the way the question is framed can have a significant impact. For example, instead of framing the survey question as which candidate are you likely to vote, a better question would be which candidate is likely to win. So while we monitor the election outcomes, it will also be interesting to study the prediction accuracies of the different research tools.

Image Credit: Indian Panorama

Want well-behaved MPs? Stop televising parliament

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“Don’t use unparliamentary language”, a surprisingly common response to unwarranted rudeness used in parts of northern India, has long passed into oxymoronic folklore.

A Google video search on ‘Indian Parliament’ gives us the following top results: three funny speeches, one tearful speech, one fight, and one funny fight. Recent incidents in various Indian legislatures that captured the attention of traditional and social media have included such gems as: ruckus over members not taking their oaths in the regional language in a state assembly, legislators from two different states caught viewing explicit content on their cellphones, and displays of varying degrees of lawlessness by lawmakers from the Gangetic belt. During less exciting times, legislators have been in the news for succumbing to the strain of melatonin.

The desperate focus of news channels on trivial happenings in legislatures stems partly from the tedious and dreary nature of their proceedings. Parliamentary dynamics do not engender dramatic oration: they present few opportunities for an uninterrupted monologue, and there isn’t the luxury of having the audience lend one their ears. Speaking in parliament is instead a zero-sum game where the powers of the bully pulpit are leveraged not only by the speaker of a motion, but also by its responders, debaters as well as a set of accompanying actors- from thespian to ‘C’ grade.

More importantly, speaking in parliament represents a game of signalling, where assembly members constantly undermine their legislative roles (developing and modifying laws, checking the power of the executive), in favour of their roles as representatives of their voters and party. Many aspects of their behaviour may be explained as displays of loyalty to the party line and homages to senior leaders, or as exhibitions of self-sacrifice and commitment towards members of their constituencies. What we prescribe as good legislative behaviour- civility and decorum in the house- should ideally be heightened by the presence of live television cameras. In reality, these virtues are discarded and invalidated at the cost of signalling loyalty and commitment- aspects of electoral politics and statecraft whose importance is typically underestimated by outsiders. A few aggressive acts by legislators desperate to prove a point is all it takes to socialise such behaviour. Over time, competitive signalling among members across backgrounds and party lines will ensure that it becomes the norm.

The efficacy of both ‘games’ as well as legislators’ awareness about their potential for self-advancement, is multiplied several times over by the televisation and subsequent news coverage of parliamentary proceedings. Politicians have well identified the sensational and trivial aspects of legislative footage that news coverage is biased towards, and thus act in a manner that is bound to fetch them the tastiest slice of primetime. As Krishan Kant, former Vice-President and chairman of the Rajya Sabha had said, “Today, parliament and legislatures create a new breed of heroes- the well-rushing heroes, who hope to be elevated to instant national fame, straight from the well of the house.”

Such behaviour is not restricted to Indian legislatures. The same set-pieces of eyeball-grabbing tactics are employed by members of lawmaking bodies across the world- the most popular being the repeated and organised storming the well of the house, which is typically an area with the highest camera density. Another strategy is described by journalists as ‘doughnuting’: it entails surrounding the speaking legislator in order to create an impression of numerical strength around the argument being made. Interrupting and heckling front-benchers and senior members from opposing camps- resulting in momentary but precious camera time- is a behaviour often seen in parliamentary systems. In younger legislatures, turning stationery and uprooted furniture into dangerous projectiles is not uncommon.

What explains this universally exaggerated practice of signalling by politicians? Experimental psychology may have an answer: the concept of ‘reactivity’ defines the notion that individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behaviour in response to an awareness that they are being observed. In applied research, reactivity among test group subjects who modify their behaviour in aspects that are being tested by experimenters is known by a more well-known term- the Hawthorne Effect.

Several studies have demonstrated these phenomena, even in instances where the ‘observer’ isn’t human. Littering in a Newcastle University cafeteria was found to be lower on days when experimenters plastered wall-posters of staring human eyes, as opposed to days on which walls were adorned with pictures of flowers. In another experiment at MIT, participants were made to play a public goods game on a computer, with the test group being ‘observed’ by a robot with conspicuous eyes and a foreboding name- Kismet. The results showed that subjects that had Kismet on their screens displayed higher degrees of involuntary eye-detection movements to examine their levels of privacy, and were 29% more likely to contribute towards the public good, i.e. choose the less selfish option during the game.

These effects of reactivity, combined with mismatched notions of what constitutes ideal behaviour for a legislator, result in the Hawthorne Effect working in a perversely backwards way in many lawmaking assemblies in India and abroad.

The adverse costs of such behaviour among lawmakers have been conspicuous in the last two decades in India. There has been a dramatic growth in the mediums of parliament televisation, with the initial advent of cable television, followed by private news channels, and then 24×7 news coverage. As the stakes of being seen on TV have been raised by a larger supply of belligerent, sensationalised news, as well as the insatiable demand of the Indian viewer for daily political drama, lawmakers have gone to greater lengths to fulfil the requirements of the market.

Disruptions of parliamentary proceedings and by consequence its adjournments are the cornerstone of political signalling. It is not surprising that the amount of time lost to disruptions and adjournments in the lower house has seen an increase analogous to the growth of news media outlets- from 5% of total allotted time in the late nineties to 20% and 40% in the first and second UPA terms respectively (see graph). In the fifth session of the present Lok Sabha (July to September 2015), 72% of parliament time was wasted due to disruptions and adjournments.

Many readers will find these examples as further evidence to point out the redundancy and nuisance value of the Indian parliament. This argument does not support that claim. The parliament has in recent years put aside partisan differences to pass landmark legislation on education, transparency, nutrition and empowerment.

Moreover, dedicated legislators are making up for the signalling disruptors with dedicated work.  According to official data, a large part of ‘wasted’ time in the fifteenth Lok Sabha was made up for by some members staying after working hours for a total of 276 hours (or 20% of total allotted time). Not withstanding the policy paralysis in 2011-13 following the anti-corruption movements that swept the country, the number of acts passed by six successive Lok Sabhas has remained in the same neighbourhood (see graph)- in stark contrast to the sharp rise in time lost to disruptions.

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Substantive ground is being covered in parliament despite televisation-driven sensationalism, not because of it. Many journalists have raised doubts that the technical glitch that prevented televisation of parliament during the passage of the bill to create the new state of Telangana, may have been deliberately planned. While such clandestine actions by governments should be questioned, few can deny that the passage of the bill was largely peaceful and prevented further conflagration in Andhra Pradesh. The only downside was that the editorial staff in HQs had to be relayed the information on events by their field reporters, instead of a live feed.

On the other hand, the conspicuousness of unruly behaviour and disruptions makes them the face of parliamentary ethos, and erodes the faith of citizens in one of our most important institutions. It is hence time to trade in Big Brother for Dr. Ferber to ensure good legislative behaviour.


PS: An alternative- greater coverage of committees, discussions

The original purpose of televising parliament was to bring large-scale democratic education to the electorate. While stopping parliamentary broadcast may rob them of procedural insights, education on the larger democratic and legislative process may be ensured by focussing cameras or transcript recorders on the committees which oversee to-be laws in their important, formative stages, as well as general discussions. The non-profit C-SPAN network in the United States has rich, diverse programming on current events, as well as coverage of important Senate hearings- such as the appearance of Wall Street CEOs to answer for their role in the financial crisis. As of 2013, their programmes were regularly watched by 47 million Americans.



To B, or not to B, that is the question


The ‘B’ in the title stands for Brexit- the portmanteau monicker given to the possibility of Britain’s departure from the European Union. This June, many British citizens will face their second referendum on secession in three years. Their bone of contention is the burdensome legislation from the European Council- seen by many Brits as an infringement of their gleefully miserable approach towards language, food and life in general. Since the seeds of European integration were sown, the island nation has experienced bouts of collective outrage- on Brussels deciding how bendy British bananas should be, or how sausages should be renamed as emulsified high-fat offal tubes. Some of these stories have turned out to be practical jokes planted by journalists or even pure satire- the sausage story was in fact an episode of Yes Minister. But the resulting outrage in every case has been real and present. It is with this long-term cynicism of continental appropriation, as well as coercion from extreme right-wing groups such as the UK Independence Party, that Prime Minister David Cameron decided to announce the referendum last month.

Pertinent to the referendum discussion is the syntax and construction of the question that will be posed before voters. Some may consider this a minor detail, but the Electoral Commission of the UK has conducted eleven detailed assessments on it since 2001 alone. Learnings from behavioural science justify the earnestness shown by the election watchdog, and evidence from the following historical referendums further corroborates this claim:

Scotland, 2014

The framing of the question for the 2014 referendum- where Scottish citizens decided whether or not to remain a part of the United Kingdom- became a contentious issue. The Scottish National Party, who were in support of their independence, had originally proposed this question:

Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

  • Yes
  • No

The Electoral commission pointed out the leading nature of the question. Behavioural science calls this  technique of influencing responses as ‘framing’: the manner in which the question was constructed would encourage neutral voters to vote ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. This also follows from the claim that people are more likely not to disagree with a notion that is presented in a somewhat coercive manner.

Earlier during the movement, those in support of the ‘let’s stick together’ campaign preferred this question instead:

Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?

  • Yes
  • No

Here, the negative connotation of the word ‘leaving’ would make voters experience loss aversion- a state where the prospect of negative outcomes looms larger than that of positive outcomes. At the pivotal moment of a voter making their choice, loss aversion would likely bring to their minds, all the risks and tribulations were Scotland to exit the UK, thereby encouraging them to tick the ‘no’ box. Additionally, considering this nation-of-many-countries has been at peace for seven decades, secession exists more conspicuously in a negative frame than independence does in a positive one.

The Electoral Commission, which pointed out that the final question should be presented in clear and neutral terms, eventually had both sides agree on the following format:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

  • Yes
  • No

Although the majority voted against independence, the marginally positive framing of the final question may have impacted the overall numbers supporting independence- which at 45%- amounted to a far closer race than was expected.

Greece, 2015

The Greek Bailout Referendum was put before its citizens ten days after its announcement by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in June 2015. The poll asked Greeks if the government should accept the bailout conditions set by the European Commission and International Monetary Fund. A ‘yes’ would mean years of spartan hardship for citizens and businesses, but a ‘no’ would lead to a possible exit from the Eurozone.


On voting day, the question featured in the ballot was as convoluted as the Euro crisis itself: it included sixteen page appendices, and the ‘no’ option was placed above the ‘yes’. It may not come as a surprise that 61% of the voters rejected the IMF’s proposition, and the government received a handsome political payoff- domestically and internationally- for its snap poll.

Nazi Germany, 1938

Many would describe such industrial-strength nudging by governments as unethical and distasteful. They are likely to find the arrangement of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options of the 1938 German referendum (asking Germans if they wanted to reunite with Austria and ‘vote for the list of the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’) as astonishing as the revelation that the Third Reich actually bothered themselves with such an extensive democratic exercise. The large circle isn’t merely a nudge, but also a hint.


Learning from history and from convoluted referendum forms in its own past, the Canadian parliament passed the ‘Clarity Act’ in 2000 that restricted questions on secession from being overtly complex. Since then, length of referendum questions has reduced from 36 words- in the case of Quebec- to the six words for Scotland. But constraints of brevity may bring with them nudges of their own- which leads us back to the referendum facing Britons this June. The Electoral Commission has already recommended a somewhat long-winded question. But it manages to nullify all the behavioural biases that would plague the standard ‘should the UK leave the EU’ or ‘should the UK stay with the EU’ formats:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?

  • Remain a member of the European Union
  • Leave the European Union

Whatever the results turn out to be, it will be heartening to note that sub-conscious behavioural science will not play a role in deciding Britain’s vote, and by extension the fate of the European Union. It is important for nudge units and behavioural sciences firms across the world to question the ethics behind nudges that tilt public opinion to any one side in a democratic debate- particularly where neither side has engaged in violent, illegal or commonly-accepted immoral behaviour. Renaming Chicken Tikka as ‘high-flavour skewered British roast’ would, obviously, be an example of all three.


Images Sources: Merkel-Cameron: Business Insider/Greek Bailout: Wikimedia/Germany Ballot: BBC

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