Trump, Brexit, and now the French Elections. Yes, whilst many will be breathing a collection sigh of relief that the centrist Emanuel Macron defeated the right-wing Marine Le Pen but, when the dust settles, we might find time to ask ourselves how a political movement less than a year old (Macron’s “En Marche”) managed to unseat the two standing parties of government in France.
I think this may come down to just two important cognitive biases – System Justification and Prospect Theory.
System Justification Theory seeks to understand why people like and support the status quo, even if that status quo is ultimately not beneficial for them. Prospect Theory exists at the other end of the cognitive spectrum and tries to inform us of why we are more likely to take big risks when we have suffered losses and how the emotional impact of gains and losses differs even if, in terms of value, they are the same.
Everyone loves the Status Quo (and Status Quo).
The vast majority of us carry a natural bias towards maintaining and supporting the status quo. It’s essential for us, actually, if we are going to live in functioning societies that we learn to accept the rules, norms, and hierarchies of our group and not only conform to them but support (and enforce) them where necessary.
We are all brought up this way, routinely reminded that the bogeyman is coming for us if we misbehave. As adults, we still have bogeymen too – be they real or imagined.
However, whilst it has beneficial aspects for social cohesion, there is a dark side to System Justification. System Justification not only helps us to accept the status quo for our own benefit but also enables us to rationalise inequality in they system and accept that too. Perversely, this cognitive bias actually tends to be stronger in people who are negatively affected by the status quo.
Called “Depressed Entitlement” this psychological phenomenon has been suggested by theorists as being a manifestation of our powerful need to justify the status quo. In short, rather than question why the system is unfair to us, our brains are far more likely to absorb this unfairness and translate it into a feeling of our own inferiority. Not only do our brains make us feel like we “deserve” to be treated unfairly, but they also reduce our ability to do anything about it.
It’s Us and Them. (But actually, I prefer Them)
Depressed Entitlement, in turn, leads on to another cognitive bias called “outgroup favouritism”. Typically, we all tend to regard other people in the social groups that we belong to more favourably than we regard people outside these groups. That’s “ingroup favouritism” and it’s the classic “Us and Them” mentality that we all have to some degree – no matter how much we might try to deny or suppress it.
When “outgroup favouritism” occurs, our sense of preference is inverted. We have such a low opinion of our own group that we default to support the same groups and people that the current system/status quo supports. It may sound strange, but there’s a perverse logic to it – if we deserve to be treated badly by the system then people who are different to us must, therefore, deserve to be treated positively.
Some theorists question whether outgroup favouritism really exists, suggested that it is simply a manifestation of other behaviours and norms and not a phenomenon in its own right. From my perspective, I’ve seen enough “turkeys voting for Christmas” in my life to firmly believe that it does exist.
Strong and Stable = Status Quo
Appealing to our desire to maintain the status quo is, therefore, a scientifically very sound election tactic – if you are in power.
We might question the “Strong and stable” narrative consciously but our brains are craving it nevertheless. Our brains love sweet, sweet stability.
Moreover, when the Conservatives tell you they are offering “Strong and Stable” leadership vs. “Chaos” you might even feel like you’ve heard it all before… and that’s because you have; David Cameron used this almost exact phrase during the 2015 election.
It’s not simply a tried and tested formula (and you can read my article here on why it’s phrasing is so clever) it’s also more of the same. In a time when uncertainty is rife, it’s offering something you’ve had before. Something you have already lived with for years. The Conservatives are offering the status quo… and a lot of people will buy that.
Hang on, Smarty Pants – Let’s talk about Trump and Brexit
So, if everything I’ve already written is true, how do we explain the status quo smashing election of Donald Trump or the UK’s decision to leave the EU?
Well, there is a theory for why so many people have been able to overcome their System Justification bias, and it’s called Prospect Theory.
Under normal circumstances, the majority of people are risk averse. They prefer winning a sure £50 rather than taking a risky bet in which they can toss a coin and either win £100 or nothing. This is what Prospect Theory tells us. However, in some cases, it also shows us the circumstances in which people prefer risky options – like when they feel that they have lost something. Prospect Theory seeks to understand and explain the curious behaviour. We’ve all heard the phrase “nothing to lose” and we typically associate it with someone who is about to take a huge risk because they have already experienced losses. We also expect them to win.
Does that feeling of loss, and being able to take a gamble to restore former glory, sound familiar? It should… because a lot of people voted to “Make America Great Again” and, in the case of Brexit to “Take Back Control”. (And Trump wasn’t the first – Ronald Reagan promised to Make America Great Again in 1980)
It actually doesn’t matter if the losses are real or imagined, Prospect Theory is entirely about the emotional impact of – the important thing is that you have to make people feel like they’ve lost – and then present them with a way to win it all back… and more.
The Prospect Theory Perfect Storm
Create this perfect storm of perceived losses and a risky option that will restore former glories and you actually have a potent recipe for success and a very real chance of “trumping” the power draw of System Justification.
It worked for Trump, it worked for Brexit, and it worked for Macron.
Eh? Hang on a minute, Macron?
Yes, Macron. Whilst he may seem like a low-risk candidate when stacked up against Marine Le Pen, remember we are talking about a 39-year-old who broke away from his party in April 2016 to form a new political movement modelled after the likes of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Under any other set of circumstances, Macron was your high-risk candidate – but he got lucky with the perfect set of opponents.
Dancing the French Two-Step
The French electoral system has two steps – think of it like our UK first past the post general election but with an added “sudden death” tie breaker at the end for the two highest polling candidates.
Both Macron and Le Pen were “Prospect Theory” candidates in Phase 1, defeating the far more established “establishment” candidates. In Phase 2, given a choice between risk and risk we then see a change in behaviour, a return to form with Macron offering more stability and continuity, and thus victory. As with Brexit and Trump there is also a degree of “protest voting” in picking high risk options and this comes with some “buyer’s remorse” for some if these protest votes result in an actual winning candidate. The French system emeliorates this by having two steps – an electoral “are you sure” in effect. (Curiously, France also has a very high percentage of spoiled ballots).
None of this takes away from Macron’s victory, it was far from a sure-thing at the start of the process and comes at the end of a hard campaign and against stiff opposition from an opponentriding on a fearful tide of right-wing populism. No, the point of this is that being radical and being high risk isn’t just for the Trumps and jolly Brexiteers of this world. It could work for Labour too.
Meet Jeremy Corbyn – The New Radical
There’s a general concensus that Corbyn’s policies are popular. There’s also a general concensus that Corbyn is a rather nice bloke – honest, principled, etc. If anything he’s too nice – there’s undoubtedly fire in there, but it takes a lot to bring out the firebrand in Jeremy.
But for those holding out hope for a Labour victory, the means are somewhat less important than the means. Labour need to win – and they can teach us “kinder, gentler politics” far more easily from Number 10. As they saying goes “there’s no room for a story on the scorecard”.
In short, it’s time to go for the jugular and drag centerist opinion left instead of watering down Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in an attempt to woe both left and centre. Labour don’t need “Diet Corbyn”, the need “Ultra Corbyn”. If the Conservatives are offering the status quo, offering the status quo with minor changes won’t bring home a win – the status quo must be painted as being as unpalatable as possible and radical change needs to be presented as both urgent and necessary.
At least, that’s what the science says.
How to win an election in two easy steps
So, if you’re a Labour supporter here’s my tip for winning votes
- Pick a thing people have lost under the Conservatives
- Tell people they are getting that back under Labour
Meanwhile, if you favour the Conservatives, System Justification is your friend
- Pick something people don’t want to change
- Tell them Labour will change it
(Plus, if you’re feeling lazy, here are two posters I made to show how this works)