The Wiki Man

Was the phrasing of the Scottish referendum question designed to create division?

Or was it designed to create far more division than necessary?

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

It is a trick which often works on children. Do not tell them to eat vegetables; instead ask whether they want broccoli or spinach.

Question such as ‘Red or white?’ or ‘Still or sparkling?’ are examples of placebo choice: a psychological hack which works rather like the placebo ‘door close’ buttons in lifts (which are usually not wired up to anything but exist to give impatient people the illusion of control).

Such questions give the feeling of choice without offering much at all. The hack needs to be viewed with caution since it can subtly transmute ‘I prefer B to A’ into ‘I want B’. Watch out for canny estate agents who show you a slightly inferior house just before they show you the one they really want to sell.

If you think you can’t be manipulated, then next time you go for a restaurant meal in a group, see how difficult it is to avoid drinking wine. Restaurants do everything they can to make sure you drink wine, since it is disproportionately profitable (unlike, say, gin; I have no idea what a bottle of Château de l’Effet d’Ancrage costs, so they can get away with buying it at £8 and flogging it at £35 without anyone feeling ripped off).


So they put wine glasses on the table by default, and hand you a menu suggestively called ‘a wine list’. Of this, the first five pages consist of an insanely large variety of wine, with a lonely page at the back for those deviants and misfits who prefer to drink something made by people who have evolved to the level of ingenuity required to grow hops and practise distillation. But merely scanning that back page feels like reaching for the top shelf in a newsagent’s (for younger readers, that’s the analogue equivalent of forgetting to delete your browser history).

Most cunning of all, they only hand out one wine list to each table. This again assumes that one person should order drink for the party to share. Wine is the only alcoholic drink available in shareable bottles, so making the booze decision a collective one effectively mandates wine drinking. Once the man holding the wine list asks ‘Red or white?’, it’s game over. A preference has suddenly become a choice.

Which brings me to the phrasing of the referendum question. Was it just complete idiocy, or was it a work of evil genius, designed to create far more division than necessary?

Wording matters. Some recent academic research suggests that posing the same question but appending the words… ‘or not?’ might have reduced the yes vote by 5 per cent or so. Allowing one side to own the word ‘Yes’ was a gift. Framing the question as though there were no intermediate possibilities between status quo and separation forced many Scots into an extreme position which they would never have chosen from a wider menu.

Yesterday I noticed another example of dubious choice architecture by government. When I signed up for the electoral roll online I was asked ‘Would you like a postal vote?’ The first option was: ‘No, I prefer to vote in person.’ This is appalling — equivalent to suggesting that postal voting is the default option. Oddly, the phrasing on the paper form nudged in completely the opposite direction: ‘If you are unable to get to a polling station, you may vote by post.’

Postal voting for all but the incapacitated is an appalling idea, with huge risks of fraud and in–family coercion. I suspect many politicians collude in supporting it, since it increases the turnout and hence their ‘mandate’ and ‘legitimacy’. People should vote simultaneously: in the event, up to 600,000 Scots may have voted three weeks before election day.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • Rik

    Postal voting for any but the registered disabled is a farce,a guarantee of electoral fraud

    • Jimmy R

      And those who insisted on introducing it were well aware that would happen and decided it would be of benefit to them greatly in elections.

  • E Hart

    Some things have an inherent gravitas. Being asked to choose between whether you wish to remain in the UK or not, isn’t really equatable with something as ultimately trivial as whether you want red or white or neither. The trivial choice doesn’t have any implications beyond a superficial or a crude kind of social conditioning. The referendum electoral process, on the other hand, involved agonising: weighing up a dubious predicate (Better Together), a welter of dis- and misinformation and an untried, often poorly explained and supported, alternative prospectus. This was then compounded by changing the offering once 600,000 people had already voted. Why Better Together should have been allowed to change the offer from Yes or No to Yes or No/Devo Max, when this had been denied in the original agreement and not on the original ballot paper, is questionable to say the least. It is also a matter for the Houses of Parliament that this matter wasn’t put to them either for a vote.

    Most table wines can be picked up for a song FOB (e.g. US$20 a case), so you know before you even look at the wine list you are going to be taken to the cleaners. The reasons for this are four-fold: 1) People are unaware of how cheap wine is; 2) They are ignorant of its costs, duty/VAT; 3) They don’t have more than a superficial knowledge of the product (years ago a Sainsbury’s survey found that many customers thought Chardonnay was somewhere you could visit on holiday); 4) British restaurateurs like nothing better than to rip off the customer with over-priced (and/or sub-standard) food and booze.

    It remains a mystery that even after the proliferation of food and booze programmes on the rot-box, food and booze are still routinely poor. The same applies to the supermarkets. It used to be Chardonnay (Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc) by the yard but it has always been indifference by the yard rather than choice. Supermarket buyers, like restaurateurs want to bludgeon you on the margins. They couldn’t give a flying whatnot for quality. They are much more interested in listing fees, rubbish and whacking you.

    For choice to have any meaning it must be qualitative. A quantitative choice – albeit disguised by price points – is little better than pointless. Red or white? Who cares if it’s shite? If there no quality in evidence, don’t move off first base. It’s pointless. Regrettably, restaurants, bars, supermarkets, pubs, generally don’t get this, which is why dross prevails across all categories and the consumer goes round in an endless loop.

    On postal voting, I couldn’t agree with you more. Voting should be in person, subject to certain qualifications (e.g. ill-health, mobility issues etc.) and I’d add in for good measure, compulsory and based on PR (party list or mixed).

    • rorysutherland

      I think my contention is that, although you would think that the mental processes involved in choosing a drink are very different from those used when determining a country’s future, in fact many of the same mental habits appear in both. Oddly enough, people do not choose which house they buy with much more rigour than they choose a dress or a pair of shoes. (In both cases the choices are highly path-dependent, for instance).

      I agree with you on quantitative choice – you would expect me to say this, but brands are a much better vehicle for consumer choice than the “objective” measures preferred by economists.

      I disagree with you about drink, though – and on Darwinian grounds. Beer and Spirits are almost perfectly replicable. Hence if you stumble on a recipe that produces a very nice gin, you can continue to use it indefinitely. Beer and spirits (and cocktails) thereby can benefit from an evolutionary process of continuous improvement. By contrast wine cannot be well replicated: even if the 2004 is wonderful, the 2006 might be disappointing. It is therefore incapable of reliably evolving to something better.

      • E Hart

        Yes, I agree with you up to a point. Habits are habit-forming and what should be given a great deal of thought is often passed over rather cursorily. I voted Yes because a singing dog told me to.

        On drink, I employ the idea of immediacy. If isn’t good initially, it’s never going to get any better. Quality doesn’t equivocate, it announces itself loud and clear. It remains the case, though, that quality often loses out to commercial might.

        It is important not confuse the survival of the best marketed with the survival of the fittest (where fittest is best quality or most interesting). As a consequence, products from the erstwhile Agros or Polmos distilleries, such as Graduate, Belvedere, Wyborowa, Zubrowska, Luksusowa et al, often lose out to new or favoured Western brands, which disappear without trace in a cocktail. Similarly, Stoli and its line extensions – way ahead of their time – are similarly rejected. Why a dog playing a piano should encourage us to think otherwise is one of life’s mysteries. It’s the same with Cognac, Champagne, Brandy, Rum, Bourbon… Many of the top brands are there because of consumer ignorance, distribution stitch-ups, celebrity endorsement and non-quality related matters such as “aspiration”. I don’t know about you, but I aspire to a good drink. I couldn’t care less if its advertised by a dog surrounded by attractive women (Smirnoff); if it was drunk by Fidel Castro just before he entered Havana (Havana Club); if it spent time on Fat’s Waller’s piano (Beefeater) or on Keith Richards’ amp (Jack Daniels).

        One of the real mysteries to me is how so much knowledge and so much scouring of the world still fails to find products that are quite obviously there.

        Is there a better Methode Charentais brandy than the Catalan staple, Mascaró V.O.? If there is, I’ve never tasted it. Yet it is nowhere to be seen outside Spain. Equally, with rum, the West isn’t alive to quality, it’s alive to well-promoted big brands, some of them singularly lacking in quality. Don Q Añejo from Dest. Serralles, Puerto Rico – and there are plenty of others, too, is better than all the leading aged brands on the UK market. Who stocks it? No-one.

        The problem with drink is the same as the problem with anything else – orthodoxy. Back in the 1990s, the wine cognoscenti where getting producers worldwide to ditch what they had been doing to go for the ‘Holy Grail’ provided by the noble varietals. This, of course, is nonsense. If you are a poor winemaker you’ll make a hash of Cabernet Sauvignon in much the same way you might have made a hash of Tannat or Tempranillo. The secret is in whose hands does the product lie. The mistake lies in conforming to ideology rather than pragmatism. Ideology always tries to shape reality to its tenets, whilst pragmatism tends to adapt itself to what is real or what works. If ever there was a lesson for humanity, is that all ideologies hold an implied menace; they can’t ever admit to being wrong because therein in lies nemesis.

        It’s true wine cannot be replicated because no two seasons are the same whatever the terroir. But what separates the good from the bad and the ugly, is great technique. Differences can be acknowledged by, as in the case of Port, declaring or not declaring a vintage. Simply rolling out a selection of single or dual varietals wines, doesn’t cut it. This is where the top quality French producers come into their own. Not only are they the most accomplished bullshitters in the world (e.g. Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy…), they are also the most savvy at blending wines. Consequently, they’ve got the field to themselves.

        Nevertheless, it’s instructive in such an esoteric field, that an assembled array of the UK wine cognoscenti back in the 1990s found Segura Viudas, a secondary Cava brand produced by Freixenet, preferable to Dom Perignon Champagne in a blind tasting.

        The folly of most of the New World and Australasian producers, is they haven’t cottoned on to where the real quality and money are. The shame for us, regardless of season, is that our suppliers routinely sell us indifferent offerings by the shelf-load because they think we don’t know any better.

        • rorysutherland

          The issue here is a lot of blending goes on not only in the bottle but in the mind. For instance the fact that Fats had a bottle of Beefeater on the piano does kind of change the taste. It’s a question of psychophysics. Wine poured from a heavier bottle tastes better, too.

          I’d be wary of immediacy, too – since some things taste great on first sip but don’t work in larger quantities. Some drinks are weirdly location dependent, too – Pastis in the UK tastes awful, whereas I quite like it in France!

          But on the failure to value things well, I entirely agree. Most Spanish things are undervalued relative to French things, for instance. A lot of French cheeses (Brie, most Camembert) would have been derided were they not French.

          Also there is the inverse-popularity rule. I still maintain that Cheddar is the best cheese in the world, but it’s not a widespread opinion, since it is useless for signalling purposes.

          • E Hart

            Influencing and influential though they may be, I’m not sure that Fat’s or Keef’s love of particular brands makes them taste any better. I can’t wait for the first rock icon to stick a bottle of that fetid monster, Moutai, on an amp. Now that will be interesting. Someone should do it as an experiment in suggestibility.

            Mimicry can no more capture essence than a grasping mitt the wind. Expectation is the only thing disappointed when wine is poured from a plastic bottle into a plastic beaker. You expect better and you expect wine to be free from oestrogen-leeching PET containers. I can’t say I’ve thought about bottle weights except for sparking wine or Champagne. Mmm…

            The thing about immediacy is that it is qualitative. Obviously, if you end up a slobbering mess, covered in your own menu, you’ll have largely destroyed any memory of what it was you were drinking or doing.

            It is an illusion to try and recapture a moment and doomed to failure. That’s why nostalgia is so achingly painful. It reminds us that we can’t. If we return from Greece with a bottle of Retsina, it isn’t going to taste the same, because Central Milton Keynes isn’t like the Peloponnese. If we drink Retsina because we like it, the result will be different. Mavrodaphne of Patras (esp. Kourtaki), on the other hand, is delicious anywhere because it has no cultural baggage.

            I think the problem with many a Brie and Camembert is refrigeration. These cheeses need to be kept in a pantry or cheese safe not in a fridge. Fridges kill flavour. Even Munster and Pont-l’Évêque struggle to retain flavour under the anaesthetising cold.

            I’m with you entirely on Cheddar. A good one is very difficult to beat, although I have a heretical preference for the Canadian ones because I prefer a lengthier maturation and less creaminess.

  • Fenton!

    I vote by post and love it. Voting in person is inconvenient, annoys me because I view my fellow voters who — some of them — are probably trying to commit fraud (not real citizens, don’t have their registration, etc.), and catches me out because without having seen the ballot in advance I can’t deliberate properly about the questions (e.g. more or less funding to prevent flooding or for local school fatcats’ fatcat pensions). Having the ballot in advance allows me to do the needed research at leisure and to make sure that I vote correctly for my true preferences. I just never put my ballots in my postbox. My postman knows my party affiliation (all those solicitations I get), and others might possibly, too. To protect my ballot I always drop it off at the post office myself.

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