Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Behavioural Tactics of the Leave Campaign

The tightly fought referendum campaign of early 2016 created a deep division in British politics, with both sides still entrenched on their side of the debate almost two years later. While a look back at the messages and tactics might cause repulsion for many voters, the lessons that can be drawn from both the winning and losing campaigns are numerous and insightful. This post will be focused on the approach of the victorious Leave campaign - how did they persuade over half the electorate to vote for such a drastic policy?

Many people, both pollsters and pundits, predicted that Britain would vote to remain in the EU out of a pure resistance to change. There was no way the electorate would vote for a future of economic uncertainty, no matter the promises of increased power and sovereignty, they thought. These observers may have assumed that people would be subject to Status Quo bias - the common tendency for people to hold a preference for the current state of affairs, a phenomenon often attributed to the deeper aversion for any change framed as a potential loss (Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler, 1991).

These predictions were, as it turned out, false. The UK narrowly voted to Leave the EU on the 23rd June 2016. What other psychological factors might explain the outcome of this historic vote?

A key element in how people chose to vote was how they perceived the information presented to them by the competing campaigns. The Leave campaign(s) frequently deployed messages relating to sovereignty, control and highlighted the likely risks of remaining in the EU (such as mass immigration from Turkey, a country which the Leave campaign[s] falsely claimed was about to join the bloc). The Remain campaign, on the other hand, relied on messages relating to the economic security of remaining in the EU and also highlighted the risks of leaving (a tactic famously labelled 'Project Fear' because of it's supposed fear-mongering tone).

Everything is always clearer in hindsight but there are good explanations as to why people were more receptive to the messages from the Leave campaign(s). People often process information emotionally rather than rationally and rely on methods for digesting information which are heavily influenced by context and the emotion that the information evokes (Kahneman, 2011). It could be hypothesised that, broadly speaking, the emotive, virile messaging from the Leave campaign(s) was more memorable and persuasive while the dense information from the Remain campaign was processed more effortfully and was ultimately ineffective because it was harder to recall and associate with. This effect was likely catalysed by confirmation bias, the tendency for people to seek information which supports their pre-existing views (Nickerson, 1998). Leave supporters, once enticed by the powerful, emotive messaging, were unlikely to give due consideration to evidence which counted against their view that the UK would be better off outside the EU.

The Leave campaign(s) also effectively deployed repetitive messaging. The phrase 'Take Back Control' and the claim that £350 million would be diverted back to the NHS were repeated incessantly. While the Remain campaign did consistently deploy the idea that the UK would be 'Stronger In' the EU, it was often lost among the more complex argumentation. The Leave campaign's messaging was likely more effective because the perceived validity of facts is increased when a message is repeated (Boehm, 1994). Even if facts aren't attended to, mere repeated exposure to a claim makes it appear more likeable (Zajonc, 1968).

Other key factors of the success of the Leave campaign(s) may have been the appeal to autonomy and the use of a strong narrative. Autonomy, an idea that Leave campaigners appealed to constantly through their claims of increased sovereignty and control, is identified as one of the most important sources of motivation (Pink, 2009) and appeared to motivate enough people to go to the polls when it mattered. The use of a strong narrative by the Leave campaign(s) was also effective - the idea that the UK would leave the EU painlessly and ceremoniously, regain control and have more money to spend domestically, was extremely potent. This may be because plausible stories have been shown to guide thought, direct evaluation and, importantly, determine credibility of information (Hastie & Pennington, 2000).

Regardless of the (eventual) material outcome of the referendum, it is hard to deny the effectiveness of the Leave campaign(s). Its success highlights the possibility than, through powerful stories and consistent campaign messaging, people can be persuaded to abandon the comfort of the status quo in pursuit of loftier ideals. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a wise collective decision.


Boehm, L. E. (1994). The validity effect: A search for mediating variables. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 285-293

Hastie, R., & Pennington, N. (2000). Explanation-based decision making. In T. Connolly, H. R. Arkes, & K. R. Hammond (Eds.), Judgment and decision making: An interdisciplinary reader (2nd ed., pp. 212–228)

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5, 193–206

Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175-220

Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(Supp. 2, Pt. 2)

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