Discounting an Independent Scotland

In one year, Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country. The campaigns for both the Yes and No votes are getting into full swing. Crucial to reaching the right target audience is understanding the profile of voters for each side. Studies like the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey allow people’s voting preferences to be analysed alongside a wealth of other information about them, to see if any trends emerge.

What Scotland thinks

So which sections of the population are more likely to vote Yes? First up, there’s a well-established trend for younger people to be more likely to support independence. Critics argue that the SNP are exploiting this by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. Another finding from various polls is ‘the Braveheart effect’ –  men are more likely to support independence than women. And those in working class occupations are more likely to support independence than their middle class compatriots.

It’s easy to construct reasons why each group of people might be more inclined to vote Yes. But could there be a common, underlying factor that unites these seemingly disparate groups? One theory states that it is the consequences of independence that are foremost in people’s minds – a hard-headed analysis of the likely economic changes under independence, rather than an ideological attachment to either independence or the union. A telling survey question ‘would you vote for independence if you would be £500 per year better off?’ finds that a majority would do so.

Delayed gratification

Such a commercial offer is reminiscent of a psychology experiment that explores how people think about the future. It asks a series of questions on whether you would prefer to get, for example:

£10 today

Or

£20 in a month’s time.

Preferences vary widely from strongly preferring the immediate reward, to always holding out for the bigger payout. In the jargon, the trait is known as future discounting: if you take the money and run, you have a steep discounting rate, whereas if you delay your gratification, you have a shallow discounting rate. The idea is that the more you think about the long term, the further away are your time horizons and the more importance you assign to future outcomes. Conversely, if you are more present-oriented, you discount the future and value present resources more highly.

To the extent that future discounting can be applied to the independence debate, it might be used to assess the accusations on both sides of not thinking through the long-term consequences of a Yes or No vote. The evidence on future discounting suggests a controversial conclusion – those groups more likely to vote for independence are the same groups that discount the future more steeply.

Living for today

Men on average prefer immediate rewards to a greater extent than women. This has been linked to sex differences in competitive behaviour, and the general tendency for men to be more likely to ‘live fast and die young’. Similarly, younger people show more short-term thinking in future discounting experiments. One study found the opposite, however. But evidence on impulsivity seems to suggest that younger people favour immediate returns while disregarding the consequences – the majority of crimes are committed by young males.

Those in lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups also show a steep rate of future discounting. Groups with more education or a professional occupation have a more future-oriented time perspective. Another study found that people who grew up in poverty react to mortality risk by valuing the present and discounting the future more.

All of the above doesn’t necessarily mean that those people who say they’ll vote yes have steeper future discounting rates. It would be extremely easy to test this though, simply by inserting a future discounting test on one of the numerous surveys on independence. And even if this returned a positive result, it doesn’t mean that their decision to vote yes is a result of their steeper rate of future discounting. If it is though, it could be a rational response to having less to lose and more to gain in a shake-up of the economy, as younger people and those in lower SES groups do.

The interest of all this to the Yes and No camps would be little more than academic, if it simply spells out who will vote for each side next September. But if it could be used to influence people’s voting preference…

Nudge, nudge

Recent research in the field has gone from looking at how individuals differ in their preference, to actually trying to change it. This usually takes the form of showing relevant cues to participants, and seeing what effect this has on their discount preference.

For instance, even just being shown pictures of poverty leads to favouring the immediate reward in a classic discounting experiment. Our adaptive response to a lack of resources is also triggered by physical shortage – having a low-calorie drink with artificial sweeteners primes us to take the ‘smaller but sooner’ reward. In contrast, having a sugary drink actually decreases our rate of future discounting. The more food there seems to be in the environment, the more we can plan for the long term without worrying where our next meal is coming from. Men are susceptible to another cue – pictures of attractive women.

Independence polling itself has found evidence of an analogous ‘priming’ effect. Asking Scots first whether they think that the Scottish Parliament does a good job (which the majority do), and then asking whether they support independence, increases the proportion who say yes.

From theory to practice

So could the insights on future discounting be used to prime people to be more likely to vote for one side? Again, a study could use established cues to induce a discounting bias, and then ask participants for their opinion on independence. The campaigns would be advised to make use of appropriate cues to elicit their desired bias. This would create an implicit meaning in campaign materials and communications that reinforces their explicit message.

A tendency to discount the future may be the common factor that unites the sections of the population who are more inclined to vote Yes. But to the extent that future discounting is malleable, attitudes towards independence could be influenced. Given that more than one million voters are undecided, the opportunity is there.

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