How is behavioural science being used in propaganda to influence your ability to estimate accurately?
What do the number of calories in an apple have to do with how long an independent Scotland would take to join the EU? – it all depends how you ask the question!
- I am biased.
- You are biased.
- We all are biased.
In many ways we’re simple creatures. We’ve not evolved to be completely evidence-led and rational. We’ve evolved to take short-cuts based on incomplete information. Our ancestors who presumed that twig breaking ‘snap!’ was a predator were more likely to survive; more likely to become ‘ancestors’ instead of Darwin awards… or dinner!
We all have cognitive biases; shortcuts to thinking, and whether it’s to sell you toothpaste or influence your vote propagandists are experts at using behavioural science to influence us based on them.
The bias of anchoring is essentially this;
“When humans are asked to estimate a number, they are influenced by numbers they have recently been exposed to.”
This has been shown in thousands of experiments, in thousands of scenarios. The impact is real; even when the initial number might not even be related to the question.
Ahead of the lecture, people were asked to estimate the number of calories in an apple.
However, before estimating, they were anchored.
Half group were asked first
“Does an apple have more or fewer than 50 calories?”
The second half of the audience were first asked;
“Does an apple have more or fewer than 150 calories?”
Then both groups were asked to estimate the calories.
- The first group, anchored at 50, estimated the average calories as 74.
- The second group anchored at 150 estimated the average calories in an apple to be 117.
With slight variation, this happens every time. People anchored with the lower number give lower estimates and vice versa.
Why does this happen?
Anchoring has been described as “easy to show, but hard to explain”.
One theory is ‘anchoring-as-adjustment’
When we estimate, we pick from a ‘range’ of answers that we think ‘feel reasonable’. How accurate and how wide that range is will depend on the individual.
What happens is this: When you anchor people with 50 calories, they might realise that’s too low, but start at 50 and count up until they get to a number they think is reasonable; …which is at the bottom of their estimated range.
When you anchor people at 150 calories, they start with that number in mind and drop down until they get to a number they think is reasonable; …which is at the top of their estimated range.
You can read more about the effect here. There’s more to it: a number may not even need to be relevant to the question to influence you. The anchoring can influence you even if the anchor is within a ‘reasonable estimate’, and it can have an effect even when you are told it is an anchor and to adjust for it!
Its a very powerful subconscious manipulation …which brings me to Finland.
In the Herald Newspaper a piece was published on Friday 11th February 2022 that used this propaganda technique.
I’ve written in great detail about Scotland’s EU application issue before here. ( TL;DR Most countries take over 10 years to join, and the Scottish Government’s internal analysis says the best comparison is Montenegro’s 19+ years )
“It might be worthwhile looking more at Montenegro’s accession. It declared independence from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. In 2008, the“Routes draft [redacted] – Scottish government analysis of routes to EU membership, released on this for request
new country applied for EU membership and negotiations were opened in June 2012. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sent a “Letter of Intent” to the President of the European Parliament and to the chairperson of the Council of the EU in September 2017 announcing that the European Commission plans to create the Strategy for the successful accession of Serbia and Montenegro to the European Union by the end of next (2018) year, with a perspective of accession to the EU in 2025. [REDACTED]
This article answers none of the legitimate questions. Glaringly it glosses over how we could establish a track record in Monetary policy while not committing to what currency we would use, or when we would use it …but then the purpose of this article is not to inform you.
The primary purpose of the article is as an anchor, to manipulate you into severely underestimating how long EU membership will take;
In the opening paragraphs the ‘Finnish Anchor’ is dropped.
“The record for joining the EU is held by Finland, which took two years and nine months from its application to its accession to the EU as a member.
Scotland has the advantage over Finland that it has applied the EU’s rules for nearly 50 years. In that sense, it would be the best qualified applicant the EU has ever had.”
Its a stretch to see how Scotland could be at an advantage over Finland:
When Finland joined the EU it was an established independent country with its own currency & decades of track record in monetary and fiscal policies. It was a member of EFTA, and joined the EU in the mid 1990’s before the rules or process that are currently applied existed.
None of these advantages would apply to an independent Scotland applying to join some 4 decades later.
Yet Finland, the only example given, anchors the figure into the reader’s mind of ‘two years and nine months,’ at the start of the article.
Just like the half of the audience counting up from 50 calories, you have now been psychologically manipulated to severely under-estimate the actual timescale.
Thinking of the apple experiment, we could frame this EU question the same way with real data; and psychology predicts the result we would get.
(If anyone wants to run this as a yougov poll, any behavioural psychologist will bet good money on predicting the outcome!)
Q1. “Finland took two years and nine months to join the EU. Do you think Scotland’s membership would be faster or slower?”
“How many years would it take Scotland to join the EU?’
Q1. “Montenegro* is taking over 19 years to join the EU. Do you think Scotland’s membership would be faster or slower?”
“How many years would it take Scotland to join the EU?’
*I chose Montenegro as the counter example not just because of the length, but because the SNP’s own feasibility study says the closest comparison for an independent Scotland would be Montenegro; which will still be stuck outside the EU 19 years after independence. What we can’t easily put into this estimate are the many other similar regions, from Macedonia to Kosovo, which may take longer; or may never gain membership at all.
What does this tell us?
Can this actually tell us anything about how long an independent Scotland would take to gain EU membership, or about how many calories an apple has?
The average calories in an apple are 951– so roughly in the middle of the two anchored estimates.
The average time taken to become an EU member state is around a decade2: not counting the states that fail.
Behavioural science tells us people anchored with a lower number consistently make significantly low estimates, so many people who have read this article will, by design, significantly under-estimate the question in the title.
So how long would membership take?(if it ever happened)
As I’ve outlined here: among other things we would need around a 4 year track record in price stability and good governance of monetary policy, which we could only start building after a new currency had launched, floated, and stabalised. We know that independence would only happen after an extended period of negotiations that would make brexit seem like a bun fight, and that the SNP currency plan is to be Sterlingised for an undetermined period until their ‘6 economic criteria’ for launching a currency are met.
So the formula for an estimate might be;
Vote for independence then;
+ Exit negotiations completed
+ Transitional period to create, set up and launch institutional infrastructure.
+ Stabilisation after independence.
+ Open ended period of Sterlingisation until 6 economic tests met.
+Currency reserves built
+ Pegged currency launch
+ New currency floated
+ Monetary Policy & price stability established
+ Build ~4 years track record with no economic shocks.
This just to close one of the 35 Acquis chapters. This is all well established, the article teaches us nothing new there.
Taking ‘back-bearings’ from the propaganda however it tells us;
- The pro-independence lobby wants to minimize the EU membership timescale in voters minds.
- Its prepared to use PsyOps propaganda manipulation techniques to do so.
- They don’t want voters to be genuinely informed about the ScotGov’s own analysis which says our closet pathfinder in Montenegro .
- The difficulties of EU membership are identified by the areas they simply refuse to discuss; like chapter 17 on monetary policy.
This is not evidence of a strong or confident case. Their house of cards is built on assertions that would not survive first scrutiny and may simply be designed to shore up vague remain sentiment ahead of the local elections.
A note on the author of the Herald article; Graham Avery.
Graham is being put forward as an ‘EU’ expert, on the basis of having worked in the EU. It’s hard to explain his track record through competence which may suggest bias of his own;
His appeal to ethos in the article claims that he ‘knows what he is talking about’, having been part of the UK entry team 50 years ago.
His more recent track record, especially with regard to Scotland, is less impressive.
In 2013 he claimed that with independence we would retain earned EU citizenship rights, and Scotland would stay in the EU via article 48 completing minor negotiations in the 18 months between a vote and the date of independence.
The European commission directly said the opposite on both counts – in fact they made it a matter of public record that he was 100% wrong on both counts in their written submission to the Scottish parliament.
In 2016, Graham Avery claimed in articles that even after the Brexit vote “Scotland’s chances of remaining in the EU are good”.
This was not, and is not the case.
Now In 2022 he claims it’s obvious we could quickly meet the EU entry criteria including on Monetary policy while saying we might keep using the pound through Sterlingisation.
This is literally impossible.
In 2013, 2016 & 2022- He’s simply been proven wrong at every turn.
- Harvard estimate for one medium apple. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/apples/
- The entire process, from application for membership to membership has typically taken about a decade, although some countries, notably Sweden, Finland, and Austria have been faster, taking only a few years. The process from application for association agreement through accession has taken far longer, as much as several decades (Turkey for example first applied for association in the 1950s and has yet to conclude accession negotiations).