It’s been a remarkable week in opinion polling, with YouGov calling the independence referendum for No on Sunday, Panelbase calling it for Yes on Monday, and TNS-BMRB, according to Prof John Curtice, calling it for Don’t Know by Wednesday.
When you look at those results more carefully it becomes apparent that only the initial YouGov poll holds good news for the No camp, and the reason for this comes down to the psychology of change.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist that identified the ‘Five Stages of Grief’, a process by which people cope with tragedy and mourning. Her model was later adapted and correlated to how humans deal with change, becoming known as the emotional change curve.
Kübler-Ross stated that any change initially meets with shock; a sort of knee-jerk reaction to impending change, which is then followed by resistance as people look to defend what they already have and are familiar with – it’s just human nature to be cautious of change.
However, over time eventually the prospect of change becomes ‘normalised’ and the person begins to question their standpoint in light of the new information. If that new information can cause doubts in a person’s view of the current system, they’ll be more receptive to changes to fix that problem.
This is why a swing to ‘undecided’ is so important right now. These people are not yet Yes voters, but they have begun to question the status quo, and in so doing, are on their way to accepting that there are other solutions to the issues they face.
Once a person has accepted that there’s need for change and an available alternative, they begin to examine the options and weigh up their response. This can still be a return to the status quo, but nevertheless is the route by which people are moved from No, to undecided, to Yes. The key is getting the process started in the first place – and for that we have to thank the “Better Together” campaign.
Terror is the main weapon of the anti-independence alliance, acknowledged by its own internal naming as “Project Fear”. It’s an enterprise devoid of hope and alternatives, which trumpets that the ‘status quo’ of today is as good as it gets – mainly because what’s on offer tomorrow isn’t the status quo, but something measurably worse.
“Better Together” depicts each and every aspect of independence as negative, full of danger and impossible to achieve. The campaign is desperate to instil fear into the public over independence, ironically to reflect its own fear. (Because the briefest glance at those driving the campaign shows a group of people with a very great deal to lose personally – mostly those currently occupying Scottish seats at Westminster.)
The conflict between the forces of change and stasis was described by Kurt Lewin in 1951 in his famous “force field analysis” concept, which looked at the psychology of change and how progressive forces are cancelled out by restraining forces until the equilibrium holding them in place is altered.
Force field analysis is a diagnostic technique which has been applied to ways of looking at the variables involved in determining whether organisational change will occur. It’s based on the concept of ‘forces’, a term which refers to the perceptions of people about a particular factor of change and its influence.
The theory says that when the driving forces are less than or equal to the resisting forces then the desired change will not happen. If you want change, you need to alter the balance of forces restraining it.
In the independence referendum the driving forces are concepts such as better democratic accountability (getting the government we vote for, not the one England chooses), a fairer society (controlling welfare) and positive choices (spending money on public services rather than weapons against an imagined threat).
The restraining forces, on the other hand, are ‘fears’ – being poor, being isolated, being vulnerable to attack. The system Lewin devised shows that in order to facilitate change, you first have to remove the restraining forces holding that change back in order to allow people to accept the new proposed scenario.
Each question answered is less force to overcome for change, and although it’s never possible to answer every question (because you can’t predict the future with certainty), you only need to answer enough to move the equilibrium.
Simply dismissing the fears as absurd or scaremongering doesn’t have the desired effect, because it provides no comforting information to the voter fearful of change. Instead, the fear has to be explored and addressed to show that it’s not real. This was backed up in recent polling showing that the more people feel informed about independence the more likely they are to vote Yes.
It is for this reason that Yes Scotland should be thanking its counterparts for their efforts to date, as without them the public would not have been exposed to the stream of reasoned and logical rebuttals put forward by Yes campaigners, mainly in online media. Only by confronting and debunking each fear can the equilibrium be moved.
Lewin formulated three fundamental assertions about force fields and change:
(1) Increasing the driving forces causes an increase in the resisting forces; the current equilibrium doesn’t change but is maintained under increased tension.
For some people you can point out positives until you’re blue in the face, but if their fear still eclipses the force of your positive argument you don’t move the equilibrium, just make it more strained.
(2) Reducing resisting forces is preferable because it allows movement towards the desired state, without increasing tension.
Explaining the issue, exploring options and likely outcomes, and offering solutions can all help alleviate the fear and make the person more receptive to other benefits. This task has fallen largely to online sites because – quite aside from any bias towards Unionism – the traditional media believes that scare stories sell more newspapers.
(3) Group norms are an important force in shaping organisational change.
This can also be called the “shyness factor”, where a person is unwilling to go against the group for fear of being criticised. Humans are social animals and desire to be accepted. Showing them they aren’t alone can remove the resistance.
Group norms are vital to overcome if you wish to effect change – it’s easier to go with the crowd than stand out and be different. This is why the grassroots nature of the Yes campaign is important – it provides environments where voting Yes is the norm, stigma is removed and people can voice their opinions openly.
Clearly therefore, it could be argued that without the No campaign’s endless prophecies of doom, the Yes movement would struggle to gain traction.
But why would a pro-independence site like this one give away the secret? Because we’re sure “Better Together” knows it already. But just as Labour in Scotland keep battering away at a proven failure of an anti-SNP strategy (oppose everything reflexively regardless of its individual merit, smear and belittle Alex Salmond and his party at every turn), the No camp simply doesn’t have anything else in its arsenal.