“Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?”

By Professor Andrew M. Colman, School of Psychology

Psychologist Andrew Colman questions the poor wording of the Scottish independence referendum ballot paper.

In the last few days before the Scottish independence referendum, opinion polls suggest that the outcome is too close to call. The result may not be as close as the polls suggest, because a “shy unionist” effect may be distorting the results. Some voters may consider it unpatriotic to admit out loud that they are against independence but may be more willing to express their true beliefs in the privacy of a polling booth. But last-minute events could easily push the outcome one way or the other.

A bad day for Cameron is a good day for Salmond. Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Scottish independence would hand a huge electoral advantage to the Conservatives. There are over 30 Labour MPs and only one Tory MP in Scotland — fewer Tory MPs than pandas in Scotland, as someone pointed out. Labour would lose all those safe seats in Westminster. Nevertheless, David Cameron clearly wants to keep the union together. In my opinion, he made a big mistake in agreeing to the wording on the ballot paper: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Research in psychometrics has found a persistent bias in favour of Yes in responses to Yes/No questions. This is called acquiescence response set. People prefer to say “Yes we can” than “No we can’t”. The Scottish National Party used “Yes We Can” in the UK general election in 1997, long before Barack Obama adopted it in his presidential campaign in 2008.

The most natural question would have been: “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?” Acquiescence would then have worked in favour of the union. If Scotland votes Yes by a narrow margin on Thursday, then the result may well have been different if this wording had been used. Any psychologist with a knowledge of psychometrics could have pointed this out when the referendum was being planned.

Why do people tend to prefer Yes to No? It seems to be part of a more general tendency to prefer positive to negative words. The US psychologist Charles Osgood discovered this in 1964, and there is now a vast amount of evidence for it. In large samples of written language that have been examined, positive words such as “good” and “love” appear almost 10 times as frequently as negative words like “bad” and “hate”, and “yes” appears far more frequently than “no”. This is called the Pollyanna effect, after Pollyanna Whittier, the girl who always looked on the bright side of things in the popular novels Pollyanna (1913) and Pollyanna Grows Up (1915) by the US writer Eleanor H. Porter.



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