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posted on 3rd May 2022 by Isabel  Doraisamy

With the local elections this week, one might be forgiven for growing tired of brightly-coloured leaflets passing through our mailboxes each week, and doorknockers interrupting our evening Netflix binges. For many, our minds are already made up. The majority of us are used to voting for the party we always have done, giving little critical thought as to why.

The truth is, the majority of the British people don’t trust politicians or journalists to give us an honest picture of Britain’s socio-political life. Two thirds (66%) of people think Britain’s current politicians and journalists increase the level of political division in the country.

So, what causes us to feel so confident in our (somewhat unconscious) voting decisions, given that we are sceptical of leaders and the reliability of the media? And more importantly, how can we be more rational in the run up to polling day on May 5th?
  

  1. Social Identity

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to voting rationally sees us up against our peers. In psychology, Social Identity Theory describes how people are highly motivated to perceive a group to which they belong as socially or morally superior to another to which they don’t.

At school, if we didn’t find ourselves in the ‘cool’ group, we may have rationalised our belonging to another by thinking ours was ‘smarter’ or ‘more genuine’. In adult life this can take many forms, including seeing your borough as better than another, or the political party you identify with as more in touch. This positive social comparison feeds our individual self-esteem and sense of belonging, making it a powerful force.

Applied to politics, belonging to a certain political side (i.e., left or right wing) becomes intrinsically linked to social identities. It is much more common than not for people to be friends with and in relationships with their political comrades. This then begs the question: Are we voting for a candidate based on genuine alignment with their party’s current policies? Or are we doing so because we feel that our membership to a social group is dependent on us holding a corresponding political opinion?

Remember the phrase, ‘It’s hard to stand up to your enemies, but even harder to stand up to your friends’? Social Identity Theory would agree.
  

  1. Negative Bias

People’s judgements are significantly influenced by readily-available, negative information. Negative Bias describes how we have an unconscious preference for remembering information which evokes negative emotions and can subsequently dominate our decision-making. The amygdala, or the “alarm bell” of the brain, is responsible for this, spending the majority of its time and neurons being alert to bad news – an ‘evolutionary hand-me-down from our cave-dwelling ancestors apparently.

This effect is particularly salient in the lead-up to elections when politicians focus on attacking their opponents just as much as (if not more) than they do stating their election promises. In doing so, they – consciously or not – target voters’ vulnerability to Negative Bias, effectively making people more motivated in response by what they don’t want (i.e., to be aligned with the criticised party), rather than what they do (to support particular policies).
  

  1. Media Bias

We all know that people’s loyalty to certain media outlets is often formed by that outlet’s sympathy with a political side. Most Britons would feel confident guessing a stranger on the tube’s party allegiance based on whether they were scrolling through The Guardian or The Times app on their way to work.

However, not only can this bias impact our choice to engage with a media outlet, but for some readers/viewers who may be more on the fence politically, engaging with certain outlets can be very influential. For example, a US study on Fox News reported that between 1996-2000 they convinced 3-8% of their viewers to vote Republican in presidential elections. This is often the result of biased retelling of political anecdotes or preferential airtime to politicians on a certain side.

Reporting of pre-election polling can also increase people’s likelihood to vote for a party seen to be ahead. A 2019 study revealed that showing people a single poll can increase support for the party seen to be leading by 20%. Furthermore, in another version whereby participants were actually told they were receiving a biased snapshot of a certain party, that party still garnered more support.

Social Influence (seeing what others are doing or thinking) can therefore convince us even when we’re aware of bias. This shows us just how powerful a process it can be, and that media slant matters; When the media cherry-picks which polls to show based on pandering to their audience or showing an interesting result, they are impacting voter rationality.

And this is all before we get onto the ever-present echo chamber effect of social media too.

  

So, how do we work against these powerful influences to pursue more rational voting decisions?
  

1. Read manifestos

The only way to wade through the bias brought forth by politicians, journalists and social media is to seek out the facts by actually reading candidates’ manifestos – and talking to those doorknockers! In doing this, people have the opportunity to reflect individually, without their social group’s influence.
  

2. Read ‘The Centre Holds’

Global Future’s latest report shows just how much more united the British people are than we think on a range of socio-political issues. When 80% of Britons believe that it is important to be aware of and attentive to issues of racial inequality and social justice, how useful is it for us to keep drawing social comparisons based on our relative morality? If we can see ourselves as less ideologically divided, we can hopefully reduce the tribal motivations affecting our voting behaviours.
  

3. Diversify your sources

Talk to different people about the issues and engage with news outlets you may not have before. (Ask your mum for forgiveness and consider dating someone who votes differently to your parents). It is not enough to simply follow people with different opinions on social media and studies have actually shown that this can increase negative opinions, further cementing political loyalties.

Finally, stay agile. Even though we may recognise the obstacles, we must actively work against the seductive influence of agreeing with our friends and reacting to emotive, moralistic and incomplete narratives of some politicians and media outlets. These only distract us from seeing the complete picture and from casting an honest, rational vote.

 

Isabel Doraisamy is a psychological researcher at the Global Future think tank. She studied psychology at The Australian National University and is concerned with how social psychology intersects with health (mental and physical) and informs our understanding of current issues.

posted on 10th March 2022

An important piece of our British history illustrated so beautifully by Global Future, this book honours the lives of the ‘silent generation’ of African, Caribbean and Asian migrant pioneers. It features interviews with Russell Henderson, co-founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, Yvonne Bailey-Smith, mother of novelist Zadie Smith, playwright Mustapha Matura, film director Horace Ové and Deloris Smith, mother of singer Beverley Knight.

Starting in the late 1950s, England experienced an unparalleled wave of migration from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Seventy years on England Our England captures the experiences of this generation and their families in vivid, evocative and striking photography, much of it published for the first time, and in first-hand accounts from the people themselves. The book pays respect and homage to those who made extraordinary sacrifices, coping with, until now, challenges that were often invisible. It provides a fascinating social history and an evocative record of both the migrant experience and of the lives established here.

As children of first-generation migrants, Gurnek, Kylie and Bryony felt compelled to put these stories to paper to hand down to our children and the generations that follow. It was a labour of love and we applaud them for doing so. You can order a  copy from  amzn.to/33mZiEN as well as email us with your thoughts at gurnek.bains@globalfuturepartners.com

Update: The England Our England book is now sold alongside the important and seminal (must-see!) Life Between Islands exhibition of Caribbean British art 1950’s – now, at the Tate Britain until 03-Apr 2022.

posted on 7th December 2021 by Annelise Maynard

From the Insulate Britain campaigners blocking the M25 to the protesters chanting No more bla bla bla’ from the perimeters of COP26 and the arrests of XR protesters spraying paint at officers in Glasgow, stories of activism seemed to dominate the press more than the outcomes agreed at the recent global environment summit itself. But just how effective is direct action? And why is it so unpopular?

Despite the fact that almost all of us accept man-made climate change, and our latest report shows that over 78% of people report some degree of ‘eco-anxiety’, direct action remains devastatingly unpopular, with over half of people(52%)believing that action such as blocking major roads actually has a negative impact on provoking climate action. Even members of the government are outwardly critical of direct action. Boris Johnson has previously labelled Extinction Rebellion ‘uncooperative crusties’ despite his recent attempts at appearing environmentally motivated.

What’s interesting however, is that direct action may be more effective than we think. As ever in psychology, we don’t have to be conscious of the impact of something for it to have an effect. There are three possible reasons for this.

First, direct action cuts through and grabs public attention. Even if all we feel towards climate activism is irritation, we have at least had an emotional response to it, when many other more ‘sensible’ news reports about the environment pass us by.

This cut through is essential, because unlike other current and historical social issues, humanity’s response to the climate emergency is uniquely time sensitive.

Mankind finds it difficult to comprehend long-term risks. We are neurologically wired to prioritise more immediate and tangible problems, and therefore the language surrounding climate change, proposing distant dates like 2050, does not suggest a sense of immediacy to the human brain.

For this reason, direct action is necessary; if we want to break cognitive cycles and bring meaningful change, we need disruption that causes people to question entrenched habits and lifestyle choices.

Second, direct action can help shift the ‘Overton Window’ – the scale of action that is considered acceptable by the mainstream. Activists like those in XR or Insulate Britain are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, but in doing so they often make more mainstream groups like the Green Party look more reasonable in comparison.

By acting as ‘outriders’ in the debate, green campaigners who work through more mainstream channels can seem more moderate and acceptable to the general public.

This is a pattern of social change that has happened throughout history. Ideas that were radical in their time, like granting women the right to work or vote or ending racial segregation, are now accepted. The Suffragettes were considered nuisances by many during the early 20th century; in the modern day they are hailed as heroes and freedom fighters as the Overton Window has shifted. Climate change protests seem to be heading in a similar direction.

Finally, direct action may be more effective than we think because of ‘The Availability Heuristic’. Simply put, this describes the mental short cuts we make based on emotional triggers or familiar facts that are easily accessible to us. So, for example, you may sneer at environmental activists on the news, but once you switch the TV off, you might be slightly more likely to remember that it’s time for you to take the recycling out or order that new lower energy lightbulb before you go to bed.

Whilst direct action is unpopular amongst the general public, it catapults climate issues into the collective, national and global consciousness. The government may not be making significant progress on the climate crisis, but there is reason for some positivity in recognising that our psychological behaviours are advancing further than we may think.

So next time you’re getting annoyed reading about direct action in the news on your early morning commute to work, remember that it could be having more of an impact than you think…even on you.


Annelise Maynard is a Global Future Intern currently on her gap year before studying Liberal Arts at The University of Leeds. She studied English Literature, Fine Art and RS at A-level and enjoyed how the humanities connected to provide broader global perspectives. She views The Arts as a means of reflecting histories, shifts in social perceptions and miscarriages of justice. Taking an interdisciplinary outlook on society, literature and art, Annelise hopes to share her passion for social justice and encourage others to stand up for what they believe in too.

 

Photo credit: Insulate Britain photo by JamieLowe68 (cc)