Question: What is the most striking lesson from the Brexit referendum campaigns in the UK?
Answer: Facts don’t change minds.
There are plenty of facts around. Many people have claimed that there aren’t any, but as Professor Michael Dougan argues: “there is an enormous amount of objective, detailed, hard, scientifically-tested evidence about the impact of EU membership on the UK.” (See his interesting video talk on myths in the debate – this quote is at about 7:15 minutes in.)
There are, alas, plenty of untrue facts around as well.
However, even if we just looked at the real facts, they wouldn’t change minds. In truth, we’re completely in the thrall of confirmation bias. We nod vigorously at the facts that support our argument, and simply ignore the rest.
That leads us on to question 2: How CAN you change someone’s mind, if not with facts?
Answer: Make them feel part of your group by pointing out shared interests, shared values and a common threat.
There have been two major trends from the recent polling and betting data since campaigning began in earnest. The first is a gradual swing towards Brexit. This appears to result from Vote Leave’s decision to focus on immigration issues rather than economic ones. The second was a short sharp reversal after the abhorrent murder of Jo Cox, as many of us reflected on who we British are and what we have become.
Correlation is not causation, but these two trends strongly suggest that we change our minds when we sense that we have shared values and that our ‘tribe’ is under threat.
Our sense of what our tribe is may shift, depending on the threat. We are North Londoners, and South Londoners are the enemy. We are townies, and those country-types are the enemy. We are English, and the Scots are the enemy. We are British, and Europe is the enemy. We are humans, and mosquitos are the enemy.
So in a referendum like this, the key thing is to be clear about who the tribe is, what the shared values are, and what the threat is. It absolutely doesn’t have to be negative. The threat doesn’t have to be the other side.
Sixty years ago, a pro-Europe campaign might have pointed to the threat of war, and the opportunity to prevent conflict among countries which have warred for centuries.
Twenty-five years ago, a pro-Europe campaign might have pointed to the threat of Russia, and the opportunity to bring social democracy to a dozen ex-communist countries emerging from Russian influence.
In this campaign, perhaps, it could have argued that the real threat comes from the future. The emerging global economic forces care little about our European heritage and outlook. We Europeans need to defend and extend our way of life. Specifically, that could include our deep commitment to employment protection, to consumer protection, to environmental protection, to scientific research, to the arts, to tolerance, to cooperation, to peace.
Maybe that would work better. Who knows? But facts – no, facts don’t change people minds.
The lesson for those of us in business? The best way to persuade people of our argument is not with a long list of facts. Instead, get people on board by building a sense of shared identity with strong overlapping values and by focusing on some external threat.