Independence: Language of pleasure and pain

Thistle image for Quietroom blog

Pleasure and pain are strong motivators. When you want someone to agree with you, or support you, or buy something from you, an important thing to think about is this: is your proposal a move away from pain, or a move towards pleasure?

For example, life insurance policies promise to pay a lump sum if you die during the term of the policy, often designed to pay off your mortgage. But it’s not the lump sum that you buy it for. It’s the fact that you won’t need to worry about your family losing their home if you die. So this decision is a move away from pain. At Quietroom, we take this into account when we help insurers position their products.

If you ditch your perfectly serviceable runabout for a sports car, it’s not because you’re solving a problem. It’s because you think the sports car is a thing of beauty. It will give you pleasure. Car dealers know this, and emphasise the pleasure accordingly.

Some decisions can be a bit of both – towards pleasure and away from pain. You might buy bread because you’re hungry (avoiding pain) and because you love bread (towards pleasure).

The arguments around the Scottish referendum boiled down to pleasure and pain.

The No campaign declared that breaking from the UK would be a huge loss for Scotland, causing untold problems. OK, they tacked on some positive messages about the history and achievements of the UK, but the core message was that people should vote No to avoid pain.

The Yes campaign focused on positive images of a brighter future for Scotland. There was some talk of the problems of a united UK leaving the EU, and of the shackles of Westminster rule. But the core message was that people should vote Yes to move towards pleasure.

So what difference did that make to the outcome?

Possibly quite a lot. That’s because behavioural theory shows that loss, or the prospect of loss, has a much larger emotional impact than gain. Daniel Kahnemann won a Nobel Prize for pointing this out. He called it ‘prospect theory’. Some studies have suggested that people put up to twice as much value on losses as they do on gains. It’s irrational, but it’s human.

In deciding which way to vote, it’s likely that Scots irrationally put more value on the idea of losing the good things about the union than on the idea of gaining good things from independence.

In one respect, you might think that the No campaign had a tougher psychological battle because they had, by definition, a negative message. In fact, prospect theory tells us that it was tougher for the Yes campaign, because they were trying to trump pain with pleasure. The power of loss aversion in the human mind could well have been one of the key factors in the win for ‘No’.