I am not an expert in neuroscience or neuropsychology but, as a mediator who works extensively in conflict management, I am aware that very significant advances have taken place in recent years in understanding how our brains work and the impact of internal and external factors on our individual and collective decision-making. Might these have implications for how the referendum campaign is conducted and how we respond?
Whether or not Scotland should become independent may be viewed as an exercise in risk management. What are the specific advantages and disadvantages of each course of action? Can we assess pros and cons objectively? One might take the economic dimension and project forward on a number of different assumptions, always remembering that Black Swans lurk where we cannot see them and of which by definition we cannot take account. But our view of risk is itself often subjective and we can be inclined to over-estimation – 90 per cent of us, apparently, consider our driving to be above average. Some of us can be risk averse, preferring the status quo unless the advantages of change are demonstrable and significant. Possible marginal gains will not make a difference. Uncertainty will compound our resistance to change. Others can be over-optimistic, wired to assume that everything will work out, even if the odds and the evidence are obviously stacked against us. Human survival may depend on such optimistic attributes. But should that extend into our constitutional future?
Our opinions are formed by our experiences, beliefs, prejudices and assumptions. We often jump to conclusions and then look for evidence to affirm our view, distorting, ignoring or rejecting that which conflicts with our perceptions. The trouble is that, as the great lateral thinker
Edward de Bono reminds us, 90 per cent of errors of thinking are due to errors in our perception. There are many sides to each story. However, those who are good story-tellers can play to our natural tendency to look for reinforcing evidence, and to be influenced by what we are told, by ‘priming’ us to respond in a certain way, at certain times and in certain circumstances. If this sounds Machiavellian, ‘priming’ may occur unconsciously as myths become facts. Our seeing and hearing is necessarily selective. We can over-simplify and see or hear only what we want to. We may miss the gorilla in the room…
This, of course, could apply to the posing of a question. Thus, a question which tends to suggest an answer is known as a leading question. It may be argued that the question ‘Do you agree’ (with such and such a proposition) is a leading question - or at least that it is formulated to stimulate a certain response, to which we may be predisposed because of an earlier narrative. Compare: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country…’ with ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be a part of the United Kingdom…’. Or consider this formulation: ‘Do you disagree that….’? A single question might still be composed along the following entirely open lines:
‘What future do you wish for Scotland: (a) to be an independent country or (b) to be a part of the United Kingdom?’ (place a cross/‘Yes’ against your preference).
Alternatively: ‘Do you think that Scotland should be (a) an independent country or (b) a part of the United Kingdom?’ (place a cross, etc). Or ‘Which would you prefer for Scotland: (a) or (b)…..’ etc. These different formulations could be viewed as ‘framing’, which is a well-recognised technique to elicit particular responses. Selection of one word rather than another may well result in different responses: consider these options: ‘agree’/‘disagree’; ‘in’/‘out’; ‘keep’/‘lose’.
Or, from the examples of questions suggested above, ‘remain a part of ’ might be substituted for ‘be a part of ’. What does ‘be a part of ’ or ‘independent country’ actually mean?
As Sir Ian Byatt reminded us in his recent David Hume Institute annual lecture, we need to be aware of what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has described as ‘system one’ and ‘system two’ thinking. The former is our automatic, often unconscious, instinctive, emotional response to a situation, perhaps one of perceived danger. System one might be recognised in some group behaviour, where fear of appearing different can lead to rushed, lowest commondenominator, responses. The latter is our more controlled, rational, logically coherent self. It occurs when we hold our breath, pause, sit back and reflect on the evidence and consequences before we react. Each is essential to our survival, of course, but over reliance on system one, like over-optimism, may lead us to decisions that we regret in the cold light of day. When a narrative based more on emotion is played out to influence us, we may need to guard against having only a system one response.
Edward de Bono (again) proposed his system of six thinking hats to separate out the often conflicting and mixed-up processes of decision-making. Perhaps we need such discipline now? What are the real facts (white hat)? What are the options (green hat)? What are the pros of each (yellow hat)? What are the downsides (black hat)? What do we feel about it all (red hat)? And to manage this well, we need a blue hat process manager – maybe the independent research body of which much has been spoken recently.
All of this suggests that we may need to adopt a more considered approach to our analysis of future prospects, whatever ‘side’ we are on. In other words, we have much to gain if we are able to focus on, and indeed set out, our interests rather than our positions. Could each campaign do so, perhaps posing questions that they would ask others to address? In reality, we will all have much more in common than that which appears to set us apart. But a polarising campaign will reinforce prejudices and enmity. That is unlikely to be helpful in the long run, whatever the outcome and frustrations about the result. We will need to work – and live - together in the aftermath of the referendum.
If we take a more measured, thoughtful approach to the use of language, our behaviour and the gathering and explanation of various points of view, along with the arguments for and against courses of action, we could raise the game, be an example to others of how serious dialogue and debate can be conducted in the modern world, and prepare ourselves better for the future after 2014. Mutual respect and courtesy might yet be the key to success. Humility rather than hubris.
This assumes that we have the competence to conduct ourselves this way, of course, and that is where recent discoveries in the way we all think may be of great assistance. It also assumes that we are prepared to drop the masks we (and our leaders) wear to cover up our (and their) fears and vulnerabilities. It is a big ask - but our future may depend on it.