Anton Savage: Want to win a referendum vote? It's the principles, stupid

The government could learn a lot from a set of principles contained in one influential book.

8th Mar 2024
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Originally published in the Business Post.

Referendum campaigns are meant to persuade people, not confuse them, as the family and carers campaigns did.

The reason for the confusion, we are told, is because the constitution is a profound document, with wide-ranging and non-linear impacts and these provisions are not simple matters. This is, of course, guff.

Donald Trump managed to convince some of the least-bright voters in America that Nato members should increase the amount they spend on national defence.

Most of the people who now hold this view don’t know what Nato stands for, who is in it, why it started, or how it is funded.

But they are damn sure somebody should be paying someone more for something.

Persuasion is not difficult. In fact, there’s a roadmap – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B Cialdini, which was described by the late Charlie Munger (of Warren Buffet/Berkshire Hathaway fame) as “the book I give most often as a present and my top recommendation”.

Cialdini is a professor of psychology whose principles are useful for everyone, and vital for those running major referendum campaigns.

The first is reciprocity. This says that we are more likely to do something for someone if they first do something for us, even if we don’t like them and didn’t ask them for anything.

Admittedly it’s hard to apply this in referendums unless you hand gifts to each voter, but there is a subset of reciprocity that could have been used – the ‘rejection-then-retreat’ technique.

This counter-intuitive approach works thus. You ask for something you know you haven’t a prayer of getting.

“Hey boss, can I have a 35 per cent raise and eight weeks paid leave?” When that’s refused, you ask for what you originally wanted. “Okay, how about next Tuesday off?”

You are far more likely to get what you want if your first request has been refused.

In a referendum this means telling voters “we wanted to ask for X, Y, and Z, but we were told it wouldn’t pass, so we reduced it to what’s currently on the ballot”.

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