Politicos and pundits spend their lives try to predict what voters will do. Sometimes it seems like more effort is spent trying to slice and dice the electorate than to actually win people over. But often it’s actually easier to predict the behaviour of the politicians, advisers, and observers than to try and work out what might be going on in the minds of the voters who are only intermittently paying attention. After all, Westminster folk tend to be a lot more invested in the result: even the careers of supposed neutrals may still depend on their calls proving correct and their specialist subjects turning out to be important.
In just 29 days’ time, we will know the result of the 2015 election. After such a drawn-out parliament, that might feel extremely close. But psychologically, there’s a huge distance between how we feel now and how we’ll feel after all the votes are counted. Here are five predictions for 7 May that have nothing to do with how many seats are won, or who might try to form a coalition with whom.
It’ll all feel inevitable
It’s intellectually possible to imagine a 1992 Kinnock victory or William Hague beating Tony Blair in 2001. After the votes are counted in this election, we will still be able to say “what if”. But once an event is in the past, we submit to what psychologist Baruch Fischoff called “creeping determinism”: the tendency to think that because something happened, it was the only possible result. He demonstrated this phenomena by giving Israeli students a description of a British military campaign and asked them to estimate the odds on the British successfully completing their mission. Some students were told of the outcome, some were not. Those who were told that the British had been victorious thought this had always been the most likely outcome, while those who didn’t know the result thought that the British had a one in three chance at best.
The most devoted losers will become more fervent
In the 1950s, in a classic piece of psychological research, academics at the University of Minnesota observed a doomsday cult that predicted a Biblical flood on a specific day in December. When the flood and the alien overlords failed to arrive on time, some of the cult members moved on. But the most committed – the ones who had lost or quit their jobs for example – didn’t give up. Instead they decided that their acts of faith had averted the apocalypse, and so it was now even more important to go out and spread the word. Such responses aren’t confined to people with extreme beliefs: if you have experienced a major defeat for an ideology you are deeply committed too, one of the most reassuring things to do can be to press on and try to recruit more followers, in part to shore yourself up against painful self-doubt.
The losing side will decide that the odds were against them
Suppose your side wins fewer seats than you hoped. One way of unconsciously rationalising is, in the words of two Canadian psychologists, “getting what you want by revising what you had.” They illustrated this by giving some students a deliberately useless set of extra classes. The students believed they had made progress but when it got to the exams, their results were no better than before. To make their beliefs make sense, the students started to mis-remember how they had been doing before the extra classes and revise down their past marks. From that perspective, even standing still looked like progress. Safe to say, whichever side disappoints will be quick to flag up what difficult circumstances they started from, desperate to feel that there has been at least some progress over the last five years.
Britain will feel more divided than it really will be
Everyone has nuances and doubts to their political views, but we don’t share these feelings with those we regard as our opponents, especially during an election campaign. That means the other side often looks more extreme and more certain than they really are. In one study, pro-choice and pro-life participants were asked to give their own view on a series of potential cases and then to estimate the views of the average member of the opposing side. While obviously the two groups disagreed, they both significantly over-estimated the distance between their views. When the political heat subsides after the election, we may be surprised by how much our MPs, of all parties, actually agree on.
Politicians will struggle to keep their focus on the electorate
In 2010, Labour lost a painfully large number of votes and a considerable number of parliamentary seats. Yet the party’s leadership election focused much more on what policies the different candidates would implement in office than on a future general election campaign. On the other side, the Conservatives had humiliatingly failed to win the public’s trust despite the financial crash, expenses scandal and everything else. But their best brains immediately started focussing on how to manage a coalition and an increasingly assertive right, with relatively superficial thought being applied to the coming contest with Labour.
Politicisation is often thought to be synonymous with short-termism but this is not quite right. Building a coalition that can win a majority at a general election is a deeply political goal but it is just as long and painstaking a task as sorting out an economy or turning around a public service. Just like savers or dieters, politicians must delay the gratification of a quick headline, an easier meeting with a backbencher or a bigger round of applause at a party conference. Behavioural economics is obsessed with “nudges” that can help people to stick to their long term goals. Spend some time with politicians and you come to realise, they are in need of these nudges just as much as voters, perhaps even more.