Five mistakes we all* make when talking about voters

Linda is a 24 year-old teacher living in London. She is involved in campaigning against tuition fees, attending marches, signing petitions etc. She has always disliked the Conservatives and says she would never vote for them and she thinks Nick Clegg is basically a Tory. Here are some possible descriptions of how Linda voted yesterday – take a second and try to rank them from most likely to the least likely.

A) Linda voted UKIP

B) Linda voted Lib Dem in these local and European elections but plans to vote Labour in the General Election

C) Linda voted Labour and has joined the Labour Party

D) Linda voted Lib Dem

E) Linda voted Green for the Euro elections and Labour for the local elections

F) Linda spoilt her ballot

Done that? Most likely to least likely? Great.

Leaving Linda aside for a minute, why did the voters vote the way they did? And why did you vote the way you did?

There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the illusion of asymmetric insight. People confidently believe that they understand the reasons why other people do things. At the same time, people are sceptical that others could truly understand them. That’s true of college roommates, pro-choice and pro-life campaigners, even people who’ve only met for a minute. In the next few days you’re likely to hear lots of “People voted UKIP because they feel disenfranchised by the political elite and are scared of immigrants” while they will not say “I voted Labour/Conservative/UKIP/Liberal because of my longstanding prejudices.”

We believe that we see the world how it really is. Often that leads people to overestimate how many others agree with them, called the “false consensus effect”. When people see the world differently, there must be a reason. I like Casablanca and if you don’t like Casablanca, it must be because you’re easily bored by black and white films or were distracted when we watched it.

That implies two things. If you don’t have inherent qualities that prevent you seeing reason (e.g. being easily bored) then you should be very easy to persuade. All I need to do is remove whatever bias was preventing you seeing things the way that I see them.  If you’ve read columns predicting that people will agree with us if we only explain that the election is really about this, or that their frustrations are really caused by that, you’ll know what I mean.

Secondly, the more we disagree, the more your views must be explainable. In one experiment, conservatives and liberals were asked for their views on a contentious issue and to assess about how they came to those views. Then they were asked to estimate what the other side thought and how they came to those opposing views. Every time, people predicted wildly more extreme views on the other side, and said they would have come to these views through prejudice rather than the careful consideration that their own group had used.

Part of this is that we underestimate the extent to which others feel doubtful and ambivalent about an issue in the same way we underestimate how often they look in the mirror or secretly feel competitive towards their peers. Because we don’t see others’ doubts, we assume they don’t have them and that leads to the finding that people overestimate how polarised an issue is, even ones as divisive as abortion or race in the US.

That brings me to Linda. It’s a version of an old experiment done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky but with the stimulus material adapted for the UK in 2014. Did you say B was more likely than D? Then well done, you’re normal. You’re also wrong. The chances of voting Lib Dem will always be higher than the chances of voting Lib Dem and also having any particular plan for how you vote for 2015. But B is closer to what you’d expect Linda to do and so it seems to make more sense.

Take all of this together and you have quite a weird portrayal of the electorate. It’s full of people who I’ve never actually met: sandal wearing, bearded Lib Dems, pin striped UKIP supporters with union jack underwear and so on (“conjunction fallacy”). It doesn’t have any contradictory characters: Eurosceptic Lib Dems, say, or sandal wearing UKIP-ers. The picture includes lots of sensible people who agree with me (“false consensus”). It also includes some people who would be sensible, if only they could just correct their biases (“naïve realism”). My opponents are extreme because of social and economic factors, combined with their sheer wrong-headedness (“false polarisation”). No one else understands this picture quite so well as me, but then again, no one else takes quite so nuanced and ambivalent a view as I do (“asymmetric insight”).

See if you can spot any or all of those in the pages of political analysis printed over the next week. A gold star to anyone who finds an article with all five in.

*me included


Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the Eye of the Beholder: Divergent Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others. Psychological Review, 111(3), 781-799.

Pronin, E., Kruger, J., Savitsky, K., & Ross, L. (2001). You Don’t Know Me, But I Know You: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(4), 639-656.

Robinson, R.J., Keltner, D., Ward, A., & Ross, L. (1995). Actual Versus Assumed Differences in Construal: “Naive Realism” in Intergroup Perception and Conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(3), 404-417.

Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “False Consensus Effect”: An Egocentric Bias in Social Perception and Attribution Processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279-301.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extensional Versus Intuitive Reasoning:
The Conjunction Fallacy in Probability Judgment. Psychological Review, 90(4), 293-315.