Bogdan Ianoșev


Just like successful advertising slogans, successful election slogans carry with them the mark of cognitive attractiveness. The 2019 general election contrasted two different approaches to political messaging.


On the one hand, the Labour party presented a dense platform of desirable but, arguably, problematic and poorly communicated policies, and on the other the Conservatives proposed simplistic, policy-neutral, and, arguably, empty, slogans (e.g., “Get Brexit Done”, “Brexit means Brexit”). The outcome of the election saw the Conservatives securing the highest parliamentary majority in British politics since the late 1980s.


This is surprising for at least two reasons. First, traditional views of human rationality state that voting patterns are based on voters’ rational interests. This would not explain why voters chose a candidate who failed to appeal to any conceivable interests commonly associated with political platforms.


Indeed, the prime minister’s election platform can be characterized as surprisingly devoid of policy proposals, aside from “getting Brexit done’’ of course. Second, the same rational actor model also assumes that the voter would make an informed choice considering all available information.


However, Brexit has been debated for half a decade now, and most of the claims associated with the original Leave campaign have been discredited or debunked. Furthermore, both current and previous government cabinets have put forth assessments predicting a considerable economic downturn following the exit from the European Union. Despite all of this, the election outcome was still consistent with the 2016 vote. People still want Brexit.


What made the campaign to Leave the EU so successful that its echoes still reverberate several years after the referendum? More precisely, how come that a simple slogan like “Get Brexit Done” can be so persuasive, effectively standing in for all other Leave-related slogans that came before? Just get Brexit done. Why? To take back control, and so on.


In order to better understand why the people’s choice cannot be explained by the rational actor model, we must turn to insights to human behaviour.


Research from the cognitive and evolutionary sciences suggests that some cultural ideas are more attractive to our minds than others, making them spread more successfully among human cultures.


Successful ideas spread easier because they attract our attention, seem relevant, and are easier remembered. From the perspective of cognitive science, this happens because they activate domain-specific processing mechanisms, sometimes described as “rough-and-ready” inferences, designed to provide adaptive responses to recurrent threats and opportunities in our environment.


Our brains deem such processes salient and relevant, which is why we “feel” their activation. More specifically, we experience the activation of these processes, psychologically, in the form of intuitions. However, the domains these intuitions relate to have been established long ago, during our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, when all humans lived in small-scale societies. This crucial period witnessed our species-specific brain architecture slowly coming into existence. Hence, our intuitions reflect our lives in that particular “ancestral environment”.


Culturally successful ideas feel right because they are intuitive, since they trigger our intuitions. Take for instance the ‘Golden Rule’ of morality – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’-, expressed in slightly different ways in most large-scale religions. Because it was tailored to fit our brain architecture in activating our intuitions of fairness, any version of this moral rule will be cognitively attractive and hence memorable. However, culturally successful ideas are not necessarily true, and our intuitions are not always correct.


This comes as a result of the mismatch between our hunter-gatherer environment wherein they evolved and the environment of present-day, post-industrial societies. Calibrated to operate in an environment of small-scale societies with limited resource availability, where zero-sum trade patterns applied and where out-groups posed a realistic threat, our intuitions are ill equipped to deal with the intricacies of modern-day market societies and macroeconomics.    


We can see how triggering our intuitions might have helped the 2016 Leave campaign win over voters. The campaign successfully deployed incisive slogans such as “take back control” or “£350 million for the NHS”, cutting right through reasonable debate by activating voters’ intuitions of fairness and inter-group competition.


The idea that the UK is treated unfairly by the EU, that it is dominated by the EU and prevented from crafting its own laws, directly addressed the intuition that an out-group is threatening the in-group. Intuitions of unfairness and inter-group competition are again activated by statements that EU citizens are supposedly queue jumpers.


Then, the slogan calling for the rewiring of £350 million from payments made to the EU in order to fund the NHS, makes intuitive sense. This is because it is addressing our intuitive understanding of proportions and interchangeable quantities, coming out of our common understanding of physical objects.


However, the claim is not technically accurate, and ended being debunked. Furthermore, blaming immigrants for both taking jobs away from locals (industrious) and straining the British welfare state (lazy) seems plausible for the same reason.


This points to yet another feature of our intuitive cognition. Claiming that future arrangements can include at the same time “closed borders” and “frictionless trade”, as pro-Brexit politicians did, and portraying migrants as both lazy and industrious, shows that our intuitions do not communicate with one another. Instead, they are fast and independent “assessments’’ of domain-specific information.


The idea of migrants taking away jobs triggers intuitions of the limited resource availability of our ancestral environment, when rival tribes monopolizing food sources impeded our survival. However, today’s market economy and trading agreements provide an abundance of jobs and resources for virtually any community of the industrialized world, regardless of the number of migrants living there.


The slogan nevertheless makes intuitive sense, and we tend to believe it. Such beliefs are sometimes called folk-economic beliefs in the cognitive anthropology literature.


Ultimately, “Get Brexit done” seems to incorporate previous slogans that some of the same politicians have devised back in 2016. These sound bites are intuitively plausible and culturally successful.


Given that pro-Brexit politicians have repeatedly targeted the same intuitions about unfairness and out-group threat using a variety of stimuli, it increased our sensitivity to their slogans and made them feel compelling.  


Bogdan Ianosev is a PhD student at Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University and a PSA member.His research is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 research project DEMOS (Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe). Image credit: CC by UK Parliament/Flickr.