What Market Research can Learn from Brexit

Jul 08 2016

The result of the recent referendum in the UK on membership of the European Union (EU) was a big shock for most people, including opinion poll companies. Unfortunately, they had been providing remarkably similar forecasts for the last several months as the poll became closer, sometimes up and sometimes down but almost all with the same prediction. Those that tried even failed to get it right on polling day itself. In this regard, they repeated their poor performance of the UK general election just over one year ago.

While nobody could have predicted the fallout from events in the UK, surely any market research company that believes in survey research, should have has a better go at predicting the outcome of a referendum? If they don’t believe that’s possible, then maybe they shouldn’t be in business.

Why did this happen again? Why can’t research companies predict the results of a simple yes/no (or in/out) referendum, let alone a general election? Although the pollsters are looking again at issues of sampling and methodology, there is a more fundamental challenge. Opinion polls ask questions of people’s heads, but they vote with their hearts.

What can market research learn from this episode? The campaign itself is a classic study in the importance of emotional frames and metaphors in shaping behavior. It is also a lesson in how “facts” and “data” are less important than the story that is told and that a simple core message that resonates is much more powerful than a book full of statistics.

Those that wanted to remain in the EU buried voters in data and facts, and they were ignored. They told multiple stories about the financial implications of leaving (many of which are already being proved correct, as the UK Chancellor ditches financial targets, the Bank of England look to lower interest rates and the UK economy is predicted to go into recession).

Voters ignored the numbers. They may have been big and scary, but they didn’t resonate because they didn’t connect with people’s everyday lives as much as the simpler message that was communicated by those who wanted to leave the EU. Their message was very clear, “Take back control”. And once they found that it resonated they stuck with it.

The only number that they shared was that 350 million pounds a week went to the EU. While this number is factually incorrect and was challenged by many “experts” it stuck with voters. Voters who don’t feel in control of their lives and so welcomed the core message of the campaign. A lesson for market researchers who want to communicate findings that the story is as important as the detail of the data, and arguably more important.

These messages and the result that followed are a great example of how emotions drive decision making. Recent work by Lerner and co-workers on the impact of different emotions on decision-making is consistent with other work conducted in evolutionary psychology. Interestingly and tellingly, they have looked at the impact of fear and anger on the decisions that people make.

The emotion of fear is associated with low degrees of certainty and high levels of risk. Fear tends to make people perceive negative events as unpredictable and outside their control, so whatever they do has no impact on what happens next. The campaign supporting remain in the UK EU referendum was dubbed “Project Fear” (especially by those wanting to leave) and focused heavily on the negative financial impact of deciding to leave the EU. However, it may have also had the impact of making people feel that they had no control over events.

By contrast, the emotion of anger creates greater certainty and a feeling of low risk, giving people the feeling that events are predictable and under their control, rather than in the power of others. Thus the leave campaign’s focus on “Take back control” combined with tactics that many would argue were designed to create a climate of anger, may have given people a feeling that they could influence events. This might be magnified by the feeling that in a referendum everybody’s vote has the same weight (not true in UK general elections where there are more choices and where only a few parliamentary seats make a difference to the overall result).

Making voters angry gave them a greater sense of control and ownership of the decision, something they have not experienced when voting before, making them more likely to vote to leave (the turnout of voters was the highest for many years). Or looked at the other way around, expressing their anger was a way in which voters could feel more in control, even if they were afraid of the consequences (and many have expressed remorse since).

For me the most important lesson of all is that market research needs to get much better at evaluating people’s emotions and stop relying on rational questions and direct questions. For many people the decision to vote to leave was intuitive and emotional. They didn’t weigh up the facts, evaluate the statistics and come up with a logical answer that represented the best possible outcome for them. They didn’t carefully consider the options before casting their vote. They went with their “gut”. Might it have been more useful to understand if they felt angry or afraid of the decision?

How can market research do more to understand people’s gut instincts? As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”. If you ask someone a rational question, and rely on their verbal skills and conscious mind, they will give you a conscious, reflective and considered response. If the behavior you want to understand is conscious, reflective and considered then you may get the right answer. But how much human behavior is really like this?

Most certainly most everyday purchase decisions are not. The vast majority of the decisions that we make are either taken through habit (and therefore not considered at all) or use simple heuristics to simplify a complex world. The most important heuristic of all, applied to all our decision making, is emotion. Simply put, to understand many decisions we need to understand “does it feel right?” before we understand “is it the sensible thing to do?”

Implicit and intuitive judgements need to be understood implicitly and intuitively too. Market research still has a long way to go in getting the balance between understand the explicit excuses that people give for the choices they make, and the reality of the implicit emotions that are far more important in shaping behaviour.

There is a real need for more implicit approaches to research. At TapestryWorks we have been using visual stimuli to help capture more implicit, intuitive and emotional responses, both positive and negative (it is especially difficult to capture negative feedback using more standard research approaches in Asia). The responses that are measured can be both in terms of raw emotions like fear and anger, and also the underlying motivations that drive behavior and brand choices in a category.

The results are much closer to the reality of behavior, allowing people to share how they really feel rather than what their post-rationalizing conscious mind tells them to think. It also makes evaluation of emotions and motivations much quicker, simpler and more engaging than typical questions and answers. For example, a two-minute visual card sort and ranking gives enough information to size the emotional needs in a category.

We all know intuitively that emotions are the key to understanding behavior, so why does the majority of market research still focus on the rational brain? Let’s not ignore our intuitions as market researchers, or it may be that MRexit follows Brexit.


“Emotion and Decision Making” by Lerner, Yi, Valdesolo & Kassam from Annual Review of Psychology, 2015, 66:33.1-33.25

The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think by Kenrick & Griskevicius

[This is a longer and amended version of an original article for Asia Research Magazine]

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