Political psychologist Keith O’Brien joined us at the Secret Garden Party festival to talk about what’s really been going on in the world. This month, he’s back to co-host our Have I Got Fake News For You quiz. We asked Keith to tell us more about his work…

‘The voters got it wrong! The 52% were mislead. The Russians influenced the election. Who would vote for Trump?’

The most common question I have been asked since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is: ‘why?’ Followed quickly by: ‘Everyone must be interested in your research?’ The truth is, back in 2012 when I started a PhD at UCL looking at the decision-making of voters and if they ‘vote correctly’, no one cared how ‘accurate’ voters’ decisions were- so long as they turned out to vote. Funding was scarce, and I wanted to build on research in America by Richard Lau and David Redlawsk, political scientists turned decision psychologists.

I wanted to know: i) how do voters make decisions in elections (for candidates, mostly), and ii) if they made good decisions, or, did they vote correctly based on their policy preferences (e.g. for health, education, Europe, etc.). And, idealistically, iii) I wanted to know how we could help voters improve their voting decisions to be more accurate. Not very ‘sexy’, in academic terms.

Many readers will surely be thinking: ‘voting isn’t that hard, I just put an X next to who I think is the best’. But, decades of research in the psychology of judgement and decision-making, popularised by Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler, show human decision-making rife with biases and errors- both intrinsic to our human nature, and influenced by our context (our ‘decision environment’).

Voting is no different. In my experiments, I asked UK voters for their position on various real-world policies, and how important they were to them, and asked voters to choose between fictional candidates in realistic UK elections. If they chose the candidate that matched their stated preferences, they chose ‘correctly’. A fairly simple task, right?

Yet, simply increasing the number of candidates available at the ballot box from 2 to anywhere between 3 and 5, reduced correct voting rates from 70-85% to 54%-26% on average. Also, contrary to our hypothesis that party identity would bias voters away from candidates that better match their true preferences (a widely held belief in some political parties), showing voters what party our candidates belonged to had either no effect, or actually improved correct voting as we added more candidates. In simple terms, having the party label visible made voters more accurate as the task became harder.

This tells us nothing about Trump I hear you grumble- after all, there were only 2 candidates in the US elections: Trump and Hillary. Or Brexit, there were only 2 choice: Yes or No. Well, research by Richard Lau’s team in 2013 across 33 democracies showed that the probability of making a correct vote when there are 2 options is approximately 79%. In the USA, correct voting rates were between 82-88% over the last 2 decades (so 12-18% made a ‘wrong’ choice). In the UK, correct voting has averaged 78-79% (or 21-22% incorrect) – the margin for Brexit was 4%.

How we design democracies to help voters make accurate decisions, based on objective factual evidence, is the major challenge for ensuring democratic health globally. It doesn’t matter how many of us vote, if we are all making really poor choices.

My research ‘manipulated’ one basic aspect in an experiment- the number of candidates. How those candidates are perceived, evaluated, and judged, to be competent, trustworthy, warm – and other factors predictive of a voter’s choice – are all influenced by the information we receive from friends, neighbours, and the infamous media. Cries of ‘liberal bias’ and ‘fake news’ are all designed to undermine credibility in the information and its source, and all too often it is effective.

To explore the phenomenon and psychology around ‘fake news’, I teamed up with Guerilla Science at the 2017 Secret Garden Party to host a ‘Have I Got Fake News For You’ show involving the audience. It turning out to be both funny and thought-provoking – so much so, we running another event on November 22nd at the Book Club in Shoreditch, London. Hope to see you there!