Behavioural politics, day 11 of 30

Nothing seemed to happen on Friday except for post-match analysis of the leaders' debate. But this highlighted an intriguing aspect of the deliberative process: social reinforcement of beliefs.

There have been a number of recent research papers around the idea of deliberation, including John, Smith and Stoker's "Nudge Nudge Think Think" which compares the effects of choice architecture to the effects of open debate among citizens prior to decision-making. Although deliberation arguably gets better results than nudging (though it has a cost, which is the extra time it requires), one of the drawbacks is the risk that everyone converges on a common opinion.

A famous experiment by Solomon Asch demonstrated the power of social conformity in shaping opinions. Even on questions with a clear, objective answer, subjects felt a huge pressure to agree with other observers against the evidence of their own eyes. And in the political world, full of subjectivity, self-fulfilling prophesies and theory of mind, this effect can surely only be greater.

So the Liberal Democrats have won the next stage of the battle, which is to get everyone to agree that they won the previous stage. This may be discernible in the pattern of polls over Friday and Saturday: the Lib Dems first showed a catch-up towards Labour, then in the next set of polls overtook them into second. By Saturday evening they had even overtaken the Tories in one poll [warning - Daily Mail] - to lead the field for the first time in over a hundred years. As each poll showed some people's confidence in the Lib Dems' strength, other people became willing to believe in it.

It feels unlikely that this strength will be maintained over the next week or two, but such is the disillusionment of many voters that it might just happen.

The other parties did do something today - David Cameron launched what appears to be a kind of X-Factor style singing competition. Not bad politics perhaps, because if 20,000 schoolchildren enter it, their 35,000 parents will have a little more incentive to vote Conservative to make sure the contest doesn't end prematurely.

Labour only needed to help the newspapers to sing the praises of the Lib Dems - because they will profit hugely from Nick Clegg's rise. The structure of the electoral system means that, if the Lib Dems lead narrowly, with the Tories in second and Labour just behind in third, the results, bizarrely, will be exactly reversed. Labour will be the largest party, followed by the Conservatives and then the Lib Dems.

Ratings are only as close as they are because most of this was outside of the hands of the parties - their strategic choices were about as good as could be expected in the context of the debate's inevitable momentum. The main criticism is that the Tories needed to land some kind of killer blow to regain their lead, and they failed to find one. It would have been more far-fetched for Labour to do the same, but what a coup if they'd managed it. Missed opportunities for both.

Ratings: Liberal Democrats 8/10, Labour 6/10, Conservatives 5/10.


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