A Nod’s as Good as a Wink to a Blind Man in a Kilt

The Swilcan Bridge spanning the burn of the same name between the first and eighteenth fairways of the Old Course at St. Andrews

Comment: Scotland’s past and the history of golf are inextricably linked but it is what we can learn of Scotland’s future from our beloved game that we must now heed. 

The game of gouff has not always enjoyed a cosy relationship with our nation’s guardians. In 1457, during the reign of James I, it was written into statute that the playing of ‘the golf be vtterly criyt done and nocht vsyt’. James II then explicitly prohibited the playing of golf once more in 1470 in order to encourage archery practice, and James III subsequently reiterated his opposition to the game in 1491.

The game survived such decrees however and the Old Course at St. Andrews, with it’s fairways shaped by grazing sheep and bunkers formed by sheltering livestock, remains the oldest continuing golf field in existence.

So what can our ancient game tell us about Scotland’s chances of securing a resounding ‘Aye’ on September 18th?

Surprisingly much as it turns out, and the news is not good.

This blog was prompted partly in response to Stephen Noon’s recent piece in the Scotsman. I admire Stephen Noon greatly but I am afraid I do not share his confidence that hope invariably trumps fear. Nor can I accept that the kind of country we will become will be defined by the nature of the debate before that decision. Were that the case the UK would need redefine itself every four and a half years. The ‘Bitter Together’ campaign have recognised that the debate is simply the means to the end. While, in no way advocating resorting to a similar level of mud slinging, Yes Scotland would do well to acknowledge the significant value in such tactics.

Rhetoric is no substitute for reality.

The key to unlocking the correlation between golf and voter intentions is a study of behavioural economics and more specifically the concepts of negativity bias and loss aversion. In the first in a series of blogs I will look at these in turn, beginning with our very human propensity to miss precisely the kind of opportunity that we are now presented with.

Behavioural economists study the effects of social, cognitive and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions.

Those of us firmly ensconced in the ‘Yes’ camp would be loathe to ignore the subtle psychological factors that will influence voting next September when a great number of those eligible to vote will find financial considerations weighing heavy on their minds as they arrive at the polling station.

Besides, behavioural economics has already proven itself to be a valuable tool.

In 2010, a most unholy alliance was formed. Liberals and Conservatives paired off like horny teens at the school disco, drunk on election punch. After much fumbling at blouse buttons and clumsy attempts at undressing one another, an uneasy cohabitation began. As awkward a relationship as this has proved and despite protest from both parties, somehow between the spitting oot of dummies and nappy changing, in July 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was conceived.

The ‘Nudge Unit’ as it is colloquially known, is a working unit of 13 rather brilliant types who seek to ‘nudge’ the country toward making better decisions with regard to health, society, charity and the environment through subtle use of behavioural economics and a comprehensive understanding of psychological and neurological biases. It’s success is hard to dispute, cemented by the fact that it is about to become part-privatised mutual. This is the first time that a government policy unit has broken free in this manner. A private investor is currently being sought to purchase one third of the company (the remaining two thirds to be held by the government and the thirteen individuals comprising the unit).

At it’s heart, the unit works on the premise that people, while not necessarily lazy are more inclined toward doing things the easy way. And when they’re not doing things the easy way, they’re being downright lazy.

When the unit advised HMRC to change the wording of their income tax letters, the revenue collected an extra £200m on time. When they advised the British Courts Service to send out personalised text messages to remind people to pay their fines on time, bailiff interventions were reduced by 150,000, saving a further £30m.  A simple change of wording was all it took on letters from the DVLA to non paying customers to double the number of people who paid their tax. A subsequent inclusion of a photograph of the individuals car alongside the clear warning, ‘pay your tax or lose your car’, resulted in a tripling of the number of people suddenly conscientious about their tax obligations.

By advising the government on the psychological principles that may be employed to ‘encourage’ people to do things that will ultimately benefit themselves individually or society as a whole, these ‘choice architects’, led by David Halpern claim to have already saved the government in excess of £300m. Not bad considering their brief had been to deliver a tenfold return on the £520,000 running cost of the unit.

This blog contacted the unit last week and requested under freedom of information to know if the UK government or anyone from the ‘Bitter Together’ camp had contacted the team to ask their advice on how to run their referendum campaign. Owain Service, deputy director of the BIT promptly replied, assuring me that there had been no contact regarding the referendum, citing the teams relatively small size and concentration on prioritising job creation and growth.

I remain unconvinced.

I do not doubt for a second the word of Mr. Service but I find it difficult to believe the government have not seen fit to avail of the considerable talent at their disposal within the BIT. My doubt is compounded by the prevalence of scaremongering on behalf of ‘Bitter Together’ which aims to strike directly at the heart of a loss averse electorate.

Human beings are intrinsically, loss averse. Losses loom larger on the horizon than gains. There is an evolutionary value to this with organisms that treat threats more urgently than opportunities having a far greater chance of survival.

Examples of loss averse humans and animals alike abound. Lions and other territorial animals defending their territory invariably win more than they lose. This has less to do with strength than it has to do with the emotional defence of their reference point. Typically, a challenger is motivated less to take an additional piece of territory than a defender is to defend that territory.

Whether it be protesters in Gezi Park or Syntagma Square the streets are filled not by those who seek to gain most but by those with most to lose. Union representatives will more readily concede a reduced gain than they will countenance a loss of any kind. Even football teams playing at home, bayed on by screaming hordes demanding preservation of their territory generally win more games than they lose (unless that territory is Pittodrie in which case the result will be a rather uninspiring but all too familiar 0-0 draw).

One of the most interesting studies of loss aversion in recent years however is a research paper entitled, ‘Is Tiger Woods loss averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition and High Stakes‘. Conducted by Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer at the University of Pennsylvania, the study analysed over 2.5 million putts across 239 tournaments, attempted by 421 of the world’s top golfers. Prevailing theories suggest that bias in decision making does not exist in markets and that any bias tends to dissipate with competition, increase in stakes and with experience. Pope and Schweitzer’s study shows that this thinking is entirely flawed.

Golf is particularly suited to studies of bias in decision making in that each hole represents the reference point of ‘par’. A missed putt for par or bogey (one over par) represents a loss. A missed putt for birdie does not represent a loss in as much as the player remains par for the hole.

The theory being tested was that players would try harder when the putt was to avoid a bogey than they would to achieve a birdie score even if ultimately the player who finishes with most below par holes that will take home the trophy.

Incredibly, Pope and Schweitzer were proved correct. The difference in their success rate (Tiger Woods was included in the study along with every other golfer in the top fifty) when going for par to avoid bogey compared to when putting for birdie was an astounding 3.6%. This does not imply that the world’s top golfers were simply not trying when going for birdie but it does seem to suggest their inbuilt aversion to loss and to dropping a shot was such that concentration levels rose, resulting in their being successful in significantly more putts.

Loss aversion creates an asymmetry as hopelessly skewed as the balance within our Westminster parliament. The Government’s losses, however idealistically we might imagine our retaking of Scotland to be, and the perception among many undecided of what may be lost after independence will be felt more keenly in London and in the minds of those yet to make up their minds than many care to acknowledge and in the months and hours approaching the referendum, that feeling will only increase.

We would do well not to underestimate the size of the task ahead of us. 

In the next post, we will look at the alarming nature of negativity bias and how we might start to overcome our natural instincts and secure the emphatic Yes we all work toward.

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