Scottish Independence: A matter for the head or the heart?

brain scanner Scientists are using magnetic resonance imaging to shed new light on how we make up our minds
As Scotland prepares to decide its future in the independence referendum, how will voters make up their minds? BBC Scotland's Science Correspondent Kenneth Macdonald asks whether the head or the heart will prove decisive.

Political scientists are increasingly adapting techniques from psychology and neurology to understand how we make political decisions.

Their findings suggest that our rational thought processes do play a part - but that our hearts are in the driving seat.

The science of campaigning will be examined on Tuesday in a BBC Scotland documentary.

It's a big decision, potentially the biggest political choice, you'll ever make.

You'll carefully examine the arguments for Yes and No, painstakingly assessing the issues, then arrive at your rational decision to vote one way or the other.

Or will you?

Could it be that when it comes to making political choices our hearts rule our heads? Or, more precisely, the emotional parts of our brains take precedence over our rational faculties?

Dr Rob Johns thinks so. He's a political scientist from the University of Essex who's using psychological techniques to uncover how we really make our democratic decisions.

Daily question
Question makrs

As the people of Scotland weigh up how to vote in the independence referendum, they are asking questions on a range of topics from the economy to welfare.

In a series running up to polling day, BBC correspondents are looking at those major questions and by using statistics, analysis and expert views shining a light on some of the possible answers.

So far, they have looked at Trident, Scottish economic growth, broadcasting, population, health and UK debt.


His findings suggest that while we're influenced by both head and heart, it's our hearts that win out:

He says: "We are as human beings programmed - or hard wired as they put it - to react to our emotions.

"And one of the reasons for that is that rational calculation is immensely arduous.

"Anybody who sat down and tried to work out the pros and cons of independence would need an Excel spreadsheet, a lot of time and a great deal of patience.

"Some people might fondly imagine they're rational calculators. They're kidding themselves."

Strictly speaking this is not really head vs heart, more the emotional circuits of our brain trumping the rational ones.

The slightly disturbing conclusion - disturbing, that is, for those of us who like to think they weigh up conflicting arguments with dispassionate, Spock-like logic - is that baser instincts are at play.

Woman undergoing brain test The documentary tested an undecided volunteer for her responses to campaign messages

To examine the emotional underpinning of our political choices Dr Johns and I waylaid a self-selecting sample of BBC staff.

We were equipped with a ballot box and two photographs: one of a woman with a tarantula on her face, the other of a particularly nasty-looking verruca.

There were two questions on the ballot paper: Yes or No to independence, and a request to rate just how disgusting those photos were.

Given that our unsuspecting subjects had been waylaid on the way to lunch, this wasn't going to find its way into a peer reviewed journal. But the results were nonetheless intriguing.


DOCUMENTARIES - Scotland's referendum

Jackie Bird

BBC Scotland has been broadcasting a series of in-depth films looking at various aspects of the Scottish independence referendum debate.


Dr John explained he was testing the increasingly accepted hypothesis that the way we react to physical fear and threat manifest themselves in our political views.

"Broadly speaking, conservatives - small 'c' conservatives - are more prone to fear," he said.

"You find that those whose skin crawls more when confronted with threatening images like these are also more likely to have small 'c' conservative opinions.

"We're kind of pioneering the test of whether that conservatism extends to sticking with the status quo constitutionally."

And that's what happened. When we turned out our ballot box, the papers showed those who found the pictures extra-yucky (admittedly that's not a scientific term) were more likely to have voted No.

Yes voters, on the whole, were less easily shocked by the spider-verruca images.

In campaign that's been characterised as hope vs fear, that could have implications for both sides.

Brain scan Brain imaging can allow scientists to see what parts of the brain are active during decision making

Other political scientists are looking even deeper, not just into our minds but our brains.

At Edinburgh University Professor Laura Cram is using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to examine which parts of people's brains become active when faced with political choices.

In one experiment she's asking her Scottish subjects to empathise with videos of people with shoulder pain. Can they rate how much pain they're in?

What they don't know is that they've also been shown random, subliminal images. Sometimes they're blank, sometimes a Saltire; sometimes a St George's Cross.

Will the flags affect their judgment? We'll have to wait until her final paper is published. But researchers in the US have been using similar methods for more than a decade.

At Emory University in Atlanta, Professor Drew Westen put subjects in an fMRI machine during the 2004 presidential race between George W Bush and John Kerry.

For Republicans and Democrats the task was the same: watch your preferred candidate contradicting himself, then try to explain what had been said.

'No reasoning'

Professor Westen watched as the political partisans' brains reacted. Would reason or emotion rule?

"We found no reasoning going on at all," he says.

"Kerry supporters all found Kerry's remarks completely consistent and non-problematic.

"Bush supporters found all his remarks completely non-problematic.

"And it wasn't until about 20 seconds later that we started to see the activation of reasoning circuits.

"What we hypothesised was going on was people were starting to rationalise the conclusions that they wanted to come to."

Research on political partisanship in America might not seem relevant to undecided voters in Scotland.

But it underlines the idea that while some of us may think we don't know how we'll vote yet, our hearts - if not our minds - are already made up.

All this comes with the customary caveats. All science is provisional, and much of this science is in its infancy.

FMRI scans can only reveal blood flow in the brain, not how billions of neurons are functioning. Our minds are massively complex structures.

Each of us is unique. And whether it's your heart or head that ultimately decides, it'll be your decision - and yours alone.

Mind Games, one of a series of BBC documentaries on issues surrounding the referendum, will be shown on BBC Two Scotland at 21:00 on Tuesday and will be available afterwards on the BBC iPlayer

More on This Story

Scotland Decides

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Scotland Decides: SCOTLAND VOTES NO

  1. No 2,001,926
  2. Yes 1,617,989
After 32 of 32 counts Results in detail

Referendum Live

    08:15: Harman on Scotland 'alienation'

    Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman says there is a "major issue" in Scotland with people feeling they cannot have any confidence about jobs or their futures.

    The party needs to address that feeling of "alienation and resentment that was so clearly there," she tells BBC Radio Scotland.

    08:14: Murray would rethink indyref tweet

    Andy Murray has spoken publicly for the first time about comments he made on the eve of the Scottish referendum. The tennis star was criticised for sending a tweet supporting independence.

    Andy Murray

    "I don't regret giving an opinion. I think everyone should be allowed that," he said.

    "The way I did it, yeah, it wasn't something I would do it again. It was a very emotional day for Scottish people and the whole country and the whole of the UK - it was a big day.

    "The way it was worded, the way I sent it, is not really in my character. I don't normally do stuff like that. So, yeah, I was a bit disappointed by that. It's time to move on.

    "I can't go back on that and I'll concentrate on my tennis for the next few months."

    08:03: View from Wales Sian Elin Dafydd BBC News

    Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones has emphatically said there is a need to rebuild the UK and give more powers to Wales.

    He's repeatedly called for a constitutional convention on the devolution of the UK. He's been doing it for more than two years - and some say he's been ignored.

    Yesterday he told the Labour Party Conference in Manchester that support for Welsh independence would grow unless Labour honoured its commitment to rebuild the UK.

    He says people don't want independence but they are attracted to parties like the SNP, UKIP and Plaid Cymru because they are so fed up with the status quo.

    07:56: Lamont 'quitting' rumours Glenn Campbell BBC Scotland news

    Several newspapers are reporting rumours speculating that Labour leader Johann Lamont is considering stepping down as leader of the Scottish Labour party.

    Johann Lamont and Ed Miliband at the Labour Party conference in Manchester

    Her press spokesperson denied that last night and pointed to her Labour conference speech about leading the party into the 2016 Holyrood elections.

    It doesn't seem that there is any imminent announcement from her.

    07:52: Harriet Harman interview coming up... Gary Robertson BBC Radio Scotland

    As Ed Miliband delivers his leaders' speech to Labour's conference @HarrietHarman #bbcgms 0810.

    07:49: Analysis Glenn Campbell BBC Scotland news

    I think Alex Salmond will tell MSPs that, in his view, the referendum was a success.

    Clearly he didn't win independence, but he'll argue the high levels of voter participation and the high levels of interest from media from all over the world are things that people on both sides of the argument can be proud of.

    I think he'll also commit the Scottish government - and the SNP - to hold the UK political parties to the promises they made on further devolution and protecting the funding formula that supplies the Scottish government with the cash to spend on devolved services.

    Outgoing First Minister Alex Salmond

    He'll also call for votes for 16-year-olds in the next UK general election and subsequent polls because of the interest and engagement they showed in the independence referendum.

    I know that Labour leader Ed Miliband has been supportive in the past and there were reports overnight that he will commit to this in his conference speech later.

    The Lib Dems are also in favour of this but the Conservatives are against it.

    Text 80295 07:45: Referendum - Get Involved

    ATB, from Sunny Leith by Sea, Zane: One of the funniest things I've heard this week (it is only Tuesday, mind you) it all boils down to a simple slogan - "Wales misses out on funding of around £300m per year, but there is some doubt over the funding calculations." They're going to struggle to get that out on Twitter, since the slogan itself is 113 characters!

    Norrie in Stevenston: Everybody, including the media, keep going on about more powers for Scotland but this wasn't on the referendum ballot paper. Why do we need more powers? Just more layers of bureaucracy and expense we don't need; things are fine the way they are thanks.

    07:41: 'Why I bet £900k on the indyref'

    One man bet £900,000 on a No vote in the Scottish independence referendum...and won.

    Indyref bet

    He has given a fascinating insight to the BBC on his thought process for a significant political gamble...

    07:36: SNP 'surge'

    The Herald reports that the SNP is on course to become the UK's third biggest political party, with a 62% surge in membership following the referendum.

    The Herald newspaper

    And comedian Billy Connolly predicts trouble ahead should Prime Minister David Cameron fail to honour his promise of further powers for Scotland.

    Read our newspaper round-up here.

    @bbcscotlandnews 07:34: Referendum - Your Views

    Julie Thomson tweets: A No vote doesn't mean a #Labour vote. #SNP membership growing.

    07:31: Scottish papers

    The Scottish newspapers are continuing to reflect on the fallout from the referendum.

    The Scotsman

    The Scotsman quotes the Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, as saying that the pledge of flagship new powers for Scotland will be honoured.

    07:30: After the dust settled... James Cook Scotland Correspondent, BBC News

    Politicians return to Holyrood after Scotland rejected independence.

    07:26: The Big Yin fires a warnin...

    Billy Connolly has been giving his thoughts on Scotland's referendum.

    The comedian said there would be trouble if David Cameron did not honour his promise of further powers.

    Billy Connolly

    Speaking at the London premiere of What We Did On Our Holiday, he said: "It's 50:50 - 50% of the country are delighted, 50% are disappointed. But Scotland will get used to the idea.

    "If Mr Cameron keeps up his promises we should be okay. If he doesn't there'll be hell to pay."

    Text 80295 07:24: Referendum reaction

    Dave, Aberdeen: I believe William Hague said a few days ago that any money raised by new powers over income tax would be clawed back with a £ for £ reduction in the Barnett Formula. Is this true?

    07:21: 'Bitter-sweet occasion' Colin Blane BBC Scotland news

    This will be a bitter-sweet occasion for Scotland's outgoing first minister.

    Alex Salmond lost the referendum and is preparing to stand down but he does so against the backdrop of a sudden surge in membership for the pro-independence parties.

    His own SNP has added more than 20,000 new members in four days - an 80% increase - which means it has nudged ahead of the Lib Dems to become the third largest party in the UK.

    Mr Salmond is expected to tell the Scottish Parliament that both sides in the referendum can take pride in the campaign and in the huge turnout.

    He'll also say the way 16 and 17-year-olds participated makes the case for them to be given the vote in all elections.

    07:20: Get Involved Thomas McGuigan BBC Scotland News

    Something you want to get off your chest following Scotland's referendum vote? Send us your thoughts via email, text 80295 or tweet @bbcscotlandnews using #bbcindyref

    07:18: 'Reflection time'

    Ahead of today's debate, Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick will open proceedings with "time for reflection", a Holyrood slot normally reserved for spiritual or philosophical contributions from religious or secular figureheads.

    07:16: Holyrood debate

    The debate on the future of Scotland that follow Salmond's statement will go on for two days.

    Alex Salmond

    We'll bring you all the latest lines today and tomorrow as they happen.

    07:12: Scots made right choice - Miliband
    Miliband speaking

    Also coming up - Labour leader Ed Miliband is expected to tell his party's conference in Manchester that Scotland made the right choice voting against independence.

    But he will say a country that comes close to splitting apart "is not a country in good health".

    07:09: Salmond successor

    The SNP parliamentary group will also meet today, with nominations for Mr Salmond's successor expected to open on Wednesday.

    Nicola Sturgeon

    Almost every member of the Scottish cabinet has publicly backed his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, to replace him as SNP leader and first minister.

    07:05: Parties respond

    The Scottish Labour, Lib Dem and the Conservative parties will also offer their response to the electorate's decision to reject independence by 55% to 45%.

    Labour leader Johann Lamont is likely to offer to find common ground with the SNP.

    The Lib Dems are expected to urge Yes campaigners not to be bystanders as Holyrood pushes for further powers.

    And the Conservatives will accuse the Nationalists of having no intention of accepting the referendum result.

    07:02: Salmond vote call

    Mr Salmond, who announced after the No result that he would stand down in November, is also expected to call for 16 and 17-year-olds to be given the vote at future elections.

    Outgoing first minister Alex Salmond

    He is also to vow to hold the UK parties to account over further powers.

    07:01: Holyrood debate

    First Minister Alex Salmond is to address the Scottish Parliament later - for the first time since Scotland voted against independence.

    MSPs will also hold a debate on the outcome of the referendum.

    07:00: Referendum reaction Thomas McGuigan BBC Scotland News

    Good morning and welcome to today's live page coverage of the latest post-referendum news and analysis.



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