Elaboration, persuasion and heurtistics in the Brexit campaigns

Brexit – you gotta hit’em emotionally. Elaboration , persuasion and heurtistics in the Brexit campaigns

EUFLAG One thought provoking aspect of the events surround Brexit was the claim that ‘people are sick of experts’. Indeed, Leave campaign leaders were told by US political strategists that ‘You can’t reason with people, you gotta hit ‘em emotionally’. Without elaborating too much, this had the effect of reducing the narrative of both campaigns to, in many people’s eyes, simple emotive arguments at the expense of more reasoned debate . Is the success of this strategy likely to be part of the reason that politicians like Farage (and in the US, Trump) to be and (and, for Trump at least) remain effective? Why may this be, and what do psychological models of persuasion say about it?

One psychological model which is of particular relevance is the Elaboration Likelihood Model model (ELM)1. The ELM argues that when people process information designed to persuade (or which differs from our own attitude) we can process it via one of two routes – one with high levels of ‘elaboration’ and the other with low levels. In this instance, elaboration refers to the amount of cognitive effort we expend on processing the information. When using the high elaboration route, we process the information carefully, and evaluate the arguments presented carefully. When using the low elaboration route, we tend to be more influenced by heuristics

Elaboration likelihood and heuristics

Heuristics refer to ‘cognitive short cuts’ which we use to help us make decisions. They rely on cues which signal a decision, without us really paying much attention to their validity. Heuristic processing is characterised by a reliance on cognitive ‘short-cuts’ which are evaluated with little attention. The use of colour (for instance, green signifying safety in western cultures), celebrity endorsement (if so and so says it’s good, it must be!), dubious statistics (up to half of people enjoy our product) and other such devices are effective here. Emotive arguments (in particular those based on fear, pleasure etc) also act as heuristics when we are processing thinkings under conditions of low elaboration. The eagle eyed amongst you will see some similarites to ideas around running on autopilot coming through here!

Elaboration, effort and ability.

For major decisions such as Brexit, it is obviously preferable people are lead by arguments based on reasoning rather than heuristics. When do we elaborate highly? Unfortunately, not as often as we should! Why? We need to both sufficient motivated and sufficiently able in order to process things in the high elaboration mode.

Setting innate ability aside (I believe everyone of voting age should be credited with sufficient ability to reason, otherwise what is the point!) the Brexit campaign generated significant task demands in terms of the amount and clarity of information presented. Interestingly, the Leave campaign focused on a few emotive arguments, a lot of which were fear based, whilst the Remain campaign arrayed an army of expert. From a the voters perspective this may have created a perfect storm – an overload of total information. It also had a strong element of psychological distress. Now, both task overload and distress reduces ability to process, which in turn encourages low elaboration.This effect may compounded by the fact that, as mentioned above, fear based appeals are act as heuristics – cues which are not really properly thought about. If the result was a tendency (across a population) towards lower than ideal elaboration, the side with the most heuristic based arguments to win.

Elaboration and persuasion in the US elections?

Looking across the Atlantic, you can see the same pattern developing in Trump vs. Clinton battle. Like or loathe him, Trump is an expert at generating emotional angst (even when he gaffes!), and finding the emotional arguments which galvanize people. In contrast, Clinton has been pushed towards providing the more balanced and rationale counterpoint. I hope it doesn’t lead to an equally low elaboration debate!

A big caveat!

Obviously, using one simple model to explain the brexit vote or the US elections is a bit (ok, really!) reductionist (and you can read what I think about reductionism in my recent guestblog on www.PsychReg.org). It also neglects the highly motivated state many people but, note not all, and perhaps not even the majority) were in during the campaign (important as motivation is the second predictor of elaboration). But, I hope that this interpretation provides at least some insight into how the state of politics today may be working psychologically!
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  1. Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York. 

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