The psychology of Project Fear


Photo: The Herald & Times Group

Much of the discourse in recent weeks surrounding the EU referendum has focused predominantly around the messages from each side, often at the expense of reasonable debate.

The attention has turned to a phenomenon born during the Scottish independence referendum: Project Fear.

Books were written on it, the media lapped it up, and the phrase was used throughout social media to pillory the Better Together campaign.

During the independence referendum, Scots were significantly more concerned about the aftermath of possible independence.

YouGov reported 47% of Scots felt they would be financially worse off if the Yes vote won, and just 28% thought otherwise.

When asked whether Britons felt they personally would feel worse off if the UK voted for a Brexit, 26% stated they would, and just 16% felt they would be better off.

Interestingly, the larges proportion (41%) said there would be no difference in their personal situation after Brexit, and these figures have remained constant since January 2013.

These figures are from April 2015, however, and (bizarrely) nothing has been released on polling the public on their predictions for Britain’s future economic status after a Brexit since then.

All that exists is Leave and Remain figures gesticulating at one another over the possible future – not the public being asked instead.

Nevertheless, regardless of what the public thinks, both sides criticise the other of employing Project Fear, and one has to ask oneself what this even means.

In recent days, two clear examples have risen from both sides.

  1. George Osborne has said the UK Treasury could lose £36bn in tax receipts in the event of Brexit. Furthermore, UK households would be £4,300 worse off every year.

  2. Michael Gove’s statement on BBC Radio 4 this (19 April) morning that a vote to Remain would be: “voting to be hostages locked in the back of the car driven headlong toward deeper EU integration.”

One could argue both statements are “negative”: they both concern a hypothetical scenario, in which there would be a “negative” outcome, like losing money or losing influence.

Similar statements have been levelled from both sides. Remain warning of the financial implications, loss of influence, lack of intelligence sharing and security, weaker trade and investment.

Leave warn a Remain vote would mean greater integration at the expense of sovereignty, unlimited immigration, not having an independent voice on the World Trade Organisation, and so on.

Thus, the argument that both sides are playing Project Fear is, generally, legitimate.

But what would we rather instead?

For the Remain side to tell us we have greater influence as part of a sum of other parts; that we have access to free movement of capital and people in the EU; that the UK exports largely to the EU?

Or for the Leave side to say we will have greater control over our borders and industry; that we will be able to set our own trade deals, and be on the WTO; that we will be better off financially by doing away with EU taxes?

Does this all not sound familiar? Have these things not already been said? The answer: yes. They have.

Why, then – if they are indeed saying “positive” things – are we concerned so much with Project Fear?

The issue is perhaps complex, but one might argue it is due to our psychology.

In their frequently cited paper Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion, Rozin and Royzman write humans give greater weight and importance to negative events, objects, and personal traits than positive ones.

It is therefore logical to assume the same is occurring in the political sphere, whereby the negative statements made stand out clearer than the positive ones.

One would also argue that, in the area of referenda, dealing with hypotheticals will naturally bring about negative predictions. With one side supporting an alternate version of the status quo, and the other for leaving the EU altogether, it is clear one side will be more (small-c) conservative than the other.

Thus, giving rise to rhetoric focusing on the uncertainty and possible dangers of breaking from the status quo – as do any human beings when faced with change.

So, it is largely our own fault we feel Project Fear is a genuine beast towering over political discourse, when it probably really is not.

Rather, our own psychology, and the way in which decisions are made, likely adds to this feeling of “negativity”, when indeed both sides are employing both positive and negative “tactics.”

There is a risk the conversation becomes too focused on the negativity of the campaigns, as opposed to their actual messages, leading only to people feeling angry and apathetic, instead of motivated and engaged.


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