How one word may have swung the EU vote

A simplification obviously, and compounded by a number of other influencing factors, but here, from a psychological not a political perspective, is my breakdown of what those were and why they were important. Some of the same issues would have applied had the vote gone the other way.


  1. A referendum is an extraordinary thing because many more people than usual tend to vote which means there’s likely to be a significant number of novice voters, people less experienced at the whole rather intimidating process, than usual.

Why is this important?

Because when something is important AND you’re not familiar with the process AND you feel a bit daunted, you’re less likely to be confident about your actions. Suddenly being alone in the booth with just a ballot paper and a pencil can cause people question their judgement or make a mistake in applying it.

  1. The average reading age in the UK is around 10 years[1]. This is well documented and a number of popular news outlets tailor their language and messages to accommodate that. The Electoral Commission[2], in advising on the way the EU Referendum ballot paper was worded, took an element of that into consideration and simplified the wording through tests with focus groups.

Why is this important?

Because despite quite extensive work to maximise accessibility of the ballot paper, a quick check of readability (Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease) places it at 12th grade, or around age 16 years, making it accessible by only around 37.2% of the population. Changing one word – from Remain to Stay – increases that to 42.5% and reduced the grade to 11 (or 14/15 years). The Electoral Commission chose not to do this because of feedback that equated Stay with a command.

  1. Unlike a local or general election, there are no names on the ballot sheet.

 Why is this important?

Because given the situational demands of unfamiliarity and complex wording, there needs to be a recognisable cue to maximise certainty. Names can be learned and then recognised so that reliance on reading is reduced as people just look through a list for the name they know. An absence of such cues increases uncertainty and also therefore dependence on other mechanisms such as something understandable or a visual cue like an icon. The EU referendum campaign employed a range of images and slogans with the same colours appearing on both sides so that none would have made a recognisable logo to assist people in finding their preferred voting box.

  1. The ordering of the questions placed the Leave option second.

Why is this important?

For two reasons, only one of which the Electoral Commission addressed and which may, given the shortness of the list, be less relevant than the other. In any list of items to remember, there is often a Recency[3] effect whereby the last item is more likely to be remembered than earlier ones. However, there is also a Primacy effect such that the earliest items are also more likely to be remembered, creating a dip in the middle where much is forgotten. In a two-question ballot, neither could really be said to come into play. The other effect though, is very likely. When people are unsure, they often choose the second of any two options and in this particular context not only was Remain a more difficult word to process (as shown by the effect on readability of its substitution by the word Stay), but the easier word Leave appeared in the second option. This raises the possibility that a significant number of people, caught in the situational demand of what they were doing but struggling to process the wording, may have placed their cross in the box adjacent to the sentence they most understood.

  1. The media whose output is tailored to the average reading age are the most popular in the country due to the skills of the journalists who maintain that level of maximum readability.

Why is that important?

Because both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are ex and current journalists who have these skills and appeared to apply them expertly to create the kind of concise messages that appeal to the readership of popular media outlets. These tend to be emotionally rather than factually driven and are often aligned with key target concerns. In this case immigration, the NHS, and jobs.

  1. Finally, legislation that requires the advertising of goods and services to be ‘legal and decent, honest and truthful’ does not apply to politics or political campaigning[4]

Why is that important?

Because this is how the issues raised in 5 above were possible, why they can’t be challenged, and why dishonesty and manipulation were able to take the place of clear and accurate information on both sides. Decisional capacity[5] is founded on being given the best possible information towards making a choice. Where that is lacking, any choice is unsafe. It applies to all hospital and similar procedures where the outcome has implications for the patient and there are risks and benefits to weigh up. An election – a contract between the information giver and the recipient –  is no different in reality, except that the outcome affects more than the one individual decision-maker.

The questions on the EU referendum ballot paper required people to condense a multitude of arguments, each in itself of huge complexity and presented, if people were not inclined or able to engage in their own research, as simple matters linked to emotive and high profile domestic issues. Those arguments were not bound by standards requiring them to be ‘legal, decent, honest, and truthful’. They were also less easy to read than they should have been to accommodate the large numbers of the UK populace whose literacy does not reach beyond the 11-12 year level. Further, the positioning of the questions was such that the most readable came second and was therefore potentially subject to second option bias that has been shown to kick in under conditions of uncertainty.

Any further referenda, held for whatever reason, would do well to

  1. Consider readability in greater detail and adjust the wording accordingly
  2. Place questions side by side and/or randomise the order
  3. Encourage the use of consistent logos to be placed adjacent to the questions as identifiers for people with literacy or decisional difficulties
  4. Discourage the use of journalistic techniques that reflect tabloid persuasive influence strategies at the expense of information relevant to the decision
  5. Change the law to ensure the same standards of honesty to which advertising is held,  apply equally to political statements and campaigns upon which the public is required to make important decisions.


[1] See A Voice explains it clearly and significantly, is a marketing company

[2] Electoral Commission. The full report can be downloaded as a PDF

[3] Recency Effect

[4] ASA position

[5] See

15 thoughts on “How one word may have swung the EU vote

  1. It’s an appalling fact that literacy, or lack of it, is manipulated so cunningly by politicians. Repetition, repetition, repetition and more repetition of three-word phrases is the most obvious, with Trump being the current master of this technique.

    The other fact at work is that in most Western democracies, elections and referendums are won or lost by such small percentages that attracting the loopy, donkey or illiterate voters, who are a very small portion of the electorate, is enough to win. Ergo, Brexit.

    1. The small margin – in fact the lack of predetermined turnout and margin criteria commensurate with the importance of the decision – is a fundamental issue in my view. The populace though, is the populace and so asking us to vote means accepting that people with limitations of one kind or another will be part of that process and doing the best we can to make it possible for them to contribute responsibly. It’s not easy but it must be done or we risk having to set eligibility criteria and I hate to think where that would lead us.

      1. I agree wholeheartedly. However, until campaigning politicians act responsibly there will continue to be a problem of ill informed voter contribution.

        1. Sigh, yes. I’ve written to my MP asking him to press for the same conditions regarding truth, honesty, legality that apply to advertising to apply also to political campaigning. That might be a start. Then there’s the press …

  2. On the above basis, ” Leave ” is a much harder word to comprehend than ” Go “. If ” Go ” had been the option, then maybe the outcome would have been a much higher percentage opting to ” Go “

    1. I’ll have to look at the EC document again to see if they considered ‘Go’ as an option because it certainly is simpler than ‘Leave’. I wonder though, if it implies ‘To’ and since there wasn’t a ‘to’ – a destination of sorts – it may have been more confusing than helpful.

  3. I think people should have much better things to do than sit at a desk all day long coming up with these hypothetical theories. Go for a walk in the countryside rescue a dog,basically get a life!!!

  4. There is a danger that this article also fails in its objective by providing misleading information. It is stated that the average reading range is 10 years and this has been “well documented”. But what does this really mean, How can something that is well document be considered to be accurate?

    If I follow the reference given it points to a marketing site, not an academic peer reviewed paper. I’m not suggesting it is wrong but I’m interested in undersanding if it is correct. The reference could really be stronger, if indeed it is true at all.

    Just quoting something because it is already documented elsehwere could simply be perpetuating an urban myth. A bit like many of the Brexit arguments (sorry).

    As an aside, i was a Remain and I used a postal vote. But I found myself so paranoid that I had to check my vote a couple of times just in case that I somehow had crossed the wrong box. Strangely I’ve chatted to a few people who felt the same. I don’t what that also means to your pyschological profiling!

    1. There are other references but the one I’ve used is a very accessible one and it also shows how it’s used in marketing, which seemed appropriate to the context. Assessing reading, comprehension and cognitive capacity has been a significant part of my work as a clinician the past 30 years or so and while I appreciate the limitations of such constructs, they have utility in mapping onto coping with written information in the real world. As to that vote checking thing – you are seriously not alone!

  5. I find it humorous that some educated Remain voters apparently believe that voting Leave was so irrational that it could only be done by mistake or through stupidity! I have a chemistry degree, I’m an accountant, I’m politically aware, I researched how the EU works, I thought deeply and I decided to vote Leave. Temporary political instability is not evidence that voting Leave was the wrong choice. The failing EU project needed to be disrupted and I think we will all be better off as a result when new political arrangements are agreed between the UK and Europe in the next few years.

    1. You’re quite right, to assume irrationality is a mistake and pejoratively judgemental. This post just highlights a potential source of bias under particular circumstances.

  6. The Flesch-Kincaid formula was only ever meant to be used on continuous prose, not on ballots or forms – and even on continuous prose, the formula has long been seen as problematic. There’s a summary of the arguments against relying on readability formulas here:

    The Electoral Commission did extensive testing on the wording originally proposed in the referendum Bill, and proposed a different question that was similar to (but not the same as) the question that was used in the actual ballot.

    So far as I’ve been able to find out, no-one tested the final ballot.

    Seems to me that we don’t know whether there were any problems with the final ballot or not.

    The Field Guides to Ensuring Voting Intent – published by the Center for Civic Design – are very clear on the the importance of testing the final ballot:
    “Test when you know what is going to be on the ballot or when something has changed”

    1. No argument with that. As I say, it’s the cumulative effect of the way arguments were presented, the literacy issues in the population, and the idea that ‘remain’ is a much less familiar word than ‘stay’. My aim here was to draw these ideas to the attention of those who may be able to take account of them another time. For voting to be accessible in actuality and not just as a principle, it has to be inclusive which means leaving no one behind. I believe more thought has to go into the wording (and I acknowledge the work the EC did put into this), but of course that will be neither here nor there if there are no constraints over the ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ nature of the claims being made.

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