Voter attitudes to risk and independence referendum choices

7th May 2014

People who are more willing to take risks are more likely to vote ‘Yes’ in Scotland’s referendum, according to researchers at the University of Stirling.

Professors David Bell and Liam Delaney, and researcher Michael McGoldrick from the University of Stirling’s Management School, looked at individual traits and constitutional change in Scotland.

Their study adds to the debate on the Scottish Constitution by explicitly measuring people’s tolerance for risk using a simple scale validated in recent studies. The academics looked at how a representative sample of Scottish voters was likely to vote and how this related to other attitudes, beliefs and personal characteristics.

In a paper published today (Wednesday May 7), they say people’s acceptance of risk is “highly predictive” of voting intention . . . “with respondents who display lower levels of risk aversion being more likely to state that they would vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum.”

The study also examined people’s willingness to accept short-term costs for long-term benefits, another factor that is considered key in decision making. As discussed in the report, risk attitudes substantially predict people’s voting intention while attitudes towards the future are not predictive.

The full results are published on the Future of UK and Scotland website

The researchers said: “Our survey showed that a majority of respondents were in favour of retaining the Union. The difference between the support for a ‘No’ vote and that for ‘Yes’ partly reflect the situation in Dec 2013, when the survey was carried out: since then the margin has narrowed.”

“Consistent with previous research, males are more supportive of a ‘Yes’ vote than females and there is somewhat less support among older voters. Around 18 per cent of the gender effect is explained by higher levels of risk aversion among female voters.”

“Support for independence is related to a wide variety of economic beliefs and preferences including beliefs that an independent Scotland will have better debt and inflation outcomes.

However, there is strong support for Scotland keeping the pound among those who intend to vote ‘Yes’.”

Speaking about the results of the survey, Professor Liam Delaney said: “The upcoming referendum poses a difficult choice for Scottish voters and one that requires consideration of many complex economic and political factors. Our evidence bears out the importance of people’s core attitudes to risk in determining their voting intention”.

The survey was carried out by YouGov in December 2013. It had 2,037 respondents who gave answers on factors such as age, income and their views on independence.

The study also found that religion could affect the decision to vote with Roman Catholics and those with no religious affiliation having the highest level of support for independence.

Income per household is also an important determinant of voting intention, which those belonging to higher income households more likely to vote ‘No’.

Professor David Bell said: “The upcoming referendum will be decided partly by people’s perception of economic costs and benefits. It is important to understand how these perceptions are formed and our research provides a strong step in this direction.”

The survey found:

  • Respondents who score highly on a simple scale measuring willingness to take risks show substantially higher support for Independence. However, there is no difference between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters in the importance they attach to the future or making future plans.
  • For those intending to vote ‘Yes’, a clear majority would prefer to keep the pound; the next preference being a new Scottish currency and then the Euro.
  • A small percentage of ‘Yes’ voters would prefer Scotland to remain part of the UK with more devolved powers and a very small percentage of ‘No’ voters would vote for independence if an independent Scotland kept Sterling.
  • ‘Yes’ voters are more likely to prefer more migration to the country, to have stronger preferences for no cap on household welfare benefits, and to prefer universal tuition fees.
  • ‘Yes’ voters are also more likely to trust the Scottish parliament and Scottish politicians, while distrusting UK parliament and the UK politicians.
  • Country of birth strongly predicts support for Independence. Of those born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland support for Independence is approximately half that of those born in Scotland.
  • For those intending to vote ‘Yes’ tend to view Scottish pride, Scottish history and Scottish oil as important in making a decision, while for the ‘No’ voters, pensions and national debt are more important issues.
  • For most issues, ‘Yes’ voters believe that independence will improve matters, such as taxes and schools, conditions for small businesses, and the inequality gap.
  • Those intending to vote ‘No’ think that bank deposits will be less safe after independence. They have similar views on personal tax, pensions and inflation. Those intending to vote ‘No’ as a majority believe that things will get worse, while those intending to vote ‘Yes’ believe that things will be better after independence.
  • A majority of those intending to vote ‘Yes’ believed that Scotland’s influence would improve as well as their own influence with politicians. Overall this suggests that the motivation for intending to vote ‘Yes’, for personal circumstances, is motivated more by an expected increase in pride in the country and the ability to influence politicians, than by improvements to jobs or income.
  • A majority of ‘No’ voters believed that influence with other countries would decrease as a result of independence, as would their prospects of finding a job and their own personal income.

The survey was undertaken as part University of Stirling’s part in Future of the UK and Scotland work across a range of major universities and think-tanks to inform the referendum debate. It brings the best of UK social science to the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future and its implications for the rest of the UK. That debate is focused in particular on the referendum question that will be posed on 18 September 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

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Clare de Mowbray's picture
University of Edinburgh
7th May 2014
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