How your risk attitudes affect how you vote in the independence referendum

Published: 7 May 2014
Author:

by David Bell, Liam Delaney & Michael McGoldrick, University of Stirling’s Management School

People's perceptions and attitudes determine electoral outcomes. Both the Yes and No options involve uncertain costs and benefits that will unfold over many decades. Our new report is unique in examining voters’ attitudes to risk and how they plan to vote on September 18th.

We found that people’s risk attitudes are important in determining how they plan to vote in the referendum. Yes voters are substantially more willing to take risks. To assess risk appetite we used a well-validated measure asking people to determine where they thought they were on a simple risk scale of zero to ten. Zero marks an unwillingness to take risks, while 10 is the maximum willingness to take risks. 

For each point increase on the scale support for Yes increase by 3.6 per cent meaning that over the whole scale support for Yes goes from 25 to 65 per cent. Even given the fact that the bulk of people are between 4 and 8 on the risk scale, it is clear that attitude to risk is an important driver of voting intentions. It remains substantial and important once statistical controls for other individual characteristics, such as age, gender and country of birth are introduced. Attitudes to risk are also partly reflected in what Yes and No voters say they prioritise in deciding how to vote with economic risks to pensions and national debt being more important determinants for No voters.

Our findings also confirm many of the key predictors of voting intention with party political affiliation, national identity and trust in institutions all having large predictive effects. Furthermore our report reveals interesting demographic patterns with women being substantially less likely to support independence and older, higher income people also being more likely to support No. Those with Roman Catholic or no religious affiliation are substantially more likely to support a Yes outcome than Church of England and Church of Scotland voters. Policy preferences also play a role with No supporters being less supportive of universal benefits and immigration.

It is clearly the case that many voters are deeply entrenched in their view and will likely not change. However, 30 per cent of our respondents said they would change their view if they believed they would benefit economically. Such voters hold the key to the outcome of this referendum.

Yougov administered the survey designed by us and involving a representative sample of 2037 people in December 2013. We hope our findings contribute to a rational debate on the risks and benefits of both sides and aids the process of understanding people's concerns.  

How people deal with the complex nature of the voting decision is itself an important issue and understanding this is an objective of our ongoing research. It will also examine further the nature of how people are perceiving risk and how this is influencing their voting intentions. This first piece of research on risk and constitutional change shows how important this issue may be for the outcome.

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