September 22, 2014

Mind the Backlash: The Reptile’s Adventures in Scotland

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:


British Prime Minister David Cameron is breathing easier after voters in Scotland rejected independence last week. For Great Britain, it will go down in history as one of the greatest modern political gambles. The vote was called at a time when fewer than one in three Scots favored independence. But in the weeks leading up to the election, that changed dramatically as the race became “too close to call” and Cameron’s future looked to be in doubt. Even though the unity position won by more than ten points, it did end up being a wee bit closer than Cameron might have expected. So what changed in the last two years? To those in the American litigation community familiar with the latest theory on plaintiff persuasion, I’d say what changed is this: The Reptile came to Scotland. 

The approach, based on the work of David Ball and Don Keenan (Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution), focuses on ways to address and motivate jurors based on their most primal needs for safety and security. But what does that have to do with British politics? It provides a handy lesson on how people might react to a fear-based persuasive appeal. You see, the early strategy of the unity forces calling for a “No” vote on independence had a lot to do with fear: What will become of Scotland’s economy, national bank, pension systems, healthcare, etcetera? But instead of causing wary Scottish voters to wrap themselves in the relative security of the status quo they knew, it led to a resurgence in national pride, and a backlash. Among moderates and those weakly supportive of a “No” vote, there was some agreement with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, when he said, “It was always nonsense to argue that the land of Adam Smith was incapable of running our own finances.” Support for independence grew dramatically in response. This suggests that Reptile adherents should be mindful of the fact that fear can create backlash. More generally, it reminds us that arguments don’t stand on their own, and responses can sometimes reframe the debate in unexpected ways. In the last days before the vote, supporters of the unity campaign dialed down the scare tactics and instead shifted to promised perks that Scotland would get if they stayed: a definite shift from “Reptile” to “Rewards.”  This post takes a look at the question of how that fear backlash can be managed, and also adds a side note on why the polls were off.

The Reaction: Reptiles Can Rebound

In the United States at least, media coverage of the independence vote didn’t really heat up until the final few weeks. At that point, much of the attention focused on how close the race appeared to be. Terry Babcock-Lumish in The Hill noted an “11th-hour politics of fear” and an interesting feature that aired on NPR dug into the reasons why. Scotsman Michael Constantine, for example, indicated that he and his parents had switched from “No” to “Yes” just before the election — not because he was drawn toward the independence arguments, but because he was driven away from the unity campaign: “The ‘No’ campaign, the scaremongering and the fear they’re putting into people, really upset me.”

As various celebrities and world leaders all signed on to the same dangerous warnings, their target audience — the Scottish voters — were prompted to ask themselves whether there was good reason to fear. For a substantial and surprising percent of the population, the answer was “No.” In a widely-shared tweet, Scottish tennis star Andy Murray said, “no campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. excited to see the outcome. lets do this!” Murray wasn’t alone. As the same NPR story noted, “All of that anti-independence noise strangely coincided with independence surging in the polls.” In response to that surge, it seems that the unity campaign made a not-so-subtle shift in the last days before the vote. It was no longer about the perils and uncertainty of independence, it was about building a better Scotland and “Moving Forward Together.”

The Reason: The ‘Second Persona’ Suggested by the Reptile

We know that, for all the scientific aspects of the “Reptile Brain” that can be questioned, one core truth is that fear and a need for security are very strong motivators. So under what conditions does a fear appeal risk a backlash?

Here is one possible answer. I’ve written before about the rhetorical concept of the “Second Persona,” meaning that a persuader will convey one persona of themselves (their image, their credibility), and will also convey a second persona indicating their perception of their audience — the “how I see you” that comes across in the speaker’s message and manner. In that context, using an overt fear appeal risks carrying the message, “I think you’re the kind of person who will be motivated by this fear.”

And that second persona might explain why the backlash occurred in Scotland: The fear appeals cultivated by the unionists conflicted with self-identity and pride of many of the Scots. One parallel might be found in the argument that I have whenever someone tells me they want a gun in the house in order to protect themselves or their families. “Statistically,” I’ll say knowingly, “the chances that this gun will be used in an accident or a suicide are far greater than the chances it will ever be used in genuine self-defense.” I have never known that argument to work. Why? Because gun proponents are reluctant to see themselves or their families as the type of people who would be careless enough to fall prey to accident, or despondent enough to be a suicide risk. Despite the odds, they reject that image of themselves. So too the Scots who came to favor independence more following an emphasis on its risks.

In litigation, a Reptile proponent trying to personalize risk might face a similar backlash in some cases, like a products liability case that is based on misuse (“No, I’m not the kind of person who reaches under a lawn mower while it’s running…“). In situations like that, it is important to frame the risk so it isn’t about the target’s self-identity or pride. The ‘Rule for Reptiles’ would be: “Don’t point your fear appeal at a Second Persona that your audience would reject.”

A Side Note: Measure Expectation and not Just Intentions

When I was thinking about this post in the last couple of days before the Scottish vote, I thought the result would be much closer than it was, or even could have gone the other way. That was based on the many reports that the polling was “too close to call.” An interesting article in the New York Times looked at why those polls missed the greater than ten-point advantage that the “No” vote ultimately had. Polls asking Scots how they would vote were close, with some even showing a slight edge for independence at some points. However, gambling bookies in Britain and elsewhere were consistently predicting a “No” vote at around 80 percent chance. Ultimately, those bets did better than the polls.

The polls themselves had some problems, but part of the bookies’ advantage reflected an advantage in measuring expectation over intention. The polls asked for a prediction on how the respondents themselves would vote, while the bookies asked for a prediction of how others would vote. Justin Wolfers in the New York Times article explains:

My own research with Microsoft’s David Rothschild suggests that pollsters could do a better job if they learned from prediction markets. Instead of focusing on whom people say they plan to vote for, ask them instead to focus on who they think will win. Typically, asking people who they think will win yields better forecasts, possibly because it leads them to also reflect on the opinions of those around them, and perhaps also because it may yield more honest answers.

Wolfers points to a recent poll from the research company Ipsos/MORI, showing that even as measured intentions on the Scottish vote were within the margin of error, the expectations poll that asked “Regardless of how you intend to vote, what do you think the result will be?” showed the unity side winning by 11 percentage points — pretty close to the actual result of unity winning by 10.6 points.

That tells me that in our mock trial questionnaires, in addition to asking for an individual verdict, we should also be asking this: “Regardless of who you favor, if this case were to go to trial today in [this venue], who do you expect would win the trial?”


Other Posts on The Reptile


Ball, D. & Keenan, D. (2009). Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution. Balloon Press. 

Wolfers, J., & Rothschild, D. (2011, September). Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations. In Law and Economics Workshop. URL:

Image Credit: Created by Jason Bullinger, Persuasion Strategies based on photos from The Laird of Oldham, Flickr Creative Commons (flags) and, used under license (snake). 



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...