One of the interesting aspects of the recent independence vote in Scotland was the question that was asked on the voting form: Should Scotland be an independent country?

That question enabled supporters of independence to be the “Yes” campaigners, while the supporters of the Union to be the “No” campaigners. This starting point created a very different feel for the two sides, and enabled the “Yes” team to characterize their opponents as Project Fear.

The independence question could have been asked differently. If the question, for instance, was ‘Should Scotland remain as a nation within the United Kingdom?’ the “Yes” and “No” badges would have been reversed. It would than have been up to the pro-independence campaigners to overcome that negative badge.

Personally, I believe that this different starting point will have added percentage points of support for the pro-independence camp. I’m not alone: according to The Economist Patrick Briône, the Director of Research for Survation, one of the key polling companies, also believed that the way the question was asked added votes for independence. In other words, if the alternative question had been tabled, it is more than likely that the vote in favour of staying in the UK would have been even greater.

Briône’s view is supported by research from behavioural economists. In his book Thinking Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows how the way a question is asked affects the response given. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In one experiment, surgeons were given one of two statements about a particular treatment for lung cancer. The first statement was that ‘The one-month survival rate is 90%’, while the second was that ‘There is a 10% mortality in the first month.’ The two statements logically mean the same thing, but while 84% of surgeons shown the first statement supported the treatment, only 50% of those shown the second statement favoured the approach.
  • In another piece of research Kahneman found that when respondents were asked, ‘Would you pay $5 to participate in a lottery that offers a 10% chance to win $100 and a 90% chance to win nothing?’ they were far more likely to respond positively than if they were asked, ‘Would you accept a gamble that offers a 10% chance to win $95 and a 90% chance to lose $5?’ The reason for the difference is that the second question raised the idea of ‘losses’, while the first question only talked about ‘wins’.

What are the questions that you are asking yourself, your people and your entire organisation to drive new improvements and new growth? The chances are that the way you phrase these questions will materially affect the responses you get in return.

© Stuart Cross 2014. All rights reserved.