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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 26-Mar-17


Sunday 26-March-17

Leave, Remain or Stay: Small words that may have changed the world

Since 2016, Brexit has been all the talk in the UK. It has also gained a great deal of interest in Europe and around the world as international trade and migration are seriously affected by this. The UK's vote to leave the European Union was a contentious and surprising one. Those who wanted to stay in Europe were expected to win, but were pipped at the post by a narrow margin.

In closely-fought contests, even the smallest things can make the difference between winning and losing. In this case, we can look at the words used, and how these might have been used to bias the results.

Initially, the vote was going to be a simple answer to the question 'Do you want to leave the EU?' However, someone realized that this would cause bias because, as all sales people know, people are generally more likely to answer 'Yes' than 'No' to any question. We like to feel positive and 'Yes' just seems better. The 'Yes' campaign (to leave) would hence have an advantage.

So they changed the question to 'Do you want to leave or remain in the EU?' Now the choice is 'Leave' or 'Remain'. This seems better, but they are still not equal. 'Leave' is a nice, simple, one-syllable word. 'Remain' is a two-syllable word that is more likely to be used by those with greater language sophistication. A word that is more equal to 'Leave' would be 'Stay'. Why was this not used? It is a single syllable and is sociologically simpler than 'Remain'.

To make this even more biased, the actual voting slip had two choices: 'Remain a member of the European Union' and 'Leave the European Union'. The first choice is longer than the second choice, again making the 'leave' option a cognitively easier one to make.

For want of a syllable, the UK's future, as well as that of Europe and the rest of the world, has been changed forever.

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