Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 06, 2015

How Poor Choice Architecture Could Determine the Future of Greece and Europe

Two boxing gloves facing each other

By Jon M Jachimowicz & Sam McNerney

This Sunday, nearly 10 million eligible Greek citizens will vote over the future of their country, potentially influencing the future of the European Union and the strength of the Euro. Alexis Tsipras, the Prime Minister of Greece, has placed his faith in the Greek population, insisting voters will follow his recommendation and reject the referendum. The alternative is accepting a proposal offered by the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, which outlines terms Greece must follow to repay their debt.

Is Tsipras’ faith in his fellow Greeks warranted? Leading economists around the world, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, disagree over which option is better. However, it’s worth wondering if the outcome of the vote will be determined not by political opinion or careful analysis but a seemingly irrelevant factor: the design of the referendum ballot.

Most Americans will remember how the flawed design of Florida’s notorious “butterfly-ballot” led elderly Jewish voters in Florida to accidentally vote for Pat Buchanan in the 2000 presidential election. A study of Florida’s ballots, published in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy by Craig Fox and Sim Sitkin, revealed that around 2,000 votes for Al Gore were ‘lost’ because voters misunderstood the form, falling prey to what psychologists call “stimulus-response compatibility.” If the design of the ballot had taken this bias into account, Fox and Sitkin argue, Al Gore would have won the election and become the 43rd president of the United States.

This Sunday, Greek voters could be swayed by similar misleading cues. For instance, people are notoriously bad at understanding basic statistics. Even the way a simple percentage is framed, such as a surgery being labeled as having a 90 percent survival rate versus a 10 percent fatality rate, can dramatically influence how we decide. Given this cognitive bias, officials must carefully decide how to frame Greece’s debt.

Representing debt as a percentage (debt-to-GDP ratio) rather than in absolute numbers (cost per citizen) could cause citizens to underestimate debt load. By phrasing the debt in terms of how much each citizen owes—if the total debt (€242 billion) is divided between the nearly 10 million eligible Greek citizens, each citizen would owe €24.280 – voters may better understand what the country needs to do to pay off its debt.

Furthermore, framing the referendum as an attempt to “complete the current program” (growth frame) versus “prevent the collapse of the current program” (loss frame) could likewise influence voters to underestimate the consequences of a potential financial collapse.

The order in which each frame is presented will also influence voters—what psychologists call query theory. For example, the referendum begins by informing citizens that the vote is about “reforms for the completion of the current program and beyond.” Phrased this way, the ballots will likely influence voters to first consider the Tsipras’ suggestion and reject the referendum. However, if the ballot first emphasizes the “reforms for the prevention of collapse of the current program and beyond,” voters will more likely think about the financial consequences of debt and be more inclined to vote for the referendum.

Greece is the cradle of democracy, the birthplace of Western thought, and the home of dozens of intellectual giants—Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras. Putting the future of Greece in the hands of ordinary citizens is the logical next step for the country. However, the government must avoid hastily assembling the referendum without thinking about how its design may systematically influence voters. If we want to have faith in Greek voters, we need to be aware of how these unconscious cues can shape voter behavior.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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