Greece is going through economic, political, and identity crisis. Yes, you already know that. Even if you’re not savvy on keeping up with current affairs, you might have seen masses on television waving Greek and European Union flags, followed by hosts and pundits talking about some referendum, and found yourself wondering – what’s that about?
Understand this, at the heart of the referendum is actually a very simple question posed to the Greek citizens – whether they want their country to remain under the EU banner or say goodbye to the league, with the latter alternative having come to be known as Grexit.
Now, I’m not going to detail the reasons behind this sudden popular vote to get out of the merry band; there are plenty of sources you can find to split hairs (some listed in the resources section, to actually help you understand the Greece’s predicament in case you’re Johnny-come-lately to the scene or have been living under the rocks for a while). What I’m here to talk about today is inspired from a BBC article (don’t jump to the hyperlink before finishing this article! Okay fine, you can do that, but make sure you do come back to finish the stuff ahead, which, I promise, is going to be interesting).
In case you heeded to my word and chose to stay here, the article starts out with the title ‘The Greek referendum question makes (almost) no sense’ and a photo of the referendum, which is basically a brusque paragraph describing Greece government’s hassle with the Troika (a Russian word originally describing a sledge carried by three horses, now abused to mean the triple combo of European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund in this context, which, unlike the original definition, don’t provide a very fun ride nowadays). The paragraph then follows up with reference to two obscure documents issued by the Troika and a set of binary choices to the people: no and yes.
For those of you who sensed slight awkwardness at the end of the above paragraph, it is because the position of last two words has been flipped from the order you’re used to seeing – yes and no. It’s a very unusual pattern, isn’t it? Even the drafters of the recent referendum related to Scotland’s Independence got the two choices in an obvious pattern.
Do you think it might be because of the grammatical structure in the language? (After all, the phrase it’s all Greek to me isn’t unheard of). Or do you think it might be a cultural convention in Athens to dole out the negative choice before the positive one?
While one could make number of arguments in favor of the above two theories, they hardly seem to fit the bill. You’ll discover as you proceed with the BBC article how tricky little adjustments to the ballot choices manipulated the masses, illustrating (literally) examples from the history where both Chilean dictator Pinochet and Adolf Hitler won the show of hands with more percentile than I ever got on my Physics exams, because either the ballot paper had ‘yes’ in larger font size than ‘no’, or because it had national flag under ‘yes’ and a blank, black rectangle under ‘no’.
You might personally think if it really matters whether yes comes first or no. In Hitler or Pinochet’s case, people were misled by fiddling with the choices in a more graphic manner; but how much sway can a little swapping of order have over the minds of people? Do you think people who already have solidified opinions over the matter are likely to reverse their decision suddenly because they were presented choices in wrong sequence? Do you think a die-hard Yankees fan is suddenly going to give up on his favourite team just because it underperformed last couple of seasons?
While dogmatic beliefs are a matter of discussion for some other time, it turns out that the order of choices in a ballot does have impact on voting behaviour, at least when it comes to picking from the long list of candidates during general elections (hear, hear, US citizens and all the Presidential Candidates!).
There’s ample research available showing that people do in fact normally pick from the candidates at the top of the list, and skip the ones towards the bottom usually. But the important question is – why?
Because a candidate’s name is not just simply a name – it’s a pandora’s box of details: the candidate’s face, their party affiliation, their family background, the promises they made in their speeches, whether they come from your home town or from somewhere else, what is their take on marijuana and abortion, on environment, on taxes, on religion, on pretty much every controversial issue you can bring to mind, what was the last scandalous remark they made against their political adversaries, if they’ve ever been involved with a Hollywood celebrity, or even participated in beauty pageant in youth. And if you don’t possess photographic memory (which probably no one does), recalling all these details might not be as swift as you’d like them.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?
Thinking about it now, making a decision for selecting future president doesn’t appear that simple. And do you think that all the voters, whom democracy entrusts with making an informed and intelligent choice about their leaders, will take these factors into account for each and every candidate?
Good luck finding such a remarkable individual.
What actually happens is that majority of the voters (if not all) suffer from decision fatigue when confronted with a scroll longer than their pants (read, yes we are all lazy to do more than necessary work). As you go down the list, you become less and less zealous about making a choice, because you’ve either already found the candidate you wanted to vote for, or because each and every step is so damn mentally exhausting and you don’t care anymore.
‘Hang On! But there’s no long-winded list of political wannabes to be remembered in a referendum, remember? There are just two plain choices, nothing in between,’ you think here. As always, my friend, your astute observation is correct.
It’s true – what holds for general elections may not hold for a referendum with just couple of alternatives. The research for ballot order in referendum is far, far less than for the candidate elections, and one of the recent studies by (Matsusaka, n.d.) found that although there was no particular positional advantage for any of the multiple propositions with yes/no, yes/no options in Californian referendums (Boy, do Californians love populism!), the propositions with popular support benefited being at the top of the list and the ones with least support at the bottom, because people started losing interest going down. Another study by (Augenblick and NIcholson, 2015) shows that having suffered through mentally expensive tasks before a ballot, people also came to rely on rule of thumb rather than rational selection during the vote because of fatigue.
Unlike the Californian referendums, however, the Greek plebiscite has no multiple propositions – just one question, which, unfortunately, has been phrased so confoundedly that people might as well read a rocket science manual before answering (I strongly suspect that Greek government hired a past winner of Bulwer-Lytton Contest to draft the referendum), and the dubious misplacement of no and yes doesn’t help either (although it does help one gain insight into the wishes and expectations of the Greek bureaucracy). Fortunately, thanks to Internet (especially Twitterati), the question has been tossed out wide enough to have the real gist squeezed out of it.
The rigging of game by political powers is nothing new or unfamiliar to us – what matters most is to realize how the game is being rigged. It’s no secret what answer partisans expect from the voters – prime minister Alexis Tsipras went as far as to urge all Greek citizens on national television to vote ‘no’ in the ballot, while bigwigs at European Union are insisting the opposite.
For a country that prides itself as the birthplace of modern democracy, however, the privilege of choice should ultimately belong to people, not politicians acting as babysitters for them.
Featured Image By aesthetics of crisis, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aestheticsofcrisis/ under Creative Commons License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
ABC News, (2015). 5 things you need to know about the Greek debt crisis. [online] Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-29/five-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-greek-debt-crisis/6581818 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2015].
Augenblick, N. and NIcholson, S. (2015). Ballot Position, Choice Fatigue, and Voter Behavior. [online] Available at: http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/ned/choice_fatigue.pdf [Accessed 2 Jul. 2015].
BBC News, (2015). The Greek referendum question makes (almost) no sense – BBC News. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33311422 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2015].
Matsusaka, J. (n.d.). Ballot Order Effects in Referendum Elections. SSRN Journal. [online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.462.5563&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
Matthews, D. (2015). 9 questions about the Greek crisis you were too embarrassed to ask. [online] Vox. Available at: http://www.vox.com/2015/6/30/8867939/greece-economic-crisis [Accessed 2 Jul. 2015].
Meredith, M. and Salant, Y. (2012). On the Causes and Consequences of Ballot Order Effects. Polit Behav, [online] 35(1), pp.175-197. Available at: https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~marcmere/workingpapers/BallotOrder.pdf.
Times, T. (2015). Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/business/international/greece-debt-crisis-euro.html?_r=0 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2015].