How (not) to argue for change

Note: This article was written before the referendum was held. It has now been updated to acknowledge the referendum was resoundingly beaten, with 61% of Australians voting No and 39% Yes. 

In business we spend a lot of time chasing ‘yes’.

Yes to buying from us. Yes to renewing. Yes to choosing us as their employer.

So it’s through this lens that I want to analyse the campaign for and against a Voice to Parliament. Behavioural science suggests that one side of the campaign has been much more effective than the other.

Before we begin, I want to be clear that this is not an opinion piece on the merits of the Voice. Instead it is a behavioural analysis of how arguments for or against change have been communicated in the official referendum booklet, and what lessons we can apply to our business communications.

Making inaction the safe choice

Status quo bias means people are generally more likely to stick with what they have – the 'if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it' mindset. From this perspective, any campaign against change generally has an easier behavioural task. 

While early polling suggested the majority of Australians supported constitutional recognition of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people, the No campaign has been able to play into status quo bias and make it a tighter contest than was earlier imagined.


By amplifying fears of what change means. They’ve done this by using negative language like “risky”, “unknown”, and “divisive”. They talk about it being “permanent” and how we’ll be “stuck with the negative consequences”. 

Their tagline, “If you don’t know, vote no”, is an excellent example of leaving an audience with an easy to remember action.

That it rhymes is a big part of its power. Known as 'acoustic encoding', statements that rhyme are not only more likely to be recalled but also believed.

Here's an extract from the No argument. I've highlighted the key words they've used to amplify fear of change.

Perils of positivity

From the perspective of status quo bias, the Yes campaign has had a more difficult behavioural task.

While people may say they support a change like this in polling, getting them to commit by voting in favour of it is the challenge. 

Their approach has been to highlight the benefits of the change. It’s for “unity”, “hope” and to “make a positive difference”.  Here's an extract.

The problem is these statements are too positive. What do I mean?

In order to displace the status quo in any situation, two things need to happen.

We need to:

  1. Mitigate the fear of change – providing reassurances about the change and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for people, and 
  2. Amplify the fear of not changing – creating tension about the status quo. 

As far as the Yes campaign goes, it has struggled on both points.

In terms of mitigating fear of change, the Yes campaign needed to clearly and more strongly communicate what doesn’t change if the Voice is successful. In short, how governance and regulation would largely be unaffected.

But the more significant problem relates to point two.

The Yes campaign has been too positive, relying on a ‘gain frame’ to convince voters. A gain frame highlights benefits of something. 

Psychologically, benefits are nice but losses are far more motivating. 

It might be nice to switch to a new internet provider, but I am more worried about losing connection in the process if I do.

Instead, the Yes campaign needed to create tension about maintaining the status quo, because for many Australians – the majority of voters – the status quo might seem perfectly fine.

Parliament works as it always has. Life goes on.

Unless you feel directly affected, there’s no compelling downside in leaving things as they are. 

Yes campaign supporters would argue there is a downside of course. While there is mention about "challenges" Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face, this subconsciously communicates it is 'their' problem, not 'ours'.

Further, they say it will “bring our country together”, inferring rather than more provocatively stating that we are currently divided. 

The closest they get to creating tension about the status quo is the statement “We’re all better off when governments don’t waste taxpayer money on things that aren’t working”, but this is diluted under a “Save Money” banner. 

The other problem has been a failure to answer what it means personally for individuals.

The communications talk about benefits to Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders. Rightly. 

But relying on an argument that something will be good for others is risky, especially when the upside for ‘them’ could be seen as a downside for ‘me’. 

Instead, a campaign to get people to vote for change needs to include a What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)?

The Yes campaign notes it will “Save Money”, but for the government and a generic “taxpayer” which are too far removed from feeling personally benefited. Use of second person pronouns could have changed this. “Saving your money by directing it to the most effective programs”, for example.

In short, when a case for change is being argued we need to make sticking with the status quo more of a risk than moving to something different.

In terms of this referendum, is the status quo sufficiently unpalatable to enough Australians for them to vote Yes?  Apparently not. 61% of Australians voted to maintain the status quo, with only 39% voting for change.

Lessons for business

  • To get people to stick with the status quo, emphasise the downside of change. For example, “you’ll lose your years of membership discount” or “don’t risk losing your data”
  • To get people to move from the status quo, emphasise the downside of things as they are. For example, “you risk being left behind if you don’t upgrade” or “you could be wasting thousands of dollars by being on the wrong plan”.
  • Always include a personal benefit for changing. Don’t rely on it being the ‘right’ thing to do for others.
  • When it comes to any change in your business, whether that’s asking customers to try your product or your team to work differently, give them nothing to fear if they do change but something to fear if they don’t.




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