Scottish Independence and the Devil Shift

Intuitively speaking, the Scottish independence debate reinforces the idea of the ‘devil shift’ in politics. Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin used this phrase in 1987 to describe how advocacy coalitions (people who share the same beliefs and, to some extent, coordinate their behaviour) assess the behaviour of their opponents in ‘high conflict situations’: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’.

They argue that, if each coalition acted simply in a ‘rational’ way – basing their decisions on a combination of information gathering and reason – they would develop a good sense of perspective when engaging their opponents. Instead, people also use short cuts to gather information and make decisions, and this has an effect on the way that they see their opponents.

For example, people may regret losses more than they value gains, so they feel that their opponents ‘win’ more disputes, or that their own wins over their opponents are less substantial than their losses. Further, the emotional stakes are high, and people within coalitions may be more likely to feel that their opponents are more malicious or ‘evil’ than we, as outside observers, would think. This may be exacerbated by any defeat, which people may attribute to the power of their opponents rather than the power of their opponent’s arguments. They pursue 4 main hypotheses:

  1. ‘Actors will impugn the motives and/or reasonableness of their opponents while perceiving themselves to be reasonable people acting out of concern for the public welfare’.
  2. ‘Actors will evaluate their opponents’ behavior in harsher terms than will most members of their policy community, while evaluating their own behavior in more favorable terms’.
  3. ‘Actors will perceive their opponents to be more influential, and themselves to be less influential, than will most members of their policy community’.
  4. ‘The amount of distortion (or “devil shift”) is correlated with the distance between one’s beliefs and those of one’s opponents’.

I said ‘intuitively speaking’, because this just ‘chimes’ with my impression of a lot of the debate so far. We are used to political parties and campaign managers demonising their opponents as a strategy, knowing that their actual views are more sensible when they remove the public mask. What I’m not used to is ordinarily sensible people – some of them, shock horror, are academics – leaving reason at the door when describing the ideas or characteristics of their opponents (no, not you – I didn’t mean you). Too many people seem willing to demonise and overestimate the power of the people representing each campaign; to eulogise their own beliefs and predict the apocalypse if the vote goes the wrong way.

But maybe that’s because I’ve gotten in with a bad crowd and/ or I spend too much time on social media (which exacerbates a tendency to speak before thinking things through).

If we are being a bit more scientific about it, how would we demonstrate this ‘devil shift’. It’s not easy to go beyond intuition to produce something worth pursuing as a student dissertation or publishing in an academic journal. For example, Sabatier et al suggest that it is difficult to measure the strength and consistency of beliefs in coalitions without a large survey – and they go to great lengths to produce data to inform their hypotheses. I wonder if something similar is now possible to pursue using a combination of deduction and the gathering of data from places such as social media. This is yet another example of a study that I would like to see rather than one I would like to do.

See also: a discussion of a different kind of link between the church and the debate


Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

7 responses to “Scottish Independence and the Devil Shift

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