The AV referendum - it's still bugging me

Last week, for the first time in my entire adult life, myself and the rest of the people of the UK got the chance to chance their electoral voting system. The change available to us wasn't exactly earth shattering; we were able to choose between the current system (first past the post - you put an 'x' beside your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes gets a seat in Parliament) and AV (you get to rank your choices on the voting slip). AV wasn't much of an alternative. There are better voting methods out there like Single Transferrable Vote or STV but that was what we got.

And then two-thirds of us (or at least the half of voters who actually turned up) said 'no' to AV. WHAATTTT?????

To put this decision into context, let's imagine our current voting system as a trip to the film rental shop. Ten friends, three men and seven women, decide to watch a film together one evening. They potter along to the shop and find there are five DVD's left on the shelves; Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Love Story, The Princess Bride and Cannibal Holocaust. By a strange coincidence, the three guys want to watch Cannibal Holocaust, one because he's unstable, the second because he got recently dumped and would rather stab himself in the leg than watch a romantic story and the third because he likes getting a reaction. The women all definitely don't want to watch Cannibal Holocaust but are split between the four other films. The group takes a vote. The results are:

Sleepless in Seattle - 2
Steel Magnolias - 2
Love Story - 2
The Princess Bride - 1
Cannibal Holocaust - 3.

Since the group is operating a 'first past the post' approach, Cannibal Holocaust wins. They take out that film and go back to the house. The three guys have a mixed evening; the unstable one likes it and the other two regret their rash choice. All seven women on the other hand have a completely rubbish evening watching a long series of morally repugnant acts.

I can sympathise with them. When the next general election comes around, I'll probably be sharing the same fate.

With AV, Cannibal Holocaust would never have won. If the group had ranked their choices, something like The Princess Bride (romance, humour and sword fighting) would have easily won. Everyones' evening would then have been somewhere between 'all right' and 'good', a lot better alternative to a small minority going 'brilliant!' and everyone else wanting to leave the house.

But what's really been bugging me is why people actually voted 'no'. AV won't cost much more, it's pretty simple and even if you only like one candidate, you just put '1' by his or her name and leave the rest blank. What's not to like?

Then I remembered an article I'd read in the New Scientist recently. Jamil Zaki and colleagues at Harvard University asked men to rate how attractive they found a series of photos of women's faces. The men were then given the average rating for each photo, said to be determined by a previous group. In reality, these ratings were randomly generated by a computer. Thirty minutes later, the participants reassessed the same photos while having their brains scanned using fMRI. As expected, the men's ratings changed to match the consensus scores more closely. However, Zaki's team found that, based on the brain scans, the men had genuinely begun to believe that the faces were closer to what they'd heard was the majority view.

In other words, the men had been brainwashed into believing something just by telling them that it was what most people believed. They hadn't been persuaded to change their view or forced to change their view. The subjects didn't even amend their ratings while quietly sticking to their own view. It was a case of 'she's no looker... oh, I’ve heard everyone thinks she's hot... wait a second, she's gorgeous!'

In the light of that, the AV result last week was no surprise at all. If the voters in the UK were told that most people thought AV was rubbish, then most of them would vote 'no'. Why AV was rubbish was irrelevant. The only important thing was that if all the papers and television said it was rubbish, the voters would vote accordingly and believe they were right, just like the men's revised ratings on Zaki's test.

When you think about it, that makes the owners of Britain's TV channels and newspapers the real power in politics. I wonder if they know that?