Chile: Convention, plebiscite, and aversion to loss

Many thought that the overwhelming result of approval (78.27%) in the plebiscite of October 2020 ensured the success of the exit plebiscite. Others, more critical, bet that in view of the bad design of the whole process, a kind of  “Christmas tree” Constitution would end up being built, full of rights and gestures for all the perceptiveness present in the environment, which would make it almost impossible to reject it. Some also pointed out that it would be very difficult for anyone to dare to elaborate and display the intellectual banner of rejection.

However, the results of the different surveys of the last few weeks show a considerable increase in rejection, even surpassing approval in some of them, to which are added the manifestations of disenchantment and concern in the media and social networks. Therefore, the initial auspicious forecasts should at least be questioned.

Facing the perceptions that circulate; and, applying the classic prospective theory of Kahneman and Tversky, which explains how people make decisions within alternatives that involve risk, considering the debate on the Constitutional Convention (CC), I dare to suggest that an aversion to defeat has been established in public opinion. 

The theory proposes that decisions of people at risk tend to make choices that give greater certainty (“certainty effect”) in the face of potential gains. In decision-making, loss aversion is stronger than eventual gains. According to Kahheman and Tversky, only when we observe that all our options are bad are we willing to take potential risks in order to achieve certain profits. Of course, the definition of gains or losses is determined by a reference point that corresponds to the place where you are, in this case, the elector at the time of voting.

Hence, the overwhelming 78% in favor of approval in 2020 can be understood as a decision in the framework that all options were bad. To continue with the same Constitution was to continue with the country in crisis. Let us not forget the chaotic situation Chile was in at the time of the plebiscite.

Although the option of approval could be considered risky, at that time it was seen as a promising way out. A similar optimism could be observed in the success of the popular “People’s List” and the independents in the election of constituents. This could be explained by the failure of the traditional ruling elite to meet expectations, which gave way to anger and frustration and the pursuit of risky and disruptive political alternatives.

But now the scenario is different. There are two options: one that establishes certainties (the 2005 Constitution) and another that promises improvements, but also risks (the proposal being drafted by the CC). The context factor plays a key role in the decision-making process by transforming the point of reference and is called the “framework effect”.

What we have seen so far, from the installation of the CC to its results in the commissions and in the plenary, has meant for many a great sense of loss. The first was that the CC’s actions, individually and/or collectively, did not contribute to responding to one of its main expectations: to diminish the polarized environment that had been installed in the country.

The risky bet of many was to clean up the country after the 2020 plebiscite, but in the light of the facts, it had no effect. A series of unfortunate events fed that perception. From then on, there are several statements and actions of many of its members that operated in the opposite direction to the bet made by the country. However, this disenchantment will not necessarily determine a position regarding the vote, it may be a seasoning, but not necessarily the ultimate justification.

There are different perceptions with respect to the exit plebiscite that would have an impact at the time of voting. It should be taken into consideration that each individual or group set a set of expectations in the work of the CC. In addition, it is worth stressing that cognitive tactics are important in this theory; voters will never handle the entire articulation in all its detail, adopting a position based on the issues that interest them.

There are at least three positions that may lead to taking the stance of rejecting the draft Constitution, and clearly, there may be a combination of these categories. First, there will be those who look holistically at the draft Constitution and consider that a kind of “everyone’s house” was not built on it. This group of individuals will opt to keep the existing one, even if they do not fully like it.

Secondly, there are those who saw the constituent process as a way to place their issues of interest and enthusiastically used the participation mechanisms opened by the CC. However, their objectives may have been discarded or, even worse, the constitutional proposal itself could be rather a threat to them. For example, parents of subsidized schools, those who defend the individual ownership of pension savings, groups defending rural traditions, groups defending the autonomy of the central bank, academics, etc.

In short, the expectations created in the participation process could end up in the perception of a strong loss. Let us think of it this way: how many of the 77 popular initiatives that reached 15,000 signatures to enter the CC, not counting those that could not access (2,496, published), will be accepted by the new text?

Thirdly, we could identify those who are fearful and skeptical of the mood and forces prevailing within the CC. For these, the most convenient action will be a rejection because the improvements promised by the CC are not comparable to the losses. Here we can mention the different religious groups and their rejection of abortion in defense of their beliefs, the defenders of the idea of nation and their rejection of plurinationality, lawyers and their reticence to the new justice system, etc.

Thus, people’s decisions will be closely related to their point of reference and clearly, the framing effect will be determinant in the definition of loss or gain. The economic situation and the weakness and/or strength of the government will also be important. In other words: will the benefits promised by the new Constitution be able to compensate for the uncertainty it opens up and the perception of loss?
To this must be added the more reformist position of some on the fact that it will not be Pinochet’s Constitution (1980) the one that will govern in case the rejection triumphs, but the one of Ricardo Lagos (2005), and for this purpose possible plans B (“certainty effect”) are already being considered.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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