Two horse race

According to a study by the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, published last week, the human brain is fundamentally unable to cope with three things at once; the maximum extent of our multi-tasking ability is to handle just two at a time. The study reports that the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPC) – the part of our brain that drives our behaviour based on the value of rewards – is where the restriction lies. In multiple choice situations the MPC divides itself in two, each half dealing with one choice. But it cannot divide into more than two, so any choice between three or more things needs to be simplified before it can be made.

It seems to me that theory is backed up by what we observe in the competitive world of brands. Coke vs. Pepsi. McDonalds vs. Burger King. PC vs. Mac. Even in those categories where there are clearly more than just two choices, do we not always whittle down to a shortlist of two before deciding? And are there any major product or service groups where the market allows the sustained presence of a choice between a definite three?

Except in our politics. Here (in England at least, and with no disrespect intended to the fringe parties) we are asked to choose from three. And our brains can’t cope with that.

So here’s what’s so smart about the Liberal Democrat strategy for this election: the problem they have astutely acknowledged is that being the third party in a three party choice will always discount them from true consideration in most people’s minds as they follow their neurological obligation to rationalise their choice to two. So the solution they have elegantly proposed is to force the rationalisation of the choice, on behalf of the electorate, in a bold and different way. What Nick Clegg achieved at the Leader’s Debate was to position Labour and The Conservatives not as a choice of two, but of one. He successfully made them feel the same. He didn’t challenge or criticise either one of them, he challenged and criticised them both. He referred to them as the “old” parties, grouping them together at every opportunity and laying blame for failure at their collective feet. After the Chancellor’s Debate a few weeks ago, there were some who felt that Vince Cable had taken a significant advantage from being stood in the middle of the other two. It had allowed him to mediate and to balance, it was said. But in Nick Clegg’s case his position at the edge was his advantage. He deliberately stood apart from his competition and forced them closer together, alloying them into one. He turned the choice from the humanly unmanageable three parties, to a cortex-friendly two: the old one (Labservatives), or the new.

As the next phase of this election unfolds the Liberal Democrats would be wise to stand by this approach. And Labour and The Conservatives must beware: should they unite to attack this new threat? Or does that just play to the Lib Dems hand by making them appear even more the same?

Their medial prefrontal cortex must be hurting a bit right now.

First published on Brand Republic, 19 April 2010, in the build-up the Uk General Election.