We start this semester’s blog with an aspect that we discovered in the past. Who would not know the feeling that you started something and were really excited about it. But then: hard to finish it up.
Take Ukraine. It happened 2004 with the Orange Revolution, 2013 with Euromaidan and again last year with a blog entry that was never finished. Unlike in pre-democratic Ukraine, the failure to complete something which has been started before did not lead to jail (Yuliya Timochenko) or in Russian exile (Victor Yanukovich). Instead, we had a full year to remain productive. And instead of bringing up just a renovated oligarchic system, we were much more modest and simply tried to really finish up our observations of 2017. Which leads us to the following topic:
blue/yellow. yellow/blue. blow/yellue. yell/blow. …
When we travelled to Charkiw and Kiew last year, we were overwhelmed by the sheer omnipresence of the colours blue and yellow in every day life situations and locations. Was this the intended result of an increased national identity and patriotic consciousness or did it even promote those ideas – may it be explicitly or subliminally? We do not want to come up with a complete answer to this question. But during the journey in autumn 2017 a number of aspects were noticable and therefore shall be mentioned and put into a larger picture to give the reader an idea of the impressions we had and possibilities how to interpret them.
Theories of cognitive biases
Many sociologists and psychologists have developed various different theories on subconscious effects that influence human perception, mindsets or even actions. Wikipedia registers more than a hundred different of such cognitive biases. What all these effects have in common is that they severely contradict one of the fundamental assumptions for the Homo Oeconomicus – human rationality. As this is essential to all neoclassical economic theory, which still dominates the economic world, the acknowledgement of human irrationality would bring mainstream economists into severe trouble.
It is therefore remarkable that an economist published a best-seller on human psychology and how human decisions are often biased: Daniel Kahneman. In „Thinking, fast and slow“ he presents stunning findings and insights, among them the idea of framing. Briefly speaking, framing means that the perception of the very same information may vary depending on the method, focus, context or wording used for its delivery. This is crucial knowledge whenever it is necessary to convince or persuade a specific audience – may it be potential customers of a company or voters of a political party or candidate. Framing therefore plays an important role also when it comes to spread general political ideas or gain approval for certain measures.
Another effect that is relevant to the phenomenon which we noticed is the Mere-exposure-effect, or familiarity principle. It describes that people develop a preference for or a rather positive attitude towards things they are familiar with, e.g. because they know them or have seen them before. According to Kahneman, there are studies showing that people are biased by things even when they were confronted with them too short to recognize: totally subconsciously.
Colours as political framing
Putting these two concepts together and lifting them onto an abstract concept, we receive an intruiging idea. It is not difficult to agree that the conscious and deliberate presence and perception of national symbols, including the flag, might influence and bias citizens of a country, supporting the bonding with the nation, its ideas and institutions. But given the abovementioned theories it might also be thinkable that the mere amount of presence of the colours blue and yellow – the colours of the national flag of Ukraine – in the public sphere subconsciously bias people towards a mindset that is rather affirmative of nationalist and patriotic ideas. This mindset, plus the appearance of the public sphere, create a frame that will also support the delivery of such ideas.
If this was true we would have to discover a large number of combinations of the colours blue and yellow in Kiev and Kharkiv, where we would not expect it – and we did!
Here are our observations and thoughts:
- Blue and yellow, blue and yellow, blue and yellow. This combination occurred in an exceptional amount on every possible object, both intended or accidentally. The colour yellow alone had a strong presence in fields where it is usually not as popular, e. g. as colour for a car. Remarkable: Pairs or groups of people were surprisingly often wearing one piece in blue and yellow, respectively, matching up to the combination of the flag.
- Putting into perspective: colours. The public sphere in Kiev and Kharkiv is much more colourful than we know it from our German hometowns. Large objects as well as little details sum up to a colourful mosaic. In this environment it is less surprising that there is also a higher chance to find yellow things or blue and yellow combinations.
- What about the other? If the idea of the colour combination blue and yellow would support Ukrainian nationalist ideas, it would be inevitable not to deny that the presence of a colour or a combination of colours representing Russia could have a counter effect and influence Ukrainians towards a pro-Russian mindset, as this can be seen as the counterpart to Ukrainian nationalist conviction. Indeed we also found a number of red or red-white-blue combinations, but by far not as much as blue and yellow.
- Who is the other? Another crucial question is: How would the “Russian” side be represented? Plain red, as in the communist ideology? That would not be distinct. Neither was the combination of red and yellow as in the Soviet flag. The same applies for the combination red, white and blue as in the current Russian flag, which could also stand for a number of other countries, such as France, Netherlands or the USA. The combination of blue and yellow has a structural advantage here: it is distinct and it is familiar: it represents the Ukranian flag.
- Have we been biased? We could not fully exclude the chance that we were biased during our observations, as we were focussing so much on spotting blue and yellow combinations. This is another cognitive bias called priming, where „exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention“ (Wikipedia). Possibly we would have recognised about the same amount of those combinations back home if we had seeked for them. But now, almost one year after this journey, I can testify that I spot more of these combinations than before, as I have been framed to this phenomenon, but the quantity is – as far as I can judge – significantly lower than during those few days in Ukraine.
We invite you to share a few from our observations and draw your own conclusions from them. We are sure they help in answering this year’s unfinished trip in answering the question: to whom belongs Ukraine!