Research reveals Margaret Thatcher’s cunning use of psychology – was this the key secret to her electoral success? Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

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Research reveals Margaret Thatcher’s cunning use of psychology – was this the key secret to her electoral success?

Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

DSCN1149Election success in Western democracies now comes down to being good on TV.

Nicholas Clegg was virtually unknown to the British public, until an electrifying performance during televised debates before the last election, put him and his party back in contention.

Margaret Thatcher’s electoral success could be linked to her superior performance before TV cameras, compared to her main adversaries of the era.

Psychologists Peter Bull and Kate Mayer from the University of York analysed in unparalleled depth Thatcher’s performances in the main TV interviews of the day.

Their analysis reveals that she deployed psychological techniques which appear to have given her a crucial edge.

In the study entitled, ‘Interruptions in Political Interviews: A study of Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock’, eight televised interviews were selected from four different interviewers, who each interviewed both Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, and the video recordings were analysed.

No significant difference was found between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock either in the extent to which they interrupt or were interrupted by the interviewers. Where the politicians did diverge, was in the degree to which Margaret Thatcher explicitly protests at being interrupted.

She objected to being interrupted much more than Kinnock did. The psychologists contend this gave the misleading impression that she was being excessively interrupted, although the objective evidence uncovered in the study clearly shows that this was not true.

The impression created by this psychological device, is that she was badly treated. This sense is compounded, the psychologists argue, by her tendency to personalise issues, to take questions and criticisms as accusations, and frequently to address the interviewers formally by title and surname, as if they need to be called to account for misdemeanours. Peter Bull and Kate Mayer conclude that these techniques pushed interviewers onto the defensive.

The television interviews analysed in the study, published in the ‘Journal of Language and Social Psychology’, were conducted by Sir Robin Day, Jonathan Dimbleby, David Dimbleby and David Frost, who each interviewed both politicians. Although the results showed no significant difference between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock in the frequency with which they interrupt or are interrupted, there is one striking difference between them – that is, in the extent to which they comment on interruptions.


The study found Margaret Thatcher objects much more frequently to being interrupted, even on at least two occasions where there is no evidence that the interviewer was actually about to butt in! On one of these occasions the interviewer (Jonathan Dimbleby) openly protests that he was not about to interrupt.

The psychologists conclude it was easy to draw the impression that Margaret Thatcher was frequently interrupted, simply because she commented explicitly on interruptions, whereas in actual fact the objective evidence from this scientific study shows a striking similarity in both the frequency and pattern of interruptions between the two politicians.

Her tendency to comment explicitly on interruptions fits in with a number of other psychological aspects of her interview style. One feature was a tendency to reformulate questions and criticisms as accusations; another characteristic element was a tendency to personalise issues.

Both can be illustrated in the following excerpt from the interview with Jonathan Dimbleby:

Dimbleby: . . . if the National Health Service is only safe in your hands wouldn’t it be a good idea to demonstrate that, and a way of demonstrating that might be to use it some people would say

Thatcher: don’t you think that you’d have got at me very much had I said, look I’ve got to be in on a certain day and I’ve got to be out on a certain day; you’d accuse me of queue jumping and you’d have been the first to have done so

Dimbleby: certainly not

Another feature of Margaret Thatcher’s style was the way she frequently addressed the interviewer formally by title and surname.

On two occasions she actually used the incorrect title with Sir Robin Day: ‘Mr Day I think you’re asking me I think you’re I’m so sorry I made that mistake last time I won’t do it again Sir Robin . . .’; she then repeats the mistake on a subsequent occasion in the middle of one of her answers with ‘but Mr Sir Robin . . .’ None of these tactics are employed by Neil Kinnock.

All these approaches can be interpreted as psychological strategies for wrong-footing the interviewer.

Similarly, personalising issues and taking questions and criticisms as accusations again created the feeling that the interviewers were behaving unfairly, whereas they were in fact simply doing their job: namely, asking questions and putting forward political arguments.

The device of naming the interviewer gave the impression that the interviewers needed to be called to account for their wrongdoing, misdemeanours which, as this analysis shows, they were not actually perpetrating.

Misnaming the interviewer does more than this; it can be construed as an overt put-down, for example in the case of Sir Robin Day. Given it was she who gave him his knighthood in 1981, calling him Mr Day twice is particularly intriguing psychologically. She really couldn’t recollect authorising his knighthood?

With Jonathan Dimbleby, Margaret Thatcher used a different jab; she asked him, ‘Do you remember Harold Wilson? Well perhaps you don’t you’re too young’. Of course Jonathan Dimbleby could remember Harold Wilson, so the jibe appears disingenuous, patronising and insulting.

One of the interviewers (Sir Robin Day) made several explicit references to these tactics. On one occasion he said, ‘I didn’t accuse you of anything Prime Minister, you keep on accusing me of accusing you of things’. On another juncture he commented (after trying unsuccessfully to interrupt Margaret Thatcher on several occasions) ‘We’re not having a party political broadcast we’re having an interview which must depend on me asking some questions occasionally’.

The fact that such an experienced and eminent interviewer as Sir Robin Day should need to justify his role in this way is a striking example of the way in which Margaret Thatcher’s tactics successfully put the interviewer on the defensive.

Jonathan Dimbleby was actually reduced, on one occasion investigated in this study, to apologising for asking questions!

The psychologists conclude from their analysis that Margaret Thatcher revealed a striking mastery of the arts of political one-upmanship, continually wrong-footing interviewers and putting them on the defensive, such that they felt obliged to justify and even apologise for their role as interviewers.

Her death has provoked heated controversy over what Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is.

Behavioural scientists have uncovered evidence suggesting she was an outstanding proponent of psychologically manipulative techniques. Perhaps she ushered in a new era of ultra wily political strategy on TV.

Of course, her electoral success has to be down to many other factors, not just performance on TV.

But because these might have been the most covert of her strategies, slipping under the radar of the viewer and voter, they could also have been the most powerful.


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