EXCUSE me for gawping but the SNP leadership contest really is good stuff isn’t it? I can’t tear my eyes off it. I mean, I’d pay a subscription fee to see this if I had to. It’s like Squid Game, only more violent and bloody.

Which is how it should be isn’t it? For too long, the SNP prized unity over everything – “wheesht for indy”– but the fact that the lid has been blown off so spectacularly means collateral damage in the short term but in the longer term it could actually be good for the party. You’ve got to fiercely debate and talk about stuff to properly work out the way forward. The best, the healthiest, families always argue.

But having said that, I’m not sure Ash Regan (the “candidate for independence”) has made the best or wisest contributions to the argument and she certainly hasn’t done the most to attract unionist voters. Ms Regan has a tendency to blurt out what she’s thinking, no filter, no nuance, which is not good for her chances for the leadership but is terribly good for columnists.

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Take her remarks about the “conditioning” of unionist minds for example. Ms Regan has said a couple of things. First, she said people who vote Tory in the Borders may do it because they get English telly: ITV Border instead of STV. “I’m going to look into that,” she said, “because I do wonder if there’s a correlation here between the media … and the voting pattern.”

A few days later, she then said something else extraordinary while speaking to my colleague Kevin McKenna. A lot of unionist opinion, she said, was formed by “conditioning” in the 1970s – she called it the “too wee, too poor, too stupid thing”. But Ms Regan also said that, fortunately, she was immune to it all because she was living south of the border at the time. Thank God for England eh?

But let me make a few points about this if I may (as someone who did grow up in Scotland in the 70s). First, on the English telly thing, the idea that watching TV forms or alters your behaviour was discredited when Mary Whitehouse was still demanding we ban this filth. And if Ms Regan is right, how are we to explain other pockets of Scottish Tory opinion – in Aberdeenshire for example? Is it all the fault of Grampian TV?

Ms Regan’s remark about “too wee, too poor, too stupid” also misses an important point about how opinions are formed and how they relate to the media, assuming it’s the media Ms Regan is blaming here. Quite a few people in the audience at the SNP hustings have ranted about “unionist media” influencing people (and worryingly the candidates have been nodding along). But they’ve got it the wrong way round: people aren’t made by the media, they are drawn to media that confirms their opinions: the actual opinions are formed in another way entirely.

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The research on how it works is really interesting and points to a form of conditioning of the nationalist mind – and the unionist one – but not in the way SNP supporters might expect. For a start, our political opinions are formed partly by our personality traits: your willingness to jump in and try new things, for example, can determine how liberal or conservative you are about political risks including independence. There’s no hard and fast rule but it is an influence.

Our childhood experience is also a factor. There’s some research for instance that suggests the children of authoritarian parents are more likely to grow up to be conservative. But it’s in childhood as well that we first start to move from being egocentric to more sociocentric and start to derive identity from family, or friends, or school, or a football team, or in the case of nationalists, a country.

Quite why nationalists should derive their sense of identity more from a country than others isn’t easy to work out, although it’s likely that the people of a small nation, like Scotland, with a big neighbour, like England, may experience nationalism in a particular way; the Scottish version is perhaps more prone to be touchy and paranoid. We also shouldn’t forget the effect it can have on your self-esteem: a strong link to a country can make you feel better about yourself, and perhaps even a touch superior, even though it’s no more than an accident of birth.

The other factor that comes into play here is age. Ms Regan says Scots born in the 70s are more likely to be conditioned to be unionist and it’s certainly true that the older you are the more likely it is you’ll oppose independence; older people are also more likely to vote Tory which sometimes leads to nationalists thinking the only thing that’s needed to win independence is for the oldies to die off. All they have to do is wait.

But sadly for them, their theory does not take into account the other effect of ageing, which is a kind of creeping conservatisation. It doesn’t apply to everyone obviously – we all know ageing lefties who never seem to change – but the effect is remarkably consistent: a proportion of people become more conservative as they age, so new conservative oldies replace the old ones. It’s linked to money as well obviously: older people are more likely to have more of it so worry about any sort of change that could be a threat to their income or security, such as independence.

You could call all of this “conditioning” I suppose, and in a way it is because it means we all end up with political opinions without really understanding where they’ve come from: a bit from our genes, a bit from childhood and what we go through in our lives, a bit from how much we earn, and a bit from how old we are. And the chances are that once the opinions are formed, we’ll then seek out media, old and new, that confirms those opinions and it won’t matter very much at all whether the telly we’re watching is English or Scottish.

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I do hope Ash Regan, and the other candidates, understand all of this because it might help them see what they’re up against. They may believe tackling the “unionist media” or kicking ITV out of the Borders will change opinions but in fact the SNP is dealing with a lot of Scots whose opinions were formed a long time ago and are likely to be pretty resilient.

So the answer is this: Scots with a nationalist mindset need to think much more about how Scots with a unionist mindset are influenced by the factors that will, in the end, decide this argument. By which I mean risk. And security. And change.