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Brexit: when psychology and politics clash

With the recent publication of the UK Government’s Yellowhammer document outlining the financial disaster forecasted for Brexit, it would seem reasonable for people who voted to leave the European Union to change their opinions. Psychological research, however, suggests that once people commit to a decision, albeit a bad one, they are reluctant to change their minds.

Why do so many British voters still want to leave the EU? Brexit was supposed to be about sovereignty but it is really about ownership and taking back control as championed by the political populism that is sweeping across the Western world. Most people aren’t populists but they can easily become so. One reason is uncertainty for the future, which makes people more inclined toward the far right. In their analysis of the current political environment, psychologists Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt concluded that a third of adults across Europe and the US were predisposed to authoritarianism, while 37% were non-authoritarian and 29% were neutral. However, when we feel we are under threat or perceive that our moral values are being eroded, we seek reassurance from leaders who articulate strong, resolute visions.

This hypothesis received support in a study of 140,000 voters, across sixty-nine countries over the past two decades, which revealed that those experiencing the greatest economic hardship voted for populist candidates unless they reported a strong personal sense of control. However, economics still does not explain why the populists also received the support of the predominantly rich, white males for whom hardship was not a primary concern. Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist, argues that, in addition to economic inequality, we are witnessing the effects of a “silent revolution” backlash brewing among the older generation, who see social changes in the younger generation as a threat to their traditional values.

In his analysis of the shifting political landscape, Inglehart discovered that the economic hardship account could not explain all the data he analysed from the demographics of voters for 268 political parties in 31 European countries. A silent revolution would explain why older members of society vote for populist politicians. Each generation wants to take back control of the values they hold most dear from the current generation who they believe are squandering them. Inglehart concludes that “these are the groups most likely to feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share.”

Voters are also unduly fearful of the future. In virtually all the key dimensions of human well-being life is much better than it was only a few hundred years ago. And yet most of us think the world is going to hell in a handcart. This is a phenomenon known as declinism– the belief that the past was much better than the present. Most citizens in prosperous countries overwhelmingly believe that the world is getting worse. Declinism is a distorted perspective that plays into the hands of right-wing politicians who stoke the fires of nationalism and protectionism. The reasons for declinism are many, from various biases in human cognition (including rose-tinted nostalgia and the tendency to pay greater attention to future dangers, especially if you are already wealthy) to fact that bad news gets more coverage than optimism. Social media amplify these concerns by providing a constant stream of unfiltered perspectives and biases.

Declinism explains why extreme actions and politicians seem warranted when you hold unreasonable fears for the future. In 2012, YouGov reported that most UK citizens they surveyed thought that since the Queen’s coronation in 1953 Britain had changed for the worse, with the greatest proportion endorsing this negative view among the over sixties.  However, when the pollsters asked whether the quality of life for the average person had improved, respondents overwhelmingly agreed that it had. People can objectively recognize better healthcare, better education, and a better quality of life but this does not translate into an appreciation that things are getting better overall. When asked whether the world was getting better just before the Brexit referendum, only 11% thought the future would be better, with 58 per cent saying that it was getting worse. Again, the older participants were, the more pessimistic their responses.

Ultimately, Brexit comes down to tribalism and ownership. The trouble with ownership is that we become irrational when we feel threatened by loss. Who we are is not simply our bodies and minds, but our property, our relationships, our jobs, our opinions and our beliefs. And if someone threatens to take any of them away, we fight to keep control even when it is not in our best interests.

Featured image credit: “EU United Kingdom” by Elionas2 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. J Sharman

    It makes sense to me.

  2. David Warwick

    Hi. Just to say your Union flag needs to be the other way up.
    Broad white to the top nearest the flag pole.

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