‘We must turn the tide of Brexit psychodrama’

Michael Smith meets Brian Hughes to hear about his new book on The Psychology of Brexit.

Seven key quotes from this interview:

‘I suppose I have realised that none of us are immune to reasoning error.’
‘We can use [Brexit] as a case study to learn about the psychological aspects of how societies function, and how we rationalise stressful experiences.’
‘My book aims to promote a scientific approach to discussing the psychology of Brexit. There is much that psychologists can say without sacrificing rigour or objectivity.’
‘There is little reward to being factually correct or logically sound in a system where all that matters is who can whip a majority into line.’
‘Remainers shouldn’t decry Leavers for being emotionally driven. In fact, from the Leave perspective, Remainers are the ones who are seen as emotionally afflicted…’
‘When you dismiss your adversary as mentally unstable, you not only stigmatise them, you declare dialogue to be pointless. Such discourse guarantees division.’
‘The resolution of Brexit cannot just be political or technical. It needs to account for people’s personalities, their emotions, and their sense of place in the world.’


You’ve written books about controversial research practices in psychology and have published several papers on the psychobiology of stress. What inspired you to write a book about Brexit?

Psychologists have always been good at exploring myths, not least myths relating to their own field. As a researcher in the psychobiology of stress, I have frequently encountered myths about physical illness that are widely believed. In more recent years I have been struck by the way psychologists themselves often believe such myths. It is why I have written a few books – and many blog posts – about the psychology of science and pseudoscience. I suppose I have realised that none of us are immune to reasoning error.

The human proneness for falling for falsehoods helps explain why psychologists themselves engage in controversial research practices. So, as someone who writes about the way tenuous claims can come to consume entire communities – and to produce cascading catastrophic consequences – it is perhaps understandable that I would take an interest in something like Brexit.

Brexit is a great example of mass panic, social groupthink, and tribal division. It is something worth examining in its own right. But it is also something we can use as a case study to learn about the psychological aspects of how societies function, and how we rationalise stressful experiences.

In a nutshell, what is the book about?

My book explores the various psychological aspects of Brexit: for example, the cognitive psychology of Brexit, the social psychology of Brexit, its cultural psychology, personality theory, and even how abnormal psychology comes into it. In short, while media discussions frequently ‘psychologise’ Brexit, much of that commentary is informal and ultimately pseudoscientific. I felt there was a need to show why this is a problem, and how the formal perspectives of scientific psychology can help us think about what is going on more constructively.

The title of the book is interesting! What exactly do you mean when you state that ‘Brexit has unfolded into a fully-fledged psychodrama’?

As I say, media discussions often psychologise Brexit. Talking heads make sweeping generalisations about dubious notions like the ‘will of the people’. Even intellectuals who oppose Brexit do this type of thing. I have seen academics in the media describe Brexit as ‘the last vestiges of imperialism working their way through the British psyche’. All of this reduces Brexit to a caricature dynamic, where political forces have human faces. It is essentially a form of anthropomorphism.

In my view, very little of this stuff is scientific. These explanations fail the tests of science: they are unclear, unfalsifiable, and unparsimonious. There is no need for them. Better explanations are available. So my book aims to promote a scientific approach to discussing the psychology of Brexit. There is much that psychologists can say without sacrificing rigour or objectivity.

In the book, you discuss how Brexit is often referred to in psychological terms, such as a national ‘self-harm’. What do you make of this?

The ‘self-harm’ metaphor has been particularly prevalent. In my view, it is interesting that commentators so freely refer to ‘self-harm’ with very little regard to the suffering of people for whom actual self-harm is a lived reality. It shows us how far we have to go to promote mental health awareness and sympathy.

When political commentators refer to Brexit as a form of ‘self harm’, it is far from sympathetic. It depicts Brexit as a reckless act of indiscriminate endangerment, hinting that we should all be afraid of people who are so afflicted as to harm themselves. The concern is not for the actor who is self-harming – it is for the welfare of bystanders. In short, people who say Brexit is a form of self-harm have little sympathy for Brexiteers. What really worries them is the collateral damage to Remainers. In other words, they are worried about themselves.

When we think about this as psychologists, we should see it as a troubling reflection on how mainstream society talks about self-harm as a mental health issue.

Why do you think the media, politicians and the public have adopted such psychological jargon for referring to Brexit?

I think the media and others have adopted psychological language for a few reasons, all of which present concerns. Firstly, psychological language fills a vacuum of understanding. Remain-leaning pundits attribute Brexit to psychopathology – a kind of madness – because they simply cannot imagine how a rational Leave-voting person might feel. Secondly, psychological language is used because people don’t always realise that psychology is a real science and that its terms have technical meanings. It is another warning that psychology needs to work on its outreach and public understanding agendas. And thirdly, human beings are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty. They are driven to impose meaning on events that would otherwise be incomprehensibly complex. For centuries they did this by invoking spiritualism and mysticism. Today they do so by psychologising.

What can we learn about human decision-making from Brexit?

One-in-ten voters in the original Brexit referendum turned up at the polling station without having decided how to vote. They made their Leave-or-Remain decision on referendum day. We should remind ourselves that human decision-making is often chaotic.

For democracies, the concept of ‘rational ignorance’ applies and is very powerful. In short, it means that it is rational to remain ignorant about politics, because ultimately your single vote will be far outnumbered by the millions of votes cast by other people. For the vast majority of voters, there is no compelling motivation to spend time and energy on exhaustive research. In fact, to become fully educated on issues would be downright irrational, because the personal benefits of doing so would be far outweighed by the personal costs. As a result, it is logical to predict that most political decisions are shaped by uninformed viewpoints. You could tentatively argue that voting might work as a way to elect individuals, but it is clear that voting is a terrible way to crowdsource opinion on complex decisions.

That said, largely the same issues apply to the way politicians make choices about Brexit in parliament and, no doubt, at the negotiating table. I think the way Brexit has proceeded through parliament has highlighted a real problem with rational ignorance. There is little reward to being factually correct or logically sound in a system where all that matters is who can whip a majority into line.

From both sides of the argument, there are a lot of myths and untruths about Brexit. To what extent can Brexit inform the psychology of how myths and untruths are propagated?

When it comes to politics, Brexit reminds us that events are determined not by who makes the best argument, but by who attracts the most votes. All votes are equal, and emotional voting comes more naturally than rational voting. Therefore the system rewards superficial persuasion, and punishes careful exactitude.

This is very similar to the asymmetrical warfare that occurs between pseudoscience (which is easy) and science (which is hard). In public opinion terms, bogus arguments against vaccination are disproportionately successful compared to scientific arguments in favour. This is because the arguments in favour are filtered through scientific peer-review, which slows them down.

Brexit gives us many examples. Most psychologists will focus on pro-Brexit myths, such as the claim that Brexit would free up £350 million per week for the NHS. While that figure has been debunked, surveys suggest that, even in 2019, many people still believe it. Just hearing about it will precipitate an ‘anchoring effect’, where voters forget the details but remember an approximate factoid about EU membership being very costly.

Most psychologists are themselves anti-Brexit. I don’t think it is controversial to state that academics are generally more left-leaning than the general population, or that most British academics think that Brexit is a bad thing. In reality, and without for a moment claiming that all sides have equal arguments, I think we should realise that there are Remain myths too.

We should also remember that one of the main findings from psychological research in this area is that voters are blind to their own biases. We suffer from a problem called the ‘third-person effect’, where we accuse our adversaries of making all the errors. There is also the problem of ‘out-group homogeneity bias’, where we consider our own in-group to be sophisticated and diverse, but see members of the opposing group as ‘all the same’. Overall, I think it is noticeable that both Brexit tribes throw corresponding insults at each other.

What kind of ‘corresponding insults’ do you mean?

Both sides accuse the other of deception, subterfuge, and stubbornness. Both sides consider their own position to be lucid and rational, but believe the other side to be deluded and emotional. Both sides see themselves as fair-minded, but the others as partisan.

Remainers unquestioningly consider themselves to be the logical, evidence-based ones. And theirs are the voices we tend to hear most in academia. But Remainers do feel emotional about Brexit. They make emotional arguments for EU membership. Few Remainers can recite the relevant economic statistics about EU budgetary flows, or specify what regulatory alignment means for, say, the pharmaceuticals industry – but they are visibly passionate about their view that Brexit is a terrible mistake. That might be fair enough, but Remainers shouldn’t decry Leavers for being emotionally driven. In fact, from the Leave perspective, Remainers are the ones who are seen as emotionally afflicted (‘Remoaners’, ‘Project Fear’, etc.). And Leavers truly believe that their side is the one with the logical arguments.

The problem here is echo-chamber reasoning. Brexit presents psychologists with a vivid opportunity to study the nature of group polarisation. As voters, we tend to inform ourselves in a highly selective way, especially now that social media channels play such an important role in daily life. We end up accumulating wholly misleading feedback about the merit of our own arguments, because we restrict our social engagement in ways that ghettoise public opinion.

Given that most psychologists are middle-class liberals, it is especially important to appreciate that we too occupy our own peculiar echo chambers.

You discuss not only how Brexit can be a cause of mental illness, but also highlight the argument sometimes put forward by Remainers that Brexit itself is caused by mental disturbance. Is this a helpful view to take in terms of healing the immense divide that has been caused by Brexit?

After the referendum, one British MEP criticised a local health authority for providing counselling to worried employees. She said that providing counselling to people who were upset by Brexit was ‘undemocratic’. In other words, she believed that people should be supported psychologically only if they had certain political views. As politics are pathologised, pathology is politicised.

Leavers often claim that Remainers are unreasonably upset and unable to move on with their lives (‘Remainiacs’). Meanwhile, Remainers often claim that Leavers are somehow mad, simply because they concluded that they wanted to leave the EU (‘Brexitreemists’). It is all absolutely unhelpful. Throughout the world, psychiatric language is used to delegitimise political dissent. When you dismiss your adversary as mentally unstable, you not only stigmatise them, you declare dialogue to be pointless. Such discourse guarantees division.

Psychology is a scientific discipline. Psychologists should be able to advise on the power of social perspective, and the value of being able to look at things from different points of view.

In the book you discuss ten lessons that can be learned from the Psychology of Brexit. Which do you think is most important?

I think the most important lesson is precisely the one about perspective: people make partisan decisions, but systematically overestimate their own logic and soundness. Both sides consider themselves resistant to delusion, while believing their adversaries to be deluded beyond rescue. In the book I spend a lot of time explaining how this happens, and how it applies not only to Brexit commentators, but to psychologists too. 

As someone who was born and lives in Ireland, could you reflect a little on the Irish perspective? Is there anything about the Psychology of Brexit which is of particular relevance in Ireland?

Ireland has been a close observer of Brexit and is perhaps the only country apart from the UK itself where Brexit ranks as a top-tier political issue. I think the Irish perspective is of interest on at least two levels. At a basic level, Brexit poses direct economic and social consequences for Ireland, to which people in Ireland will be required to adjust. For example, many Irish businesses sell into the UK, and for many sectors, mainland Britain is Ireland’s land-bridge to Europe. Eighty per cent of retail goods on sale in Ireland are imported from or through Great Britain. Tariffs and customs checks will definitely add friction to Irish trade, even though Brexit is not of Ireland’s making.

At a more psychological level, Brexit is presenting many Irish people with conflicting emotions. Echo chamber reasoning and group polarisation come up again. There is a lot of intelligent media analysis of Brexit in Ireland, especially when it comes to law and economy. However, there is also much discussion that is very flimsy, and a fair amount of mockery directed at the British political class. Some Irish people derive satisfaction from Britain’s stress. Personally, I dislike this tendency and I have spoken critically about it in Irish media. The problem is that schadenfreude does nothing to prepare Ireland for the consequences of Brexit. In fact, a negative and unfriendly bias reflects exactly the type of tribalism that has caused such bitter conflict between Leavers and Remainers.

As Irish psychologists, we can urge our fellow citizens to reflect on Brexit and to think about how all societies can descend into tribalism and social acrimony, no matter how sophisticated they consider themselves to be. None of us are above these problems. In fact, psychologically speaking, we are all susceptible to them.

There is a nice quote where you refer to Brexit as a stressor which ‘wrecks society’s resting homeostasis’. Given the huge emotional, societal and economic upheaval caused by Brexit, how is homeostasis ever going to be restored?

Well, it depends what you mean. As with psychological stress, homeostasis refers to a resting state in living systems where everything is balanced and steady. We talk about ‘restoring’ homeostasis after it has been disrupted by change, but often what happens is that a new homeostasis is created. Some of the changes to the environment will be permanent and there will be no going back.

Furthermore, not all environments conform to our ‘just world’ assumptions. Social stability can reflect the perennial domination of elites over the subjugated and the powerless. In fact, many societies exhibit homeostasis of exactly this type.

At some point in the future, political and social life in Britain will achieve some kind of homeostasis but it will not involve things ‘returning to normal’. This is why the mantra ‘Get Brexit Done’ is so misleading. The idea that political transformation can be quick and simple – like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ or Putin’s ‘Lift Russia Off Its Knees’ – can be highly seductive. But it ignores the complexity of homeostasis.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

I hope the book can help convince people that psychological factors are supremely important in daily life. The resolution of Brexit cannot just be political or technical. It needs to account for people’s personalities, their emotions, and their sense of place in the world. In addition, as a science, psychology can help to provide insights that are reliable and valid. It offers a mental periscope through which we can view ourselves, and our assumptions, from different angles.

The psychology of Brexit is important not only because it helps us to appreciate Brexit. It also helps us to appreciate the idea of humans having a ‘psychology’ per se. As much as we can use psychology to examine Brexit, perhaps we can also use Brexit to explain psychology. In my view, a wider public understanding of what it is psychologists have learned about human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour can only help us as a society.

More than ever, society needs to be able to reflect on its impulses and biases. It would be great if psychologists could be at the forefront of this effort. Wherever there is a vacuum, it will soon be filled with psychobabble, pseudoscience, and propaganda. We must turn the tide of Brexit psychodrama, and I humbly hope my book can be part of that.

If you were a betting man, informed by psychology, what would you say happens next? 
I discuss in the book how the impasse in parliament is similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma as discussed by game theorists. Neither side will work with the other in order to reduce risk. From the point of view of game theory, it is no surprise that the system has now crashed. The forthcoming general election is an effort to reboot the government at the ballot box. However, I am not sure that switching the UK off and back on again will fix the problem.
Such logjams result from poor reasoning, irreconcilable tensions, and toxic relationships. An election is unlikely to change these conditions. Everything we know about group polarisation tells us that competitive politics will only sharpen the divide. Without real collaboration between Leavers and Remainers – which right now seems inconceivable – the two sides will just become more entrenched. This will be true even if one side triumphs in the election and gets its own way on Brexit. The other side will simply be more aggrieved than ever, and bad feeling will permeate through society for years to come.

- Brian Hughes is Professor of Psychology, National University of Ireland, Galway. Michael Smith is Associate Professor of Psychology at Northumbria University.

- The Psychology of Brexit: From Psychodrama to Behavioural Science is out now, on Palgrave Macmillan.

- Read more from Professor Hughes in our archive. Also find more on Brexit.

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