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Two tribes: Values, Psychology, & Brexit

By Edward Gardiner  Behavioural Design Lead, Warwick Business School


Many newspaper headlines in the UK quoted former Prime Minister David Cameron at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos: “Brexit was a ‘mistake, not a disaster’ says Cameron” – The Financial Times; “David Cameron caught admitting Brexit is ‘not as bad as we thought’” – The Sun; “So much for Project Fear!” – Mail Online.

Cameron made the 2016 referencum an election manifesto pledge, campaigned to remain in the EU – dubbed ‘Project Fear’ – and then promptly resigned when the UK voted to leave. Whether or not his predictions have come true is an open question, especially given that the UK hasn’t yet left the EU. Cameron’s comments at Davos may  however indicate a hint of remorse, or maybe just a self-serving desire to diminish past mistakes.

Either way, if the UK is to make Brexit a success it surely has to come through it united, with differences set aside. This means some people are going to have to change their mind. The reality is that Brexit is complex. There is a high degree of uncertainty and many interdependent variables, from the level of local support to Government capacity and European politics. Any small change now may lead to significant repercussions in the future. Just Google, “Brexit forecasts”, to view the range of possibilities and differences of opinion.

People chose one of two options based on a range of social, economic and environmental factors, some of which they were aware of and some they were not. Everyone was undoubtedly subject to a number of unconscious biases but whether these should be perceived as errors or qualities of an effective decision-maker is a major point of debate. If there was another vote tomorrow, some people would vote the other way.

The problem is people are now in tribes: Leave and Remain. An intuitive decision was made, a case was built, and the case must now be proven. People are quick to dismiss new information or denigrate points of view that contradict their beliefs in how they voted. We know this as as cognitive dissonance. Internal conflict is uncomfortable so it’s easier for people to dismiss the conflict than update their beliefs.

Similarly, people are very quick to criticise or gloat when others change their mind – the dreaded U-turn in politics. Herein lies the the problem. The information (or influence) people had at the time of the vote was different to the information they have now. There is a misperception that people who change their mind are admitting they made the wrong decision, when in fact they’re simply updating their current beliefs based on new information. They’re not changing the past, they’re changing the present.

Politicians and the media could learn a lot from Bayes theorem, named after the Reverend Thomas Bayes (1701-1761), who came up with an equation for how to update beliefs based on new evidence (in short hand, initial beliefs + recent data = a new and improved belief). The general principle is that the more evidence there is for alternative beliefs, the less likely your belief. Despite its past controversy, Bayesian maths now underpins learning in many products and services, from sorting spam email to Google’s self driving cars.

To overcome the division, there is a need for tolerance, both within and between tribes. This means not criticising those who update their beliefs – allowing people to learn – and not dismissing our own or other points of view without full consideration – being accepting of learning. Fundamentally, people must accept that – in most cases – people from both sides were just as sincere in wanting the best for their community and society.

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt discusses human morality in relation to the political beliefs of liberals, conservatives and libertarians in the USA. He proposes six foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.

He explains that the reason why liberals think working-class voters who vote conservative are being tricked is because they do not understand conservative motivations. While liberals are primarily driven by compassion and fairness, conservatives have a broader set of “moral taste buds”. They share similar values to liberals, moderated by the principles of loyalty, authority and sanctity, which liberals struggle to embrace.

While the political landscape is different in the UK, and the Brexit vote crossed political lines, thinking about the values and psychology behind the way people voted might lead to greater tolerance across divides and avert the descent into tribalism. People may find they have more in common than expected, no matter how they voted. Finding this commonality is the key to a successful Brexit. It’s OK to change your mind.

This post is an adaptation of an article originally written for Yahoo! Finance:




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