Forgetting Brexit will be easy, says a scientist

If was a Brexit-supporter, imagine how would I be feeling, given that Nigel Farage, Liam Fox and Daniel Hannan have taken back most of their (it wasn’t that many) arguments for why it would be a good idea for the UK to leave the EU. 350 million pounds per week for the NHS instead of the EU? We never said that. No more European immigration? Well no, you cannot do that. Within a couple of days, the case for Brexit seems to be more diminished than ever. But unfortunately, voters have already made their choice and contrary to a lot of wishful thinking both on the British and the European sides, the chances for a second referendum are pretty small.

That leaves, as I explained on Monday, an awful lot of voters with a strong sense of regret. According to what British papers wrote during the past days, the UK is currently suffering from one of its worst hangovers, now that people realize that voting for Leave was not what it presented itself to be. I thought this was a really interesting phenomenon and questioned Andre Spicer, Professor for Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School here in London about why humans tend to feel collective guilt after taking the wrong decision.

In psychology, the phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance. It occurs in all sorts of situations, like for example when you go shopping and later take a look at what you bought and find out you don’t really like it. “People tend to focus on the positives before. They make decisions very fast and ignore everything else”, Spicer said. “However, when the deal is done, all the negatives that were overlooked mercifully before come to light.”

Spicer went on explaining another interesting phenomenon. I assumed that over time, when the negative implications of the vote for Brexit become obvious, people would become more disappointed. I thought that the real anger would be felt in maybe three to five years from now, with the economy tanking, the British divorce from Europe still not settled and a gloomy outlook for Britain’s future. Spicer however said that soon, people will start accepting this new reality. “Of course, over the course of the next three months, everything will be linked to Brexit”, he said.

But later on, the causality chain weakens, according to him, which makes it more difficult for people to pin their plight down to one single event.”In five years”, Spicer explained, “the political agenda will have moved on. People will have forgotten.” This is supported by a number of studies that show that human memory is short. Political memory is, as Spicer pointed out, even shorter.

Cultural differences add to that. According to Spicer, time is valued differently in various societies which leads to more or less short-termism. The Anglo-Saxon economic model, the professor stated, is much more short-term focused than for example the German economic model. This thinking also impacts the wider society, Spicer said, and leads, also in government, to a repetition of mistakes because the amount of people that have been around for long enough to actually recognize reappearing patterns is too small.

Plus, don’t forget that humans are not good at long-term thinking anyway. There is a behaviour called temporal discounting which leads to people being offered one pound now or two pounds in three months taking the one pound now. “People want what is in their face”, Spicer said, “We tend to place little emphasis on long term planning.”

Of course, there is also a second group: The ones that don’t seem to regret the choice they made. There is also a psychological explanation for that. “Studies show that people tweak their beliefs a little so they can hold on to them”, Spicer said. According to his research, voters are more convinced once they have taken a decision. “Signing up for something tends to harden people’s views”, he points out.

Fortunately, Spicer had even more explanations for why people voted the way they did on June 23rd. If you ask yourself why people in the Midlands and the North of England, people who will most likely be hit the hardest by an economic downturn, still voted for Brexit, Spicer has an answer for you. The trick is called self-harm effect and describes situations like in Sunderland where Nissan produces a lot of cars for its European exports and where people strongly voted for Leave, although they were warned of the implications beforehand.

Add to that the fact that many voters thought they did not benefit from the economic recovery – leaving aside that the unemployment rate has reached historic lows – and you get a sense of why people thought it did not matter how they voted. “Many of these voters have nothing to gain from the economy”, Spicer said. “If you have nothing to lose, then you are more willing to take risks.” Anti-establishment sentiments and class dynamics further added to the anger.

That both the Leave side as well as the Remain side have withdrawn some of their promises (Prime Minister Cameron did not stay on, he did not directly trigger Article 50 and Finance Minister Osborne does not plan to present an emergency budget) is according to Spicer undermining the legitimisation of the whole political system. “Both sides have lost credibility”, he said.

Looking beyond the initial shock, fear and anger, Spicer expects the British people to “just get on with it”, as they have done with past challenges. The New Zealander who has lived in the UK for over a decade describes this as British stoicism: “There is something about the British that enjoys suffering”, he thinks.

I am a bit sceptical about this. Do people really like suffering, especially in this day and age where things have become so comfortable? And do people like suffering when they know that they have inflicted that suffering on themselves? We will see.

Why the polls are so close, Part 2

Remember, some days ago I asked myself (and you) why the polls are still so close, given that most economic heavyweights in the world have warned against Brexit. The OECD, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have all come out against Brexit, as have many British businesses, banks and politicians. Besides that, the Leave-campaign hasn’t presented a viable model for the future relationship between the UK and the EU after a potential Brexit yet. Nevertheless, the polls are fairly close. Neither the economic warnings nor the Leave-side’s lack of clarity seems to make a big difference to voters.

I have to admit, I did not really solve this riddle when I published my first post about it. Thankfully, I came across Andre Spicer in the meantime, Professor for Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School in London. Andre proved to be a reliable source before. I have interviewed him many times for my stories for DIE WELT. This time again, Andre didn’t let me down. On the contrary, he provided a thoughtful explanation for the phenomenon described earlier.

According to him, people tend to make quick decisions about important issues on the basis of their past beliefs or the first pieces of information they are presented with. “We then search for information which justifies our decisions”, Spicer said. “Many members of the public have already made up their mind and now they are looking for information confirming their existing beliefs while ignoring any information that challenges them.” Humans, the professor stated, are good are overlooking expert judgements and instead rely heavily on the judgement of their peers – a fact that can be observed every day in social networks like Facebook where you are presented with content that matches your interests and opinions.

Spicer’s research at Cass Business School shows that people tend to only follow economists’ advice when it is about a technical issue. “When opinion is about a highly symbolic issue, like the EU, the public ignore economic experts and rely on their pre-existing beliefs”, Spicer said. That shed some light and helped me understand why the flurry of economic studies that have been published recently hasn’t had a stronger impact on polls.

Spicer had some more unpleasant insights for me. “Expert advice can also harden opposing views”, he explained. “When members of the public are exposed to economic analysis that contradicts their own beliefs, non-experts become more strident in their views. They seek out information which discredits expert opinion and ignore information which supports it.” Hang on a minute. So instead of first listening to economists and then making up their mind, people tend to make up their mind first and then don’t listen to economists anymore? That is, to say the least, quite interesting.

At the same time, it’s a devastating truth that Spicer presented me with. Contrary to common belief, George Osborne, Christine Lagarde and other prominent spokespeople could actually be doing the Leave-side a favour by warning against voting for Brexit. Professor Spicer confirmed exactly that: “This can create a backlash where expert opinion results in swaying public opinion in the opposite direction”, he said. And, to add to that, this not only happens in economics but also in health (in anti-vaccination), technology (think of genetically modified food) and the environment (climate change denial).

So that’s where the Leave-side takes all their “scaremongering”-accusations from. They don’t want to listen to what economists might say about the potential economic consequences of a Brexit because it contradicts their views. Oh well. Maybe David Cameron should stop making war and peace-comparisons when he talks about the consequences of Brexit then. That will, according to Mr. Spicer’s findings, just lead to a hardening of opinions on the Leave-side.

But what about all the voters that are still undecided? The most recent FT poll puts their share at 13 percent of the electorate, enough to make Leave win a majority (they are currently at 40 percent vs. 47 percent for Remain). For those people who haven’t yet decided on which way to vote, the economic studies and forecasts could actually be helpful, even if the long term consequences of a Brexit are hard admittedly to predict. Who knows? Maybe the undecided voters will listen to the economists. Or, maybe they will behave similarly to all the others and vote the way their peers do.