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.

#Bregret

It’s not as if the outcome of the British EU-Referendum took me by surprise. Brexit had been my base case, for over two weeks. Not because this was my favourite outcome – it clearly isn’t – but because I have come to distrust people and their ability to make rational, long term decisions. In addition to that, I also did not trust the polls nor the bookmakers. They got it wrong before, so why should their forecasting accuracy magically increase just before the referendum?

Friday was thus not a day of shock and horror for me but one of painful realization. Yes, there are questions in life that should not be decided by a referendum. Yes, there is a strong divide between the rich and the poor in this country, a lot of anti-establishment sentiment, a lot of stupidity, naivety and wishful thinking.

What did surprise me though was the amount of people that only realized their mistake after the results were announced. #Bregret and #WhatHaveWeDone quickly became trending hashtags on Twitter. From around 5:30 AM on Friday, people started googling what the impact of their choice could be. “What is Brexit?” was, according to Google, one of the most frequent questions typed into the search engine, besides “What is the EU?” and “What happens if we leave the EU?”.

TV interviews with average voters, mostly from the Leave-camp, solidified that impression. A voter questioned by the BBC said: “My vote – I didn’t think was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to remain.” Wishful thinking, hm? But Adam, as the BBC named him, was not alone. Another voter, Mandy, told the BBC: “I was very disappointed about the result, even though I voted to leave, this morning I woke up and the reality did actually hit me. But if I had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay.” More wishful thinking. ITV also found plenty of these disillusioned Leave-voters. Suthi, a women from Manchester, told the broadcaster that her whole family voted for Brexit, without considering the consequences: “I said to my sisters, ‘I wish we had opportunity to vote again.'”

The same effect took hold when the Daily Mail, a strong supporter of a Leave-vote, started explaining to readers on Friday what the outcome actually meant for them. Travels to Europe would become more expensive because of the drop of the Pound Sterling, Britons could lose the right to work in the EU, pensions have lost value, studying and travelling in the EU could become more difficult.

Nothing new, at least to people that thought rationally before the referendum. But to many Daily Mail readers, this was actually brand new, at least if you judge by the comments made by some of them. “So the Remain camp were telling the truth”, Victor Mildrew, from Leeds, commented. “So we are screwed”, a reader with the nickname Up North, wrote. “Maybe it wasn’t a good idea at all”, Lulu45 from London stated.

More than three million people have signed a petition for a second referendum. Parliament will now have to consider that petition, as it does with every one that is signed by more than 100.000 people. Because of the fact that the Leave-side did win with less than 60 percent of the votes and that the turnout was less than 75 percent, there is a call for retrospective legislation. Some of my friends are desperately clinging to this, stating “We are not out yet” and “the referendum is not legally binding”.

Yes, it is not legally binding and it will take a while until Cameron’s successor formally enforces Article 50 in order to negotiate the exit. But I guess chances of a second referendum are close to zero. The UK would become laughing stock (even more), it would disregard the choice of 51,9 percent of its population and, don’t forget, some of the damage has already been done, as banks have started working on relocating some of their staff to Continental Europe.

As Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble put it, “in is in. Out is out”. The British population will now have to live with their choice. Ironically, it is the young generation that was strongly for Remain that now bears the brunt of the decision. They will be the ones living the longest – in a potentially smaller country (as Scotland might vote to leave), with a smaller economy, less chances and opportunities, a lot of resentment towards the generation of their parents and that of their grandparents that got them into this situation.

There is at least one thing I am taking home from this. The fact that there are already a lot of people regretting their choice tells me that there are issues of a certain magnitude that should not be decided by a referendum. Although they were warned by all leading economists in the world, people did not want to listen. Reason has lost out against emotion.