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‘I Vote, Therefore I Am’: The Psychology of Belief and Brexit

There remains on both sides of the political divide an entrenched minority whose belief system serves as an extension of their identity

Nigel Farage. Photo: PA/Alamy

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The UK has made a lot of bad decisions in recent years, in my view. Austerity, successive Conservative Governments, the Fast Food Rockers‘ brief chart success. However, by the day, the evidence is growing that the most catastrophic and far-reaching of all of these is Brexit. 

The UK economy is estimated to be 5.5% poorer now than had it remained within the EU. Post-Brexit investment levels are lower now than beforehand, while the red tape that countless Conservative ministers promised to cut through remains, not only present, but actually increased. 

Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, titles such as the Daily Mail still talk of Brexit as an outstanding success. True, as evidenced by the recruitment of its latest star columnist, the newspaper’s judgement remains open to debate. But a walk down to any pub or café is likely more than enough to elicit people who believe, fervently in some cases, that Brexit has been an overwhelming success. 

It’s not immediately obvious why they believe this. 

To be clear, the UK isn’t alone in its delusions. A large part of the US electorate still thinks that Donald Trump is a committed Christian. Yevgeny Prigozhin likely still pictures a peaceful retirement. And many thought the third Hangover film an overwhelming artistic success. 

Explaining this, in the large part, is a matter of simple political preferences. A significant portion of the population can and do change their beliefs regularly – as the information they consume shifts, so do their views. However, there remains on both sides of the political divide, an entrenched minority whose belief system serves as an extension of their identity. As the headline says, I vote therefore I am. 

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Where our beliefs come from, or how our politics are developed, remains a matter for debate. But that this happens in early childhood is generally accepted. 

“Our basic values and core motives most likely come together first, and then we gravitate toward political views that are consistent with those values and motives,” Professor Christopher Federico, a political psychologist at the University of Minnesota says – outlining how those who, from an early age, have stronger needs for security and certainty are more likely to drift to the right.

With that said, the appeal of both Brexit and Trump – while drilling directly into the hearts and minds of the right – rested explicitly upon anti-establishment rhetoric. Political psychology can go some way in explaining that, but it’s probably important to remember that nothing really exists in isolation. 

For many Brexit supporters, still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008, the appeal to order and security came to be vested in the bodies of the self styled Brexit Spartans, who promised revenge upon a system that had betrayed them, leaving many to face hardship and penury as society moved on.

In the US, the siren call of Trump, a former game show host and entrepreneur, proved catnip to those who had lost their sense of place in a society many felt had left them behind.

“To some extent, it’s about personality,” according to Professor Federico. “If a person sees a candidate, whoever that is, projecting values that promise order, that sense of strength, they’re going to be drawn to them. It’s as much about ‘belief’ and feelings as it is facts.”

However, increasingly, criticisms have come to be perceived as attacks. After all, if our political beliefs are extensions of our identity, then our critic isn’t attacking just our beliefs – they’re attacking us.

“We rarely warm to those who are criticising us, we may even attack back,” Professor Federico says. “We may even see the information they report as false. However, it may change our attitudes a bit nevertheless.”

While that may be true, none of this explains how we can know something – such as the damaging consequences of a hard Brexit, Boris Johnson being a liar, and Donald Trump being a crook – and continue to support them irrespectively. It’s at this stage where we reach the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ or – as my Mum says – “in for a penny, in for a pound”. 

Before going further, it’s important not to tar all Brexit voters with the same brush. However, it is possible – just about – to detect a degree of sunk cost thinking at work.

It is in Former Brexit Voters that the Flame of a Truly Impactful Rejoin Movement is Now Being Kindled

Many of the leave voters George Llewelyn met in 2021 were dissatisfied Eurosceptics who are now ardent rejoiners. How did it happen?

“People do not want to compromise their self-image by admitting they made a mistake,” Dr Charles Miller, of the Australian National University, who wrote a paper on the topic,  says. “Admitting to a mistake is to accept a certain degree of incompetence on one’s own part and that’s very hard to admit even to oneself.”

Moreover, among the politicians who, like shop-worn versions of the Light Brigade’s command, led the UK to this disaster, is the incentive to – as Dr Miller phrases it – “gamble for resurrection. That is, if they end the project now, then they have clearly failed and will damage their re-election prospects and reputation, whereas if they stick with it, the project might still come good, even if the chances are pretty low”.

And, still, across society, much of Westminster and the media, there is this stubborn reluctance to admit that Brexit is going catastrophically wrong.

“I think there is evidence of groupthink,” Dr Miller says, “which swung into action shortly after Brexit. It became a consensus, shortly after the referendum, that Brexit had to happen and that we simply had to make a success of it, even amongst politicians (like Theresa May) who had been on the Remain side.

“I saw a similar process at work with the Iraq War. And if the Iraq War is any guide, I think this consensus will unravel. And when it does, it will happen very quickly.”

For now, we will have to wait it out. That the UK will continue to suffer, is a given. However, accepting that, in 2016, we were sold a pup is down to us. 

The Fast Food Song is still awful, though. 

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