This means war: psychologists try to make sense of Brexit

What are they thinking? When it comes to Brexit, the answer has several layers

All versions of Brexit will leave the UK poorer. So said UK chancellor Philip Hammond as he attempted to sell what Theresa May sees as the least painful Brexit before a key parliamentary vote on Tuesday.

You would think that, were you presented with evidence that a course of action you had embarked upon would turn out to be bad for you, that would probably sway you towards not following through with it.

Not so with Brexiteers. What drives them, despite the dire warnings about a no-deal Brexit, is the belief that life outside a union with 27 other countries with barrier-free access to a market of 450 million people offers greater sovereignty, a greater sense of their identity and, ultimately, greater economic power.

There is a hardline refusal to accept any temporary half-measures to reach a compromise, fearing they may become permanent. Given the political turmoil at Westminster, there is a growing risk this will result in a no-deal Brexit, with potentially catastrophic economic results.


In the psychology of Brexit politics, remaining absolutely faithful to one’s political beliefs and core ideological positions means protecting political identity over economic self-interest, however great the cost.

"[This is] people taking action for essentially psychological reasons, irrespective of the economic cost," said Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

“The reason for that is who we are – our self-image – is something that is most precious to us. Our identity, our concept of ourselves, is something that is a central motivator and protecting that is one of the greatest motivators in human endeavour.”

The threat of Northern Ireland being treated separately from the rest of the United Kingdom under the divorce deal's "backstop" – a measure to guarantee there will be no return to a hard border in Ireland – is a "personal psychological threat to their identity," says Robertson.

He believes the “fear-driven vote” around immigration in the 2016 referendum created the sense that there was a dangerous and threatening world out there and protecting their identity induced a “pull-down-the-shutters mentality.”

“In that sense, it becomes symbolically almost a slightly wartime psychology. In wartime, you deal with the threat and to hell with the economic consequences. Countries bankrupt themselves in order to survive,” he said.

Project Fear

In Brexit's psychological conflict, severe warnings about a no-deal are dismissed as "Project Fear" and, on many occasions, the qualifications or calibre of the expert presenting the warnings are disparaged too, such as when pro-Brexit Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed Bank of England governor Mark Carney as a failed "second-tier Canadian politician" after Carney issued stern warnings about a no-deal Brexit.

Pete Lunn, head of behavioural research at the Economic and Social Research Institute, attributes these kinds of attacks to the heavy investment politicians make in their beliefs to maintain consistency and the trust of voters. This forces Brexiteers to interpret information undermining their views in a biased manner to fit their beliefs.

“For something as divisive as Brexit, particularly something which is a ‘yes or no’ thing that people have been campaigning for a long time, any chance that the politician will change their view on that is remote, regardless of the evidence that gets put in front of them,” he says.

Despite clear evidence the UK will, at least in the short to medium term, pay a cost for exiting the EU, no Brexiteer has gone so far as to disclose the price at which it would become unacceptable.

“This is the question they don’t want to answer because they cannot countenance the idea that that yes-no thing that they have campaigned for and that they identify with can be switched,” says Lunn. “This, we know from psychology, is something people do: when they have treasured beliefs, they deny that they trade off with anything. They become absolute things they are not willing to accept there is a trade-off.”

The practice of ignoring uncomfortable trade-offs is defined as "defensive avoidance", according to David Houghton, a professor and expert on political psychology at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.

This, he says, is driving the position of Northern Ireland's pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, who oppose prime minister Theresa May's divorce deal, including the contentious backstop.

“Ideological people as opposed to pragmatists are prone to this because pragmatic people will be aware of trade-offs and will try to negotiate compromises,” he said.

When it comes to finding a compromise in Brexit's ideologue-dominated political arena, there is "probably more chance of hell freezing over," says Philip Corr, a professor of psychology at City, University of London and an expert on behavioural economics.

The trouble is that the “economic game” that is playing out in the Brexit debate is seen as a “zero-sum game”, he says. “If you gain, I lose, and vice versa.”

Instead, the game needs to be reframed as non-zero sum, where enlightened economic self-interest wins out and political ideologies follow in its wake.

“The obstacle to such a pleasing outcome is that so much political capital is in play, and some politicians are bound to get a large return on their investment, while others are likely to go bust. Under such a circumstance, it would take a feat of major political bravery to put the interests of the UK first,” says Corr.

Hurt feelings

If politicians "could put their hurt feelings to one side and discount the emotional value of past differences of often very heated opinion", he says, then there is a chance of finding consensus and creating "in-group coherence", though this might require defining an "out-group" who can be hated such as the "faceless Brussels bureaucrats".

The stakes, however, are stratospheric for both Remainers and Leavers.

One psychological analysis suggests compromise is more likely to come from moderate Leavers because they can offer some concessions and still at least gain what they wanted: the UK will no longer be in the EU.

The bigger risk is on the Remain side.

“If you are a Remainer, you take a massive risk by voting down the deal, because you risk a hard Brexit, which is your biggest nightmare because it results in all of the downside costs of Brexit, and Brexit [itself],” says the ESRI’s Lunn.

“So you don’t get to remain and you pay this huge, admittedly unknown price, because you crash out.”

Behavioural science studies of decision-making by people who face losses show that they are likely to be optimistic about their chances in such circumstances because there is a possibility, even if people are putting it at less than 50-50, that Brexit will never happen if May’s proposed divorce deal is voted down.

“This is exactly the same kind of logic as rogue traders: people who chase their losses in business and go bankrupt because they doubled their money to try to recover their position. The Remainers are in exactly that situation where what they face is a catastrophic loss and there is a high-risk game,” says Lunn.

On the other side, what is psychologically driving the Brexiteer ideologues such as Rees-Mogg in this “absolutely incredible” game of high-stakes risk-taking is social identity status, says the ESRI academic.

He sees Brexiteer hardliners as "victims of a version of British history belonging in the 19th century", where they regard the UK as an independent global nation and the EU as depriving them of that status. "They feel like it is almost like personal dilution to be involved in something like the European Union. "

This explains the sense of personal affront that Brexiteers feel by having to remain “rule-takers” from the EU under May’s potentially halfway-house status under the Brexit agreement.

The Belfast model

Ian Robertson believes the British could learn from the place that has landed UK politics in the crisis it is in: Northern Ireland and the peace process that culminated in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The Dublin-based academic described it as "one of the most sophisticated political psychological enterprises ever engaged in".

The agreement removed the threat to people’s identities by mutually recognised different identities, permitting a Protestant Ulster man to be Irish too or British and European.

A “superordinate identity” – for example, in religion being not Catholic or Protestant but Christian – is the “greatest antidote to “out-group” prejudices”, says Robertson.

But within the pick-a-side political psychology of Brexit, it can become a threat too: being European in Northern Ireland might identity you as a supporter of a united Ireland. Being pro-European was regarded negatively in pro-Brexit circles as supporting a federalist Europe, which the UK resisted.

Robertson believes the EU could have done a better job at building “an emotional European identity” and not just an “intellectual, super-cerebral administration project.”

“The Irish have a lot to teach because of their bitter experience and success at negotiating the peace process. They have a lot to offer to help Europe find an identity,” he says.

In the long run, Robertson believes a far bigger conflict facing the planet might generate a broader, cohesive superordinate identity to unite people way beyond the narrowing politics and psychology of Brexit.

“We may be rescued by the fight against climate change because it might get to the point where we have to say: ‘My God, we are all humans and we are about to go extinct if we don’t do something,’ ” he says.

“That actually is like an acid that dissolves the conflict between groups with different identities below that.”