The psychology of Brexit

Justine Greening has a point when she says we need to decide between three options regarding Brexit. It is a shame that we didn’t have three options in the original referendum. One of the reasons we are in the mess we find ourselves is down to the psychological factors surrounding that piece of paper we were handed on 23rd June 2016 providing two options for our future — remain or leave the EU.

There is considerable research on the psychology of choice and human decision making. It seems that back in 2016 the Government was unaware of such extensive data. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have provided the ballot paper we all received.

The first and most fundamental issue is the binary nature of the decision. Even though all choices eventually come down to a selection between two things, the psychological evidence shows that human beings are really bad at making such a choice. The studies show that humans are no good at choosing between several different things and we are pretty much useless at deciding between two different things, such as remain or leave. We are only any good at making binary decisions when the two things we have to choose between are similar.

We can see the impact of choice in the world of retail. At one point, Tesco offered us 235 various kinds of coffee. Aldi provided just 24. Meanwhile, Tesco offered us 28 alternative forms of tomato ketchup, while Lidl sold two variations. People are moving in their droves from traditional grocery stores to the discount suppliers not just because of the prices. Shopping there is easier as it involves less arduous decision-making as a result of limited choice.

Other research on choice, though, shows that choosing between two things, as we had to do in the referendum in 2016, is difficult for humans unless the selection is between comparable items. When we are faced with a choice between two different things, we cannot decide — unless we have a prior view.

The referendum was asking those people who did not have a pre-set view to remain or leave to choose between two different things and that, psychological research shows, is just too hard. We stumble on that process and effectively just “stick a pin in”.

This means that a proportion of the votes in the referendum were from people who could not really decide but made a choice because they felt they had to. What happens in such situations is those individuals then subconsciously seek rational justification for their random selection.

Imagine you were forced to choose between supporting your local football team or supporting your local cricket club. You cannot support both, only one. Of course, they are not similar, so choosing between them is tougher than selecting between two football clubs, for instance. However, once you have made your decision, even if it is random, you will find that you end up “proving to yourself” that your choice was right.

This is what will have happened in the referendum. All those ardent remain or leave voices who were once undecided have convinced themselves that their decision was rational, even though it was not.

The difference between remain and leave was just 3.8%. Some of this small difference will be due to the binary choice effect of needing to select between two different things — effectively “sticking a pin in”.

Another series of psychological effects relate to the ballot paper itself. One issue is known as the “order effect”. In surveys and multiple-choice tests, people tend to answer either the first option or the last option. This is because of personality differences in whether an individual is a “primacy” person or a “recency” individuals. Primacy personalities are most likely to choose the first thing they see, and recency people tend to select the last option. To counter this effect, academics, market researchers and so on will change the order of the options for each person taking part in the questionnaire. That way you eliminate the impact of the effect of the order of the choices.

The referendum ballot paper was the same for everyone, meaning there was an inherent bias in the responses. A higher number of people have a “recency” personality which makes them more likely to select the second option on the ballot paper, which was “leave”. That too will be a contributory factor to the small margin in favour of “leave”.

Another issue with the ballot paper is the length of the questions. There is evidence that people tend to choose the shorter option in a questionnaire or multiple-choice exam. To counter this, academics, for instance, will make sure that each option is pretty much the same length. In the referendum ballot paper, the remain option was 37 characters, and the leave one was 24 characters. This also means the referendum had an inbuilt psychological tendency for people to choose “leave”, rather than “remain”, if they were undecided.

What this all means is that the design of the referendum paper, the question and the way it was presented to us had an inherent psychological bias towards “leave”. Combine that with the fact that human beings find it hard to choose between two different things and the 3.8% difference between the voters can be explained entirely by the psychological factors. Moreover, that means it was a wholly unreliable test of the “will of the people”.

However, the British Government has continued on the basis that they have been given an “instruction” by the public. Yet as we have seen, the Cabinet is divided, Parliament is split, and the country is in two minds. This is because of another psychological issue which comes into play when we are considering binary choice — confirmation bias. As soon as we make a choice everything we see or hear subsequently confirms either that we have made the right choice, or the opposing side has made the wrong decision. It is confirmation bias which is at the heart of the current national division.

Binary choices based on different options tend to end up in a 50–50 split with no apparent way out. Except there is still a way of extricating yourself from such a situation. Back to psychology.

Instead of trying to decide between the two different things, you can find a way out of a deadlock decision by introducing a third option which is similar to the existing elements. Human beings are really good at choosing between two similar things. Mrs May’s Chequers deal might seem bonkers to many, but if the public were given a choice, then it could be decisive. That’s because, for the “remainers” who originally “plumped” for their choice, there is the benefit of being able to compare remain with Mrs May’s Brexit which has a lot of remain within it. They can decide between two similar things. For the proportion of Brexiteers who effectively “stuck a pin in”, they can also choose between two similar options — a “hard Brexit” or a Brexit with some of the benefits of remaining in the EU. In other words, giving people the three choices between remain, leave or accept the Chequers deal and the selection is easier because people will be able to choose between similar things.

However, the vote will only be decisive if the question on the ballot paper has options which are all the same length, to counter the “length effect”, and there are several different ballot papers, changing the order of the options to prevent “order effect”. With three choices and an adequately designed ballot paper, the psychological evidence shows that such a vote would be much more decisive than the ill-thought-out, poorly designed and biased ballot paper of 2016.

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who helps business understand online customer behaviour

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