Why Brexit Happened, According to Behavioral Psychology

How did Brexit happen? For a lot of people, including people living in there, the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union was a shock. But based on the predictable ways humans respond to stimuli and situations, the 51.9 percent vote to leave the E.U. shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, said British public relations expert Michael Bodansky, who works for the London communications firm freuds. Bodansky believes the vote and its aftermath (and a lot of politics, actually) can be explained by principals of behavioral psychology.

1. Hindsight bias

Looking back on the Leave and Remain campaigns (as in “leave” the E.U. and “remain” in the E.U.), Remain supporters like to say it was a close call, Bodansky said. But how close was it during the campaigns?

brexit pbs rewireAt the get, the Remain campaign had a lot of things going for it—financial resources, manpower, governmental control and the status quo, Bodansky said during a talk on Brexit at the South by Southwest Interactive conference this month.

“A lot of people thought the remain campaign held all the cards,” he said.

But at the very end the Leave campaign experienced a swell of support.

So, “looking back we might say it was a close call, maybe it could have gone to Leave, maybe it could have gone to Remain,” Bodansky said. “But that was certainly not the way it was seen internally in each of the campaign’s headquarters. … It’s worth remembering that it didn’t look like 50-50 all the way along.”

So why do Remain voters now talk about the vote being so close? We tell ourselves stories to help us understand confusing and upsetting situations, Bodansky said. That’s hindsight bias.

“This is the idea that we post-rationalize a lot, we are storytelling creatures, we need to tell stories in order to make sense of who we are and what we do and our purpose in the world,” he said. “We need a narrative.”

2. ‘System 1’ vs. ‘System 2’ thinking

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman developed the theory of “System 1” and “System 2” thinking. System 1 represents gut instinct, our automatic response to someone or something. System 2 represents our analytical thoughts, our ability to reason and puzzle through difficult problems.

brexit pbs rewireBodansky posits that the Leave campaign triggered the people’s intuitive System 1 response with slogans like “Let’s take back control.” Remain’s messaging played to analytical System 2 thinking: “£4,300 a year—Cost to U.K. families if Britain leaves the E.U.”

Broader, System 1-targeted messages—think “Make America Great Again,” a “great System 1 message,” Bodansky said—just play better in politics. Serving voters with a lot of statistics actually backfired in the anti-Brexit campaign. Voters decided “we’ve had enough of experts,” Bodansky said, deciding instead to go with their own guts.

3. Loss aversion

The last opportunity people living in the U.K. had to vote on their membership in the E.U. was way back in the 1970s. The 2016 Brexit vote was billed as a possible once-in-a-lifetime shot to “take back control,” Bodansky said. Another opportunity to leave might not present itself for another 40 or 50 years. Think of our tendency for loss aversion this way: Humans would rather avoid losing a $5 bill than find a $5 bill on the ground. The same applies to missed opportunities, Bodansky theorizes. Because of an innate aversion to losing out on the opportunity, voters decided to take a chance on splitting from the E.U., he said.

4. Game theory

Bodansky described a “game” in which one person is given a briefcase with $100 inside. That person is told they cannot keep the money unless they split it with another person, who also knows how much money is at stake. The second person must agree on the split or the game is over and neither person gets anything.

If Person 1 offers Person 2 $1 so he can keep the remaining $99, Person 2 will likely reject it. They would rather end the game with nobody getting any money than be given only $1 with the other person walking away with $99.

brexit rewire pbs“My theory is that this exact game… is a microcosm of what the exact mentality was of millions of people across the U.K. toward politicians” during the Brexit vote, Bodansky said. “The elite, or the man, or the 1 percent, or the establishment, they were perceived as the ones that had the briefcase.”

And even though voters were being told that leaving the E.U. would be detrimental to the British economy, people decided they’d rather gamble on financial stability if it meant sticking it to the man, he said. Remaining was what the establishment, the elites, were selling, and the working class of the U.K. wasn’t buying.

Bodansky showed that Leave and Remain voters were split on values—everything from their views on feminism and multiculturalism and the internet to the brands they identify with.

“It wasn’t just an economic argument, it was an argument about worldviews and attitudes and values—how do you see yourself and how do you see other people?” he said. “Brexit didn’t cause the divisions in British society but I think it revealed the division in British society.”

The same goes for Americans during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“These kinds of campaigns don’t create these divides but they do reveal them and exacerbate them,” Bodansky said.

5. Status quo bias

Even if you’re someone who is exhilarated by change, human beings are creatures of habit. We do the same things over and over—like ordering the same drink at the same coffee shop every morning, or re-watching your favorite TV show on Netflix even though you’ve seen every season five times.

brexit pbs rewire“Generally we stick to the status quo—it’s the same reason most people never change the factory settings on their iPhone,” Bodansky said.

This attraction to the status quo is “very powerful,” and the Remain campaign believed it had that on its side, he said. But guess what—in this case, not everyone’s status quo was the same.

“If you were born in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s the status quo is… being out of the E.U.,” he said. “The good old days, the olden days that they remember, the status quo is not being in the E.U.”

Voters born in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s didn’t know anything but membership in the European Union.

That difference showed in the polls. Seventy-five percent of voters ages 18 through 24 and 56 percent of those 25 through 49 voted to stay in the European Union, according to a YouGov exit poll. But 56 percent of 50- through 64-year-olds voted to leave, and 61 percent of the 65-plus voting block wanted out.

“Yes, the status quo is very powerful, and has an influence on people’s behavior… but depending on how old you are, that has an effect on how you vote,” he said.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.