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Expert opinion: Brexit and the psychology of interpretation and change

Written by Jan de Jonge on .

Jan de JongeJan de JongeApart from your product or service, the success of your business is influenced by outside circumstances: the context, business climate, economy… and politics.

The UK is currently still embroiled in the difficult and highly divisive topic of Brexit. Depending on who you ask, you might be told that the UK has ‘a very clear mandate to leave the EU’ or be reminded that a minority of UK’s citizens decided by a small margin on Brexit, without knowing what it meant and their votes having been won by illegal means.

Prime Minister Theresa May's government is still busy trying to convince MPs to support some version of the divorce deal… talk about tenacity!

It seems that, psychologically, people are scared of change. Some perceive a 'sudden influx of 2 million immigrants into the UK'. Some have a dislike for the snobbery of conservatist elitists who deride the working class.

As the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama said in a recent interview on Dutch TV programme Buitenhof: “People are uncomfortable with rapid cultural change”.

Through the whole Brexit saga, we may be learning that national and European policy bears a similarity with what psychologists often say about effective leadership: you have to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Brexit, so it seems, has polarised the nation, alongside the upsurge in populism.

So we need politics that understand that voters vote with their hurried, always-on, more illogical, creative-intuitive hearts as much as (or even more than) their more logical, deliberate minds.

This is aligned to the difference between “Emotional versus rational engagement” – which in turn relates to our ‘thinking fast’ and ‘thinking slow’, as discussed so eloquently by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal book.

Our minds are lazy and often lead to error. Our minds to go for the least effort as possible and we make quick choices – even when it lacks enough information to make a rational decision. Depending on our backgrounds, our age, our belief systems, we anchor information differently.

Are you anchored to believe that Britain can do this? “Britain has been there before, and came out victorious”. “We can make Britain great again!” Or you anchored by your freedom to live and work anywhere in the Member States of the EU, regardless of whether your annual income is at least £30K per year?

A well-known phenomenon in psychology is that of loss aversion. We’d rather avoid the lose than having an equally big chance of making a gain. Is our loss aversion perhaps not as strong then as we all thought? Probably not.

But it’s clear that we find it hard to define loss, whether societal or individual loss. Ask David Cameron – he certainly had not expected the outcome of UK’s 2016 referendum. That was literally his loss. And, in my opinion, ours: people in the UK and in the rest of Europe.

We live in a society where the biggest value and reach of influence is hidden in the extent to which we can gather attention. Power is gained and lost by the effectiveness of attention-capturing campaigns.

News, fake news, advertisement, social media, marketing: the key to its currency is attention. Modern campaigns started to realise that cognitive strain in disseminating messages should be avoided.

In other words, the easier the message is to take in (read: big, catchy images, less text, less complexity) the easier the brain can process the message and accept the ideas conveyed without thinking - and without requiring any thinking.

There are people who can make snap decisions with less consideration or knowledge of the implications for those around them. Not considering others (enough) can cause anxieties and repercussions rebounding back on the decision-maker. Learning to just pause and 'put yourself in the other person’s shoes' can prevent unnecessary conflict. It worries me when I hear people in Britain say: “Let’s just get this done!”, “We chose to leave!”

It seems to me that Brexit is not just Brexit, but far harder to give real shape and implement.

Food for thought, debate, and, for many, worries - that’s for sure. One of the challenges is for people to stay positive – in their hearts and minds.

Business psychologist Jan de Jonge relocated from the Netherlands to the UK in 2000 and founded People Business Psychology Ltd in Wiltshire in 2012. This article first appeared in a bulletin to members of the Netherlands British Chamber of Commerce.