The Neuroscience of No Regrets: Why People Still Support Brexit and Trump

It’s now over a year since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, plenty of time to witness the consequences of both. And, from an entirely objective perspective, going solely by the ever-increasing evidence, they were terrible decisions. Brexit has gifted Britain a veritable avalanche of governmental chaos, economic damage, international humiliation, internal strife, and much more. The Donald Trump administration has provided essentially the same for the US, although perhaps with slightly less economic injury. But more Nazis.

You’d logically assume that, when confronted with the fallout from their decisions, those who supported Brexit and Trump would realise they’d made a mistake, and change their minds. However, when have people ever been logical? Recent polls show support for Brexit and Trump relatively unchanged, at least among those who supported them originally.

Why is this? While the desire for a clear explanation is understandable, but undeniably naive, there are undoubtedly many factors to consider. Not everyone follows current events. Not everyone is politically engaged. Many people won’t have been (directly) negatively affected yet, and even if they are, the space between cause and effect with all things political is often so long and confusing that a direct connection is hard to establish. And of course, there will be plenty of people who do genuinely think Trump and Brexit are good things, for various reasons of their own.

However, one important factor that pollsters will forever struggle to account for, is that the human brain really doesn’t like changing its mind. There are several processes at work here, which go to the very core of our beings.

We stick by our decisions

Have you ever been offered a good deal by a used car salesperson that you’ve agreed on, only to have them “check with the manager” and find out you can’t have quite what you were hoping for? Say, the price is £500 more than originally stated, or you can’t have the extended warranty or insurance. Have you still gone ahead with the inferior deal, despite it not being what you agreed on? Then congratulations, you have been manipulated.

This is recognised by scientists as the low-ball technique, a potent method for increasing compliance, i.e. making other people do what you want them to do. It works because the human brain seems intrinsically reluctant to go back on a decision once we’ve committed to it, even if the original parameters that led to the decision have changed. Bizarre as it may seem, we seem to be wired to commit to an action, and take account of the cost later.

There need to be certain aspects present for this to work, though. One of which is, we must feel that the original decision was truly ours, not forced upon us or made for us. Therefore, a political choice that we made is something we’re less likely to go back on. Doesn’t matter if it was made based on ridiculous and impossible promises; the human brain seems wired to just accept that.

We define ourselves by our decisions

Why would we be so dedicated to decisions we’ve made, even when presented with tangible evidence that they weren’t the best course of action? One argument is that our decisions are a big part of how we define our sense of “self”, and if we doubt our decisions, this causes uncertainty and unease at a very deep level of our being. We made a decision based on our own evaluation of the information presented, which was obviously filtered through our existing attitudes, beliefs, opinions and conclusions. As a result, our brains reflexively downplay or dismiss any information that causes us to doubt our decisions, because that casts doubt on our very ability to function. Anything that causes our behaviour and our beliefs to come into conflict is not something our brains like. This results in well-known cognitive biases, where we do our best to dismiss anything that suggests we are wrong, or responsible for bad things happening.

Indeed, rather than backing off and realising our mistakes, people will often escalate their commitment to their decision, not reduce it. Presented with mounting evidence that they’re going about things the wrong way, they dig their heels in and become even more dedicated. Might seem bizarre, but there are believed to be numerous psychological mechanisms at work based around self-justification, sense of control, sunk costs, and so on. This certainly explains a lot about Brexit, particularly the negotiations.

Some studies also suggest that high self-esteem makes people more confident and certain in their decisionsHigh self-esteem and self-belief is also often a sign of low intelligence. How you apply this information in the current context is up to you. I’m saying nothing.

Us vs Them

If our decisions inform our sense of self, they can arguably become part of our core beliefs, around which our identity and worldview is based. Another thing our identities are heavily informed by, even at the neurological level, are the groups we feel we are part of. Anything that threatens our identity is usually strongly resisted by the brain.

Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns were widely condemned for being polarising and divisive. Indeed, they were. But, they worked didn’t they? Because that’s how people, their brains, work. We identify ourselves based on those we engage with, and those we oppose. And this happens whether you like it or not. You regularly see people in the comments or on Twitter who openly criticise Brexit or Trump for being so divisive, getting into furious rows with people who say they weren’t, with no sense of irony.

The campaigns themselves and the resultant media landscape has resulted in a context where everyone takes a side, even by default. You’re a Brexiter or Remainer, a Deplorable, the Resistance, and so on. Even if you insist you don’t want to take sides, you can now be condemned for being a “centrist”. It’s oddly inclusive, in a way. But it does mean that, for better or worse, everyone ends being part of a particular group, opposed to other notable ones. This invariably results in polarisation, groupthink, aggression, and so on. None of which are helpful when it comes to reflecting on your previous decisions and concluding that maybe they weren’t the wisest.

This causes numerous problems, not least for pollsters. These major political decisions don’t exist in a vacuum, they aren’t theoretical constructs, they’re now tied up in our lives and our identities. Simple survey questions have little hope of accounting for all this, and so the eventual data is bound to be more complicated than it looks.

Essentially, asking people “Do you still support Brexit/Trump?” in such the volatile, impassioned, confusing environment we currently find ourselves in is likely to be perceived as “Do you think that you and everyone you agree with is wrong, and your hated enemies are right?” And who’s going to say yes to that?

Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain is available now, in the UK and US and elsewhere.


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