Bader Almutawa delves into the polarising effect of Brexit on Britain while taking into consideration psychological theories to look at the social and cultural implications of referendums that request a response from the electorate.
The problem of binary referendums in liberal democracies was investigated in an essay I submitted for the course on ‘Political Psychology: Inequality and Prejudice’. In particular, I looked at the social and cultural implications of referendums that request a response from the electorate to “either/or” queries. The focal point of the research is on the UK referendum on continuing European Union membership (EU) in June of 2016, which had a strongly polarising effect on the country. I focused on studying some of the psychological theories that can be utilised to explain how and why the referendum resulted in an increasingly polarised, politicised world after the essay sheds a light on how EU membership was boiled down to simple “leave” or “remain” options on the ballot paper.
There are two main psychological perspectives showcased in this blog: group-based social psychology theories as well as individual traits-based approaches. Group-based theories demonstrate how group dynamics shape how people think and act in social groups. Based on evolutionary theories in psychology, the group dynamic theory, for instance, says that people are programmed to make important decisions socially instead of a logical cost-benefit analysis1. Particularly, group dynamics theories emphasise the important role that is executed by decision making leaders like the establishers of social and cultural consensus. As opposed to social psychology theories, individual traits-based approaches based on how people think about social and political issues are determined by their personalities2.
I showed that the “leave/remain” vote in the 2016 referendum was divided into four primary demographic fault-lines created based on age, racial and ethnic identity, geographical location, and academic qualifications or socioeconomic status. That suggests that the polarisation that appeared since 2016 reflects wider social, cultural, and economic sects within the country that have been historically prevalent in terms of class and race. However, I presented that such arguments fail to consider the way these fault-lines produced “leave” voters who did not succeed in meeting the characteristics of the typical ‘Brexiter’ and “remain” voters who did not match the expected social and demographic characteristics. Recourse to psychological theories that explore the beginning and effect of cognitive bias can explain this inconsistency as these biases motivate people to implement previously conceived values and judgements on both social and political occurrences3.
Implications and Findings
Empirical research supports the major principles of group-based theories of political psychology. In specific, quantitative research studies have examined the self-identities that have been exhibited by social media consumers since the Brexit referendum. The findings of those studies show how strongly in group/out group identifications that have been rooted upon group consensus have created echo chambers into which the deeply polarising and politicised labels, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiters’, have been created.
The more issues become complicated, the greater the tendency to represent group consensus4. Instead of basing opinions on facts that are observable, group-based social psychology theories imply how people are more inclined to make decisions that are corresponding with their preexisting worldview. There is little doubt that this has contributed to polarisation and politicisation when it comes to the UK’s binary choice referendum’s reverberation.
Empirical research also supported the primary arguments of individual, traits-based psychological theories. The most notable instance is with empirical research, which shows that rigid cognitive functioning stimulates a discriminating thought process that divides political phenomena into strict categories of right and wrong. On the other hand, lenient cognitive function allows an individual to look past absolutes to appreciate political phenomena’s room for different opinions.
Flexible cognitive performance is linked to progressive and liberal worldviews where cognitive inflexibility is highly correlated with the support of conservative and authoritarian ideologies⁵. Thus, psychological research supports how some people are more naturally geared towards voting conservatively while others are inherently predisposed to the concept of liberalism. That suggests that an individual’s attitude is determined by neuro-cognitive processes and psychological characteristics that are not in their hands. When it comes to the UK’s referendum on EU membership, this is a highly important finding to acknowledge. I consistently showed how the UK’s referendum on EU membership sparked a wave of xenophobic, nationalist, and nativist ideologies that have, since 2016, polarised and politicised almost all facets of British social and cultural life⁶.
My findings contradict the results of group-based studies since traits-based approaches to psychology prioritise agency over structure. There is a stark contrast between theories that explain human behaviour via social and economic structures and theories that place a high degree of agency on individual voters.
I concluded that neither group-based psychological theories nor individual-level ones can explain polarisation and politicisation by themselves in binary referenda’s aftermath. Instead, it is only when the two approaches are combined that there is a possibility to understand referenda’s polarising effect on society. Identities that are created within social and cultural groups overlap with traits, attitudes, and cognitive processes that are unique to each individual to shape ideological and political views. Although combining macro-level theories and micro-level ones can explain political affiliation trends across time and space, it is especially crucial to acknowledge within the context of binary referenda of liberal democracies that are contemporary⁷.
Specifically, I presented how the overlap of group identities and discriminatory cognitive processes can be stimulated by a political environment in which there is active encouragement of polarisation and politicisation through spreading false truths. The Brexit referendum was divisive because of the binary nature that it has, but it was considered to be toxic because of how corrupt political enforcers were willing to take advantage of existing in group/out group identifications and cognitive biases⁸.
Bader Almutawa is a postgraduate student studying politics in the Department of International Relations at LSE. Alnutawa’s research interests include Islamists movements, national democracies, and the relationship between politics and religion.
- Bar-Tal, D. (2011) Intergroup Conflicts and their Resolution: A Social Psychological Perspective London: Psychology Press
- Doise, W. (1982) Levels of Explanation in Social Psychology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Jost, J.T. and Sidanius, J. (2004) Political Psychology London: Psychology Press
- Sindic, D. and Contor, S. (2014) ‘Social identity theory and self-categorisation theory,’ in, Nesbitt-Larking, P. and Kinvall, K. (2014) Handbook of Global Political Psychology London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.39-44
- Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W. and Sulloway, F. (2003) ‘Political conservatism as motivated social cognition,’ in, Psychological Bulletin, 129: 339-375
- Rzepnikowska, A. (2019) ‘Racism and xenophobia experienced by Polish migrants in the UK before and after the Brexit vote,’ in, Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(1): 61-77
- Clarke, H.D., Goodwin, M. and Whiteley, P. (2017) ‘ Why Britain voted for Brexit: An individual-level analysis of the 2016 vote,’ in, Parliamentary Affairs, 70: 439–464
- Stalder, D.R. (2018) The Power of Context: How to Manage our Bias and Improve our Understanding of Others New York: Prometheus