Brexit and the perils of group think
Today, the world woke to the news that the UK will leave the European Union. At 51.9 per cent ‘Leave’ against 48.1 per cent ‘Remain’, it can hardly be said that the nation was united behind the final result.
The battle lines were drawn along socio-economic lines. Polls leading up to the referendum showed that academics, knowledge workers and city-dwellers were more likely to vote ‘Remain’, while the working classes and rural communities, were more likely to vote ‘Leave’. The British working classes believe that cheap immigrant labour from Eastern Europe has led to greater strain on the welfare system and downward pressure on wages. Farage’s UK Independent Party gleefully fanned these flames, despite evidence that the majority of immigration comes from outside the EU. London School of Economics researchers recently reported, ‘EU immigrants are more educated, younger, more likely to be in work and less likely to claim benefits than the UK-born.’
But, we shouldn’t really be surprised that evidence plays little part in political decision-making, at least for the vast majority of voters. Human beings do not make decisions based on carefully weighing up the evidence. In fact, we use heuristics or ‘rules of thumb’ as shortcuts to help us make quick decisions without becoming paralysed by all the information available. The seminal work of psychologist Robert Cialdini showed that these ‘shortcuts’ are surprising consistent across all people; making it relatively easy to take advantage of them to influence people. Cialdini was able to identify six fundamental principles – the video below provides a fantastic summary.
Several of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion can be readily applied to explain the psychology behind the Brexit outcome. Perhaps the most obvious one is Consensus. People will look to the actions of others to determine their own actions, particularly when they are unsure. Importantly, the more like you the other person is, the more likely you are to follow their lead. Indeed, studies have shown that people will knowingly select the wrong answer in a test rather than choose to be different (Asch, 1951).
The phenomenon of ‘group think’ takes the principle of consensus to its most damaging extreme (Janis, 1972). Group think is characterised by eight symptoms:
- An illusion of invulnerability that leads to extreme risk taking
- Collective rationalisation, so that warnings go unheeded
- Belief in inherent morality – when you believe you are morally right, you start to believe the end justifies the means
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – for example, immigrants stealing our jobs and claiming benefits
- Direct pressure on dissenters, so that members are discouraged from expressing arguments that go against the grain
- Self-censorship, whereby doubts about the group’s consensus go unvoiced
- Illusion of unanimity – where it’s widely assumed that everyone supports the leader’s view
- Self-appointed ‘mind guards’, who filter information that doesn’t support the group’s world view.
I recently watched a documentary called ‘Our Crime’, which shared the story of two violent attacks on the streets of South London. In one of the tragic cases covered, a gang of young men ‘happy slapped’ a random stranger – a family man, who subsequently died in hospital of his injuries. One of the young men involved injured his hand while running away from the scene, and the gang showed up at the same hospital where, unbeknownst to them, their victim lay dying. CCTV footage showed them dancing and fooling around in the lift well. One of the victim’s family members expressed disbelief that they were acting in this way, while a few feet away a man lay dying because of their actions. While their behaviour was, of course, horrifying – perhaps it was not so surprising. ‘Group think’ had them in it’s grip. At that moment, those young men had no concept of the enormity of what they’ve done. Adherence to the group mores was too exhilarating and all-consuming for them to pause and consider it.
I also recently watched ‘What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy’ – a documentary on Netflix. In the documentary, the sons of two prominent Nazis explored their father’s crimes. One took the view that his father was a good man, unable to intervene in what was happening. The other hated his father and held him entirely responsible for mass murder. The presenter, whose grandfather’s entire family had, in effect, been murdered on the orders of these men, was not sympathetic to the man who defended his father. Understandably so. But, I felt rather more sympathy with his standpoint. While there were undeniably a great many evil and sadistic Nazis, we cannot explain away the widespread collaboration of the German people by saying they were all sadistic lunatics. Again, social forces were at play and would have made it extremely difficult – and dangerous – for any one person to dissent.
My point is, we are all less in control of our behaviour than we believe. Human beings are pack animals. Powerful social forces are exerted on us without our awareness, much less our consent. The challenge is, how can we harness these forces for good, not evil?