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Understanding the Brexit Disaster:

Ask the Psychologists!

By Shlomo Maital

I’ve been glued to our TV, for weeks, watching the British debate in Parliament what to do next about Brexit. I’ve watched how the world’s oldest elected Parliament cannot find a majority for anything – except, maybe, NOT to crash out of the EU. I’ve watched how the Trump-like PM Boris Johnson tries to circumvent Parliament, in the name of democracy but instead mortally wounding it. I studied for a year in Manchester, and feel deeply sorry for the people of Britain – and am trying to understand how they got into this pickle.

     Enter the psychologists. In the excellent podcast Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedanta, the Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert was recently interviewed. He spoke about this – we humans are incorrigibly bad at predicting the future,, specifically, in predicting how we will feel in future about a decision made in the present.

   The British people voted narrowly (52 for, 48 against) to leave the EU, in 2016. Mainly they voted for “take our country back”, a slogan pushed by pro-Brexit politicians, driven by anger at the flood of migrants crossing the English Channel that under EU rules could not be stopped.

     But what about other aspects of leaving the EU? What about the Ireland-Northern Ireland border? What about all the EU citizens living in Britain? What about trade, tariffs, customs? Then-PM David Cameron, who initiated the referendum, never believed it would pass, and never developed realistic future scenarios about how leaving the EU would be done. Former PM Theresa May stubbornly pushed the same leave-EU proposal to Parliament three times – despite zero chance of it passing.

       Professor Gilbert explains, basically, that when we make a decision, we are pretty hopeless about predicting how we will feel about it. As the Brits learn more about what leaving the EU means – crashing out with no deal, in particular, as Johnson obsessively wants — I believe they regret their initial vote in 2016. In particular — if only 1.5 per cent of those who voted “leave” now change their mind and would vote ‘stay’ – the referendum would be reversed.   Yet — cynics, in the name of democracy, say “the result of a referendum is set in stone” – even though Parliament, elected by the people, can change its mind a dozen times a day, also in the name of democracy.

     Basically – people are flawed in how they predict how they will feel about a decision in the future. We know this from the work of psychologists, and from our own introspection.

     Conclusion: Do another referendum on “leave or stay”. Take into account that humans are flawed. Give the British people another chance.

       But Johnson and pro-Brexit politicians insist this is undemocratic. Wrong.

       The 2016 referendum was terribly flawed. The British people were not told the full story. They voted on the basis of a narrow idea, ‘take our country back’. They weren’t told, how precisely this would be done.

       So – do it again. Offer clear precise scenarios. And offer a clear ‘leave’ plan, including Ireland.

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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