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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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Our Two Brains – The REAL Deal!
By   Shlomo Maital  
 
   On the latest Hidden Brain podcast, by Shankar Vedanta, the guest is a psychiatrist and brain researcher, Iain McGilchrist.  He speaks about his new book The Master and his Emissary.  I plan to read it very soon.
     There is enormous misleading hype about the left and right brains.  Much of it is wrong.  McGilchrist’s book is the real deal, and helps us understand our world.  The title comes from out an old folk tale. A “master” sends out an emissary to the countryside to gather information. The emissary gathers vast information, and tries to become the master, based on the knowledge he collected.  But he cannot. He fails. Because he has only facts, details (left brain/logic), and lacks big picture capability (right brain/holistic thinking). 
     Evolution helped humans survive. To kill and eat prey, we need right-brain big-picture thinking (the forest, trees, rocks, weather, etc.) and crucially need small-picture detailed left brain thinking (the deer is 20 yards to the left of the oak tree and is limping).  Of course, most crucial of all is the connecting link between the right and left brain.  Weird things happen, McGilchrist explains, when surgery has to sever the nerve path connecting the two brain hemispheres. 
      There is a serious message in the book, way beyond the research findings.  McGilchrist argues that increasingly we live in a left-brain logic driven world, based on algorithms and small details.  And on short run optimization.  What’s best for now.    I believe our political system is mainly driven by left brain messages.  Note, especially, that the emotion ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’ are actually cross-brain, not solely right brain (where most emotions originate),  Many political messages are now focused on hatred,  left-brain hatred. 
     “Meaning comes out of having consistent pictures of the world,” McGilchrist told Vedanta, based on knowing our past, not just our own but that of the world,  the past of others.”  A more right-brain world will focus on the long run, on the big picture, and on our interaction with our planet and with Nature. 
     Now,  how in the world do we achieve that?   A start, at least, is being aware that there is a right/left brain problem in the world.

Are You Trapped in the Tunnel of Scarcity?

By Shlomo Maital

   Are you trapped in the tunnel of scarcity?   If you are, you may not be aware of it.

   In his wonderful National Public Radio podcast “Hidden Brain”, Shankar Vedantam discusses the “tunnel of scarcity” – a situation in which we invest so much mental energy in one thing, there is too little left for other essential things (family, rest, relaxation).

   Princeton University Professor Eldar Shafir and colleagues showed in 2013 and 2014 (in Science journal) how being poor affects negatively our cognitive functioning. [1]   If you are poor, you focus on your immediate needs, with little thought or energy left to plan for the long run. Ability to defer gratification, to acquire human and financial capital, is thus impaired. They find:

   A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping   with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time.

   Vedantam expands on this phenomenon, and describes the “tunnel of scarcity”. If there is something that you feel you need very badly, your brain focuses on it exclusively, and crowds out other things that may be important. He interviews a former medical resident, who focused obsessively on excelling in her residency, and burned out.

   I co-host a course on Entrepreneurship at my university. I invited a former very senior Intel executive to share his life lessons, in a life filled with innovation. He began his “10 Lessons” with Lesson #1 – Family, and described the heavy toll that high-tech can take. He cautioned students to be aware of it, lest it consume their family life.  

   In evolution, 25,000 years ago, humans who entered the tunnel of scarcity and focused single-mindedly on immediate needs – food, water, shelter – tended to survive, and reproduce, more than those lacking it. So evolution has equipped our brains with “tunnel of scarcity” capability.

   But in modern life, unless we are keenly aware and mindful of it, and if our friends and family fail to alert us to it, we can all of us fall victim to entering a tunnel of obsessive focus – and destroy without intention things of value. And when we awake to the situation, it may be too late. A brain trapped inside the tunnel may struggle to escape.

     Are you in such a tunnel? Is there sufficient light at the end of it, to guide you out of it?

. . . .

p.s. In 1972/3, 45 years ago, my wife Sharone, a psychologist, and I submitted an article to the American Economic Review. In it we argued that because the poor are not proficient at deferring gratification, to build future income, poverty tends to be transmitted from generation to generation. The editor of the journal rejected our submission out of hand, quipping glibly that “in fact the poor are expert at deferred gratification – they do it every day”. Eventually we did publish the article. But it has taken decades for psychology to invade, and perhaps even capture, mainstream economics.

   Sharone Maital and Shlomo Maital, “Time preference, delay of gratification and the intergenerational transmission of economic inequality”. In Orley Ashenfelter and Wallace Oates, editors, Essays in Labor Market Analysis, (Halsted Press/John Wiley & Sons, New York: 1978, 179-199).

 

[1] “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao. 30 Science   AUGUST 2013.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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