The neuroscience behind continuing Brexit and Trump support


Few would argue that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are not submerged in a blizzard of negative and critical reporting. But despite this, in recent polling, attitudes towards Brexit and Trump have been shown to be relatively unchanged, among original voters at least.  

In the Guardian, neuropsychologist (and stand-up comedian) Dean Burnett explains this by noting how much "the human brain really doesn’t like changing its mind". This falls into three areas: 

We stick by our decisions

"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

"We make decisions 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."

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.

More here. Burnett concludes: 

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 a 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?