Brexit and Cognitive Bias- Part 2 Conspiracy Theories

Brexit and Cognitive Bias- Part 2 Conspiracy Theories August 12, 2016

In this second post about Brexit and the cognitive biases that surround the referendum decision I want to focus on the prevalence of conspiracy thinking. Both the Leave and Remain campaigns sought to exploit conspiratorial thinking but the Leave campaigners proved to be much more adept at this and it proved to be one of the key factors behind their success. Now in the post-referendum period, conspiratorial thinking has continued to proliferate and is currently most visible in the ongoing leadership crisis surrounding Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Labour- the largest left wing party of the UK. I’ll come to that in the next post but first let’s focus on the major conspiracies of the referendum campaigns.


*Sorry for the unannounced month long hiatus- I had a very busy time with academic articles and conference presenting but things should be back to normal now*

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Image from Janobacon (CC BY 2.0)

For Remain campaign the central conspiracies floated were that the ex-London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and some of the other leaders of the Leave side were campaigning in order to raise their personal profiles rather than due to sincere beliefs and that they were knowingly using misleading figures and statistics to promote their cause. Both of these charges have merit but they also proved rather easy for the targets to dismiss as for most of the key campaigners it was not difficult to claim they were convinced by the deep well of euro-scepticism that has long been rife in the Conservative party. Boris Johnson even managed to largely escape the accusations of insincerity by employing his trademark bumbling persona to huff, puff and mumble past previous pro-EU positions. In short such criticisms proved to have little impact on the public imagination.

In contrast to the Remain campaign’s ineffective conspiracy mongering, the Leave campaign’s efforts proved extremely successful. The campaign utilised popular political disenfranchisement, nationalism, and distrust of outgroups (‘foreigners’) and successfully promoted a wide variety of claims and figures that were simple to understand, emotionally powerful, and false. However, the explanations required to detail why the claims were inaccurate were usually technical in nature and this meant that the loudest damnation came from politicians and experts from large national and international institutions. Such condemnation fed right right into a parallel conspiratorial Leave narrative, namely that opposition to the UK leaving the EU was being directed by the powerful vested interests of the British and European establishment, against the ordinary British public.

As a result, it was a simple for the Leave campaign to dismiss the warnings of experts as tainted and unreliable. Indeed, buoyed by widespread anti-establishment and anti-intellectual sentiment, Michael Gove famously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Promoting conspiratorial thinking about ‘the establishment’ was also an easier task for the Leave campaign since for most British citizens the EU represents a distant and opaque foreign institution about which they know very little. Indeed, repeated polling has shown that on almost every issue related to the relationship between the UK and the EU the majority of the British public are wrong.

Because of such widespread sentiment the Leave campaign was remarkably successful in framing the EU vote as being a vote about endorsing the establishment/status quo (Remain) vs. the outsiders/rebels looking to shake things up (Leave). This was accurate in so far as the vast majority of politicians were pro-Remain but it is also entirely misleading in that all of the major Leave campaign figures, with the exception of Nigel Farage, were senior figures from the ruling Conservative government. The Leave campaign thus managed to sell voters the idea that the were voting to end EU membership and remove foreign immigrants- effective as soon after the result came out- when in reality all the Brexit vote really achieved was to empower the right wing of the ruling Conservatives and provide them with a stronger mandate within their party. Months after the referendum the UK remains in the EU, no official notice has been provided of an intention to leave and there has been no new legislation passed in regards to immigration. So in effect the referendum was just a very large opinion poll.

This does not mean the Brexit vote had no significant impact, however, a new Conservative prime minister and a new cabinet was installed, the UK’s economy has certainly taken a hit, the pound has fallen in value dramatically and there has been a rise in racist incidents across the UK. But the ultimate outcome of the Brexit referendum remains at this stage very uncertain. Britain’s departure from the EU is also far from a done deal; there are at the very least many years of negotiations to go and there are those who think that Britain may actually never end up leaving.

Exploiting the tendencies of intergroup psychology is a fundamental component of all political campaigns as all politicians and their political parties need to motivate supporters to come out and vote for them as opposed to some other choice but it does seem that we are in a period wherein politics globally is becoming more polarised and more populist. In the UK we had Brexit and the Leave campaign and now are experiencing the mirror image on the political far left with Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum movement and in the US you have Trump and on the left the incensed supporters of Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, the lessons of history concerning the danger of politicians who seek to fan the flames of popular resentment and channel them toward an outgroup and/or the establishment are being short sightedly ignored by both politicians and the public.

The Leave campaign again is a textbook example of this as its leaders seem to have had little concern about fanning conspiratorial hatred of the ‘establishment’ despite the fact that they intended to return to the very same ‘establishment’ after their campaign. This seems like a remarkably short sighted strategy, but as the columnist Nick Cohen commented in the end the Leave leaders who sought to exploit popular resentment “have played with fire safe in the knowledge that, whoever else burned, it would not be them.”

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