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Business & Finance Series: Expert Comment

Brexit Redux – The Psychological Case for a Second Referendum

A second Referendum would help to unite a divided nation, says Professor Philip Corr


UK citizens have now had their say and Brexit won the day. This outcome was despite all expectation: even Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson seemed to be conceded defeat at the start of the count.

Given the close 48/52 vote, many millions of people are unhappy with this outcome and are calling for a second referendum, although even here dirty tricks are thought to be at play. Politicians of all colours are also looking for ways to avoid activation of Article 50.

The call for a second vote is not new; indeed, none other than Nigel Farage stated well before the Referendum, “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way”. Given that he has another outcome of the referendum in mind when he made this statement, he must be ruing the day he ever opened his mouth.

The argument on the grounds of democracy alone for a second vote is on very shaky ground – why accept any democratic vote the first time around if we do not like the outcome? But, there may be an argument on psychological grounds that are surer or foot.

A Psychological Margin of Error

Pollsters always caution the public that predicted results come with a margin of error – this is a confidence interval (e.g., 2), which tells us that, at a given degree of probability (e.g., 95%), we can estimate that the true voting (e.g., 50%) will lie within this margin (i.e., 48-50%). But, we can also put an ‘error’ figure around an actual vote and ask, if there was second, third, and so on, vote, what would be the margin of error – we can be pretty sure that if the Brexit vote took place again tomorrow these percentages would not be 48.1/51.9. This has to do with the reliability of measurement, which should be expected to apply also to any behaviour

But there is another form of reliability; one that reflects a change in opinion. The aftermath of the Brexit vote has provided new information and insight. Voters are now in a better position to judge the consequences of voting to leave the EU, and their judgement must be as good, if not better, than on the day of the referendum. Given the major consequences of staying in or leaving the EU, there is a good psychological case to be made for a second vote. Psychology tells us that this might produce a more reasoned outcome and the outcome, whatever that might be, would be seen as decisive.

In particular, judgement and decision science has something important to say. With complex decisions where the probability of different outcomes is unknown, people rely on tried-and-tested mental shortcuts, known as heuristics. In the EU debate, several may have been at play, but one that we all experienced was the ‘affect heuristic’. This is the emotional ‘gut feeling’ we have about an argument; and once this is established we often show a confirmation bias which leads us to process information in a way that conforms to our feeling - e.g., free movement of labour within the EU can be viewed as a good or bad thing.

Aftermath and Reasoned Debate

There can be little debate that the Brexit debate was imbued with high emotions and the aftermath is giving free expression to them. Now UK voters have had a taste of what life might be like outside the EU, they should be better able to come to a more fact-based decision and not be swept along on an emotional tide.

If a second vote can reduce the margin of psychological error then why not have a second vote? Although not customary in democratic voting systems and Referendums, given the momentous implications of leaving (and staying in) the EU, why not give the UK citizens a second chance to express their views? This way, we can be sure that that we are entering the future with eyes wide open.

Now is the time for the ‘hidden persuaders’, who rely on the peripheral (emotion) route of changing feelings and motivation rather than the central (information) route, to put a stop to their dark arts and engage with the public with fact-based argument and not facetious and factious debate. In all of this, the Remain camp are on the backfoot. They will need to be prepared for an even worse outcome. If they continue to use psychological ploys, such as fear and loss aversion, to try to influence people, then voters may rebel again, an even in larger numbers.

In particular, the Remain camp will not serve their cause by believing those who voted to leave the EU are bigoted, ill-informed, or gullible - because they do not have a monopoly on the truth and are not the only ones claiming the moral high ground.

Brexit Redux is perhaps little more than cold comfort to the defeated Remain camp who see it as a last ditch life-saver, and it is surely highly unlikely to happen – but, then, in this Referendum, unlikely things have happened. In a strictly psychological sense, a second Referendum would help to unite a divided nation and no one then can say that they do not accept the democratic will of the people.

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