The Dangers of Toasted Snow, the Backfire Effect, and Brexit Lassitude

As a British-American transformation specialist, I often have to work in politically charged environments. Change causes emotions to run high, and in this environment Machiavellian constituents further their self-interested agendas by inflaming anger and fear rather than focusing on facts. When these manipulations happen, it always leads to bad outcomes.

Brexit is magnitude larger and more complex than any corporate reorganization, but the unsavory psychological tactics employed by Vote Leave are similar to those used to thwart change in any institution. To resolve the Brexit debacle, it is necessary to understand and then unwind the manipulations used by Leave that made Brexit so divisive.

Although there was exaggeration and fear mongering on both sides of the debate, there was no equivalency. The Vote Leave campaign sold UK citizens a false utopia of toasted snow, promising a bright economic future and a take back of control” despite scant evidence to support their claims. Leave had no plan; they downplayed the costs of leaving and the unfavorable vagaries of the leaving process. The Sisyphean pursuit of Leave’s empty Brexit promises has, and will continue to, come up short. Whatever deal is on the table right now is about the best it will be.

Leave deliberately over-simplified Brexit so many people had no idea what they were really committing to, but believed they did due a cognitive bias known as the illusion of explanatory depth. When we are familiar with something like a zipper, a door lock or the EU we become over-confident in our understanding of it, but if asked, we cannot explain how any of these things work. The referendum was designed to be deceptively simple with an “in or out” vote. The costly implementation of Brexit is anything but simple.

Leave targeted angry, disenfranchised citizens with inflammatory narratives designed to falsely associate angst towards the EU, Brussels and immigrants as the true cause of their discontent, rather than unaddressed social, economic and political problems. Citizens acted on their emotions by voting, marching, tweeting, and sharing Facebook posts, which caused an escalation of commitment. These manipulations make people emotionally adamant, so they confuse strength of feelings with being right.

One would think bringing facts to light would change people’s views. Not so fast! When a brain is emotionally hijacked, the normal send and receive of the brain gets shut down. People stop listening or taking in new information and get stuck on send. An emotionally hijacked brain is prone to confirmation bias because it cherry picks information that supports prior convictions and ignores or discounts everything else, even if the new evidence overwhelmingly suggests their original position was wrong. Corrective information can cause a backfire effect because if the new evidence is true, a person feels like a fool; but feeling a fool is dissonant with a positive self-image. To resolve the dissonance, people double down on their prior convictions.

Lassitude is now the enemy. People are so worn down by the emotion, lies and frustrations of Brexit, they just want to get it over with. Lassitude is dangerous because it often results in the winner of a dispute being the loudest, most manipulative party. The stakes are too high for lassitude to win.

There are some valid concerns with the EU but attempts to address these through Brexit need to be balanced against the consequences. For citizens to think it all through, the emotional temperature needs to be lowered so people can be open to hearing new facts and information. The extension, although not exactly a cooling off period, should be a time for citizens to ask pertinent questions that cut through any illusions such as:

  • How exactly is Brexit going to improve my economic position?
  • If we continue to trade with the EU, what business regulations go away on leaving?
  • How does Brexit solve problems like income inequality, affordability and long-term unemployment?
  • Where will the money come from for the divorce bill?
  • With the Johnson deal, how exactly will we be better off compared to what we have now?
  • Could there be a better way to control or track immigration or force change on regulations without leaving the EU?
  • After Brexit what is the risk that Northern Ireland and Scotland will leave the UK?

Hard though it may be, the ability for people to change their mind is critical to resolving any dispute including Brexit. Not all engagements end in marriage, and not all letters of intent result in a deal. Changing your mind even has biblical context. The King James Bible mentions the word “repent” or “repentance” over 100 times, but this word is a translation of the Greek word “Metanoia” which actually means to change one’s mind based on new information.

So in addition to a general election, perhaps we should follow the advice of the Bible and allow people the courtesy to change their mind in a confirmatory Brexit or Remain referendum.

Simon P Newman is writer, speaker, and CEO of CMG Innovation, a company that leads institutional performance improvements and transformations.

CEO. Entrepreneur. Turnaround expert. PE Investor. Former University President. Founded 4 companies. Lived in three continents. Husband and Father of two.

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