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Psychology Within Politics – The EU Referendum

Psychology Within Politics – The EU Referendum

by Daisy Sunderalingam - 8th June, 2016

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Stronger Together & Stronger Apart

On 23rd June Britain will be voting to remain or leave the European Union.  At present, polls demonstrate a divide with those wanting to stay ‘in’ the EU slightly trumping those who want ‘out’.  Below are some leading arguments from both camps, interpreted using psychological research.

Remain

Those that want to remain in the EU claim ‘we are stronger as part of the world’s largest market’.  These statements can develop a strong group identification within the British public in relation to the EU.  It is therefore assumed that this ‘in-group identification’ can influence voters to want to vote to stay as part of the European Union.  Further to this, through enforcing the positives of Britain’s membership it can create a desire to ‘remain’ and oppose Britain’s independence.  For instance, the now infamous speech from Barack Obama suggesting Britain would be at the “back of the queue” concerning trade deals with the rest of the world, reinforces the negative connotations of independence as well as a fear of missing out on a global scale.

In addition, the ‘remain’ campaigners are emphasising a sense of security by summarising the positive experiences and opportunities of Britain’s membership, such as the assertion that 1 in 10 British jobs are directly connected to Britain’s involvement in the EU.  Work is a central element for many people and jobs are not only sources of income but also provide a social life and for some, professional progression as well as personal development.  The possibility that these significant resources could be lost can reinforce a feeling of ‘job insecurity’, which can lead to resistance to change, among other reactions.  Therefore, the assertion that taking away membership will have an adverse effect on the number of jobs could make people less likely to vote to leave the EU.

Leave

On the contrary, campaigners against membership argue that we hold less power as part of the EU.  In relation to laws made overseas, those opposed to Britain’s affiliation maintain that Britain must ‘regain its power’, for one, by having UK courts become independent again.  Those against the EU membership make the case that for Britain to be effective we must dismiss the processes of the EU that are holding a ‘capable’ Britain back.  ‘Leave’ promoters utilise the Scandinavian countries outside of the EU as examples of success, and aim to convince people to identify more with this ‘out-group’ (those not part of the EU), than with the current ‘in-group’ – the EU.  By expressing the possibility of achieving the same as those outside of the EU, those wishing to ‘leave’ are hoping to abolish favouritism for EU membership amongst voters, and substitute this with a desire to be united with successful non-EU countries.

The Economy & Personal Finance

Remain

Scaremongering is very much present in the current political arguments from both camps, and it is often these negative arguments that deliver the most influence and attract the most attention in comparison to any positive viewpoints.  An example of this from the ‘remain’ supporters is the argument that without membership, banks will leave the UK, millions will be out of a job and numerous businesses will cease to invest in the UK.  The psychology of currency illustrates money as a powerful driving force and a significant object that motivates much of our behaviour.  Research studies on the effect of monetary incentives shows high motivation from participants where monetary rewards are offered.  The indication that leaving the EU could mean a monetary loss both for the individual and for Britain as a country could heighten anxieties as individuals are said to experience anxiety and other negative emotional reactions as a result of uncertainty in relation to finances.

Leave

Again, focusing on the meaningful value we place on money the ‘leave’ campaigners insist Britain will remain financially viable and that low tax rates will encourage banks to stay in London.  Paying tax is seen as a social dilemma, younger people are more against higher tax payments than older people and taxes limit freedom for people to do with their money as they please.  For example, the argument that leaving the EU will bring lower tax rates could inspire those running small businesses to vote to ‘leave’ as taxes are perceived as an extreme and drastic cut to small business owners’ income.  Instead of arguing uncertainty regarding the economy, ‘leave’ promoters are instilling the possibility of freedom with finances, which is a significant objective for a variety of people in relation to their income.  Nevertheless, there is still scaremongering involved here as those who want ‘out’ pertain economic concerns should we stay regarding restrictions and continued ‘loss of freedom’, for instance Britain’s involvement in trade deals.

Safety & Immigration

Remain

Another position held by the ‘remain’ supporters is that we are safer and resilient as part of the EU in relation to the European Arrest Warrant and the option to join our forces together with the EU to fight global threats.  Campaigners suggest that fighting cross-border crime with the European Arrest Warrant is safer as opposed to fighting ‘alone’.  Risk in general is often an undesirable action when the gains of said risk are unclear and the potential loss is great.  Inciting uncertainty and again scaremongering in this instance could sway undecided voters to vote to ‘stay’, as there is much to lose concerning safety as proposed by the ‘in’ supporters.  Voting to ‘leave’ could potentially be dangerous, the risk to individual and global safety would weigh more in comparison to other less influential and prospective ‘gains’ that are put forth from leaving the EU.

Leave

Other arguments made by the Brexit campaigners focus on the issue of controlling migration.  ‘Leave’ activists say it is impossible to control immigration whilst remaining in the EU, that wages are at a low due to the number of immigrants and our ‘public services are strained’.  Another wholly negative position from the ‘out’ camp, this time instilling a fear of others could significantly sway a voter’s decision, though it has been found that voters tend to dislike negative campaigns, we cannot help but focus more on the negative than positive.  Psychological research shows us that negative information effects our opinions and viewpoints more intensely than equally powerful positive information.  This is referred to as a negativity bias and plays a huge part in politics.  For instance, the argument that immigration is good for Britain’s economy may appear weaker and have less influence to voters than arguments from ‘leave’ campaigners who suggest that high immigration has caused a significant drop in wages for Britain.  Due to this bias, many political arguments surrounding the EU referendum are rooted in negativity relating to the opposition’s perspective.

Cameron v Johnson

Credibility of the source of information plays a huge part in the effectiveness of a message.  An untrustworthy politician could be communicating sound arguments for a political campaign; however, due to previous indiscretions we cannot help but distrust this politician, which leads us to focus on the source rather than the communication.  In addition, modern day politics imitates a popularity contest, it is less about the message and more to do with who we can relate to and who we like the most.  Our assessments of political candidates are therefore more significant, see for example, Ed Miliband using Snapchat to convince young people to vote in the EU Referendum https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/we-got-ed-miliband-to-use-snapchat-to-try-to-convince-young?utm_term=.jazpDp3Yb#.rhLGnGE2r

Recently, we have seen the politics surrounding the EU Referendum mould to this modern-day political requisite, such as the Channel 4 programme entitled Boris v Dave: The Battle for Europe.  Instead of seeing the opposing sides of EU debate as non-entities, voters are now having to decide whether to side with Boris Johnson or David Cameron.  This can prove particularly troublesome where political arguments from each camp are concerned, as the content of these arguments will have less influence and weight in comparison to our perception of the person conveying the argument.

Remain and Leave campaigners are fervently making their cases and generating psychologically effective claims as the countdown to the vote continues.  Though the arguments from both ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ activists have been thoroughly constructed, the fate of Britain’s EU membership could rely predominantly on whether voters have forgiven Cameron for his tax evasion scandal, or see past Boris’s comical frivolous persona.

If you are suffering with any of the issues discussed in this article and would like to seek professional help then you may find our Problems Pages helpful.


Daisy Sunderalingam

Daisy Sunderalingam

I am an aspiring Clinical Psychologist hoping to complete a PhD in Clinical Psychology in the near future. Last year I graduated with a First Class Honours BSc in Psychology, currently I am studying for an MSc in Occupational Psychology. Once qualified I plan to combine Clinical and Occupational to provide interventions for those suffering with neurodiversity and physical disabilities, with the objective to help these individuals successfully enter the world of employment.


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