Brexit campaign: Appealing to the intuitions

I’m reading Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind at the moment. I barely got through the first part before a few thoughts were running through my head about the Brexit debate and, in particular, Brexiteers’ approach to it.

Something I have been conscious of for decades is the relatively positive outlook of the pro-EU cause (when they’re not spreading fear) compared to that of the Brexit cause.

If one could put a ‘tap’ on the subconscious brains of pro-EU folk, a series of words and images would tumble out……unity; embracing; international; cosmopolitan; tolerance; acceptance; warmth; engaging; friends; partners; sharing; talking; exchange; love; positive; joining; building; union; big; caring; mutual; support; cooperation; giving; modern; part of something; expansive; pro.

This has all the hallmarks of what Haidt describes as “the intuitions”. His core thesis — and thanks to David Hume, it isn’t an especially new one — is that we actually make our moral and political judgements using intuition, and we usually do so at high speed and without all the facts. Once we have made those judgement calls, we then retrospectively seek out reasons and build a belief system full of supporting facts. And we then entrench our belief system through further exposure to certain people, groups, ideas and other supporting reasons that chime with our retrospectively-built belief system.

In this complex world of ours, one can always find a rationale for pretty much anything, and so the approach works after a fashion. It ends up with people in entrenched positions supported by a set of reasons and backed by more deeply-held intuitions. People who are less engaged on a particular topic or are more open-minded about it can find it all baffling.

As Haidt observes, one cannot change an opinion-holder’s mind through reasoned argument alone. People who follow or engage in politics know this very well. The endless debates about a whole variety of issues do not shift the participants’ opinions…. unless the debate reaches past the layers of reasons that form a person’s belief system, and down into their core intuitions. Only then can one hope to change someone’s mind.

Transferring this to the Brexit debate, we find a large group of Brexiteers who the pro-EU side are convinced hold opposing intuitions to their own. And in many (but crucially not all) cases they may have a point. They believe that if they were able to ‘tap’ a Brexiteer’s subconscious mind, some rather different, nay, opposite words and images would tumble out…. independence; separation; arms-length; national; trading; dismantling; foreigners; intolerance; us; them; scepticism; remote; uncaring; little; limiting; regressive; local; Anglosphere; English; channel; tradition; democracy; sovereignty; anti.

Indeed pro-EU views can be formed as much by a moral distaste for Brexiteers as they can be by an attraction to the EU idea itself.

An argument between the Brexit side and the anti-Brexit side is therefore unlikely to change the minds of the participants because each will rarely address the other’s intuitions. There are simply too many layers of rigid belief to break through.

Should there therefore be no debate about this subject?

Of course there should, because while a debate may not change the minds of the intuitively committed, it does have the power to change the minds of uncommitted onlookers, which is largely why such debates take place. And with the EU issue, there is a significant number of uncommitted or faintly committed onlookers.

The question is how does a Brexiteer reach the onlookers’ intuitions?

The first problem we have in answering that question is the temptation to believe that “people will think like me if only they knew the facts”. It’s a problem because as Haidt points out, it’s wrong, because it’s built on the erroneous assumption that people arrive at their opinions using fact-based reasoning.

In reality, people are more likely to be persuaded by a Brexiteer if, while conversing, they sense that the Brexiteer is “someone like me” or that “their motives appear genuine and similar to mine”. Or, of course, if the onlooker’s intuitions are already in a place I’ll call “the classic eurosceptic” disposition (i.e. sceptical or even hostile to immigration and “fed up with fussy EU rules and costs”). If that’s the case, then the chance of them becoming attuned to someone or some group of a similar disposition is going to be high. But equally if that is the case, there’s also a very high chance that this alleged onlooker is unlikely to be a true wavering onlooker and will very likely have previously voted in a eurosceptic way.

In short, this alleged onlooker’s vote is probably already in the bag and they already form part of the c.30% of people who would not need much or any persuasion to vote to Leave.

This touches on something else that Haidt explores. Namely that when there is scant public accountability or persistent external challenge to a person’s views, the temptation is to lapse into “confirmatory thinking” driven by confirmation bias i.e. seeking out people, arguments and facts that only confirm, reinforce and help rationalise one’s intuitions.

To be frank, this is something that the British anti-EU movement has indulged in for decades when they should have been engaging in “exploratory thinking” instead. The content of an anti-EU meeting in 2015 is little different to one held in 1995, except that the immigration issue is now more prominent. But the solutions have not fundamentally changed in those 20 years: leave and adopt a free trade agreement with the EU; reduce costs by leaving; regain sovereignty.

The arguments are well worn and well known (partly thanks to the impact of UKIP) and the public have been given every opportunity to support such an outlook.

Or not.

Because if they don’t support such an outlook by now, it is probably because their intuitions are somehow different, whether slightly or dramatically. These people include the swing voters that need to be captured from the ‘Remain’ side.

So having narrowed down the need for an intuitive appeal to a middle group of c.30% genuine swing voters, we need to first review the set of impulses that the pro-EU side believe apply to Brexiteers and with which they will seek to persuade swing voters to their pro-EU stance (when they are not labouring their own negative messages). Namely: independence; separation; arms-length; national; etc. etc.

The overwhelming problem is that the list of impulses contains a lot of words that are either overtly negative or have negative connotations. And negativity alone doesn’t win.

What I therefore suggest Brexiteers do is:

  1. Stop publicly reinforcing the supposed intuitions of Brexiteers (and certainly stop adding to them with terms like “EUSSR”; “We’re all going to hell in a handcart”; etc.)
  2. Adopt and convey positive intuitions, some of which have been monopolised by the pro-EU camp for too long.

Here is a start:

  • “Independence/national/local” becomes “Global/International”
  • “Separation/arms-length/trading” becomes “Engaging, joining and cooperating”
  • “Dismantling” becomes “Building”
  • “Limiting” becomes “Open, outward-looking and expansive”
  • “Tradition” becomes “Future-looking”

All obvious? Maybe, but there is notably no mention of migration. Many people manage to talk about this subject sensibly but unless it can be done sensibly (which UKIP has failed to do), it is best avoided.

There are also no words in this list about the costs of EU membership because arguments about cost do little for the intuitions. Instead, the cost argument demonstrates confirmatory thinking; what some might describe as a “supporting reason” — appealing only to those who have already decided intuitively that they are on the Brexit side and “look here is another reason why it’s all so bad”.

Tempted? No? So why make cost a core argument?

Those on the anti-EU side who keep stressing the costs of EU membership may of course defend themselves by saying that the public can easily understand costs in terms of numbers of hospitals, nurses, etc.

Maybe, but in my opinion it will never reach the intuitions behind the core Brexit arguments. And there is some doubt about whether there will be much in the way of savings on Brexit anyway, but that’s a separate point.

A final point: Some from UKIP may be thinking “But we do emphasise our global ambition and our love of other European nations”. The regular refrain “Love Europe, Hate the EU” is something party supporters are fond of repeating.

There may be truth in that but to people looking in, it doesn’t ring true precisely because so many other UKIP statements (and its followers’ statements), appear to put the party’s intuitions in an altogether different place. In short, the “global outreach” side looks like another form of post-hoc rationalisation — a convenient device to try and make one’s position look more attractive that it actually is.

Crudely, one can’t on the one hand say you’re uncomfortable listening to foreign voices on British trains yet in the next breath claim to be a new-born globalist who wants more migration from commonwealth countries.

I might add that if one thinks immigration is a problem and that Brexit/”going global” will resolve it, then the fact that most foreign-born people in the UK are from outside the EU is a bit of an inconvenient truth.

Something doesn’t compute and such apparent incoherence gets picked up by opponents and onlookers alike.



Something doesn’t compute and such apparent incoherence gets picked up by opponents and onlookers alike.

In the end that’s why intuitions matter: they represent and reveal who we truly are and they inform everything we do and say. And this matters given that the Brexit debate is sometimes characterised as two cultural worlds colliding to the point that some personal pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit positions are almost an extension of individuals’ very souls.

The side that can break out of this bi-polar approach and reach the centre ground, giving a passionate yet level-headed vision of the future that plays to people’s positive intuitions will have a much better chance of winning.

Whiggish liberal named after 16/09/92.  Brexit campaigner. Follow him on Twitter: @WhiteWednesday

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty