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  • Writer's pictureOli Shawyer


Before you read on, I want to stress that in no way am I an expert in politics or policy, nor do I pretend to be. I also don't live in the UK, nor anywhere else in Europe. I do however have access to a British Passport.

All that aside, I wanted to write this piece because when it comes to Brexit, the voter’s behaviour is of great interest to me. I, like many others I know (including the Exit Polls), were certain the vote would have gone the other way. So what happened?

Tapping into the world of behavioural economics, I’ve cast some thoughts below to why I thought REMAIN would win, and subsequently why I think LEAVE did win, hanging off two vital human tendencies for each.


We have a tendency to prefer things to stay the same.

The first point to make is that it shouldn't have happened. People have an innate bias for the status quo - a deeply ingrained liking and need for the familiar, or the default - which in this case is the EU (and for some 40+ years).

In stark contrast to the older generations, this bias is somewhat reflected in the voting results for the younger demographics, which was clearly in favour of REMAIN. Anecdotal commentary thrown around (and heralded in the LEAVE campaign) talked a lot about getting 'old' England (et al) back - perhaps for the older demographics, today's 'new-world' familiar felt incredibly unfamiliar.

In the lead up to the vote, I was somewhat adamant that the power of the status quo would have a significant impact on the final result. I was sure that the result would have been to REMAIN. As an aside, I wonder that if the vote had of been compulsory, would we have seen the status quo at play more prominently? Part of me instinctively feels that the 30% that didn't vote, didn't care enough to want to change the status quo - should they have been forced to vote, they may well have been very happy to keep it all how it is and voted REMAIN. An extra 14+ million voters could well have told a very different story.

As a point of reference to the strength of the status quo, you only need to refer to the recent NZ vote for the changing of the flag, and then again back to the UK and Scotland’s vote to remain as part of the UK. All the noise and process beforehand suggested change, but at the pivotal moment – the vote – the default prevailed.

We have a tendency to hate losing more than we love winning.

The strength of the status quo, amongst other things, is often significantly influenced by our fear of loss. I’ve discussed loss aversion in previous posts, but just to reiterate, we as humans hate losing – we are more motivated by the pain from a loss than from the pleasure of an equivalent gain. When we stand to lose something, it has a significant impact on the decisions we make and the behaviours we enact. It’s often why if something is working, we question ourselves to why we should change it. A lot of brand loyalty is because of our tendency to be loss averse - you buy a product/brand, it does what you need it to, you buy it again – the more you buy it, the more there is to lose when considering another product/brand.

There was a lot at stake for the UK to leave the EU – a lot, to be fair, that perhaps majority of the UK’s population wouldn’t have been able to truly comprehend. But understanding loss aversion is why it strategically made so much sense for the LEAVE campaign to focus as much as they could on what the UK would gain from leaving the EU, whilst at the same time driving home the fact that the REMAIN campaigners were using fear tactics just to scare them into no action. They did a (questionable) job to amass enough belief that there was so much more to gain than to lose in leaving, which clearly appealed again so much more to the older generations. It’s only now, in the wake of the result that we may in fact be realising that all that stood to be gained isn’t quite as clear-cut.


We have a tendency to unknowingly substitute a hard question with an easy one if the answer is complex.

To decide whether to leave or remain as part of the EU is an incredibly difficult question to truly answer. And one that almost every voter could never do properly. In light of both people’s inability to understand all the facts and collate all the information, to minimise cognitive effort, it’s highly likely that they intuitively substituted the hard question for an easier one – the voter’s final decision will have been biased dependent on their own environment and what they will have been exposed to in the duration of the campaign.

For instance, for a voter that’s been exposed to the same bus advertisement above, rather than “do I want the UK to remain in the EU?’ they may well replace it with ‘would I like to see an £350m per week go into our health system?” – of course I would, so I’ll vote LEAVE. To be fair, who would actually say no to that?

Now I’ll tread carefully with my next point, but I think it’s worth discussing. It’s no new-news that border control and protection was a big part of the referendum debate – Nigel Farage used it as his weapon. In a world where terrorism and ‘immigration gone-wrong’ stories hold majority of the headlines day-in and day-out, we all tend to overestimate the likelihood of such events because it’s more easily accessible to our recent memory. For instance, those reading this from Australia – shark attacks are so rare but when one has been in the news, many of us believe they happen all the time. In the case of the referendum, I fear that the question of the EU may well have been replaced by questions surrounding individual preferences for people of different origin or race that they know or have experienced (even only through media) in their own lives – for good or for bad. For instance, and we shudder to think of the reality of it, but rather than ‘do I want the UK to remain in the EU?’ they ask ‘do I want people like XXX that I saw in the news last night in my neighbourhood?’

I’m not saying that our inability to process difficult questions is the only reason why Brexit happened, but it would be naïve to think that voters weighed up all the information and for facts rather than over-simplifying the entire situation. In the final days leading up to the vote, you could significantly sense this when media outlets (well those without too much of an agenda) continued to highlight that voters didn’t have all the facts – but hey, I guess that’s how most political campaigns are run.

We have a tendency to search for and believe information that confirms our own preconceptions.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, as humans we have two systems of thinking:

System 1 – our fast, automatic thinking, System 2 – our considered, slower more purposeful thinking.

It’s the difference between answering 1+1 and answering 48/2(9+3) – one you answer immediately with little thought, the other likely requires a pen and piece of paper with some time to work out.

Back to the referendum.

In the lead up to the vote, Research Agency BrainJuicer conducted a wide experimental study in the UK that asked people whether they would vote LEAVE or REMAIN, giving them only a few seconds to answer. Noting their ‘instinctive choice’ (i.e. System 1 response), the results were 54% LEAVE, 46% REMAIN.

Following an instinctive decision, we then tend to use our System 2 (deliberate, considered) thinking system to justify and rationalise our choice, searching and only paying attention to the information that both confirms and backs up our choice – behavioural scientists have donned this confirmation bias. The LEAVE campaigners were very fast and very good at coming out and challenging the REMAIN campaign with counter-facts that let their supporters (and fringe supporters) System 2 confirm what they wanted to believe – to leave the EU.


I fear that in the coming weeks, only once the clouds and smoke from the poll booths clear, will the reality of leaving the EU present itself in its true form. It was almost immediate that people began trying to ascertain the extent of their votes and their impact when only hours after the count was concluded, “what does it mean to leave the EU” and “what is the EU?” were the top two most searched Google terms in relation to the event. There’s significant backing to think and suggest that if there were another opportunity to vote, the outcome may in fact be very different. The ‘petition’ doing the rounds for such is already at 4 million signatures.

Regardless of what happens next, I’ve top-lined the learnings I’ve taken from the entire event that I feel are applicable to almost every aspect of our lives, regardless of how big or small the decision is:

  • Do something - Don’t overestimate the power of the status quo – if you don’t want something to change (or if you do), do something about it. Don’t rely on thinking everyone else will (they may well do the same).

  • Tell stories - Never underestimate the power of storytelling. When reviewing the LEAVE campaign, what stood to be gained was told through a story of heroics and nostalgia - taking back control, going back to what was great, learning from mistakes and starting over – it was all incredibly empowering and made out like there was everything to gain and very little to lose.

  • Understand what’s actually at risk - Stories aside, work to really understand what stands to be lost and gained when making a decision, and the relative power each element has in the domain of the decision makers. Perhaps if they had the time again, the REMAIN campaigners would have focused more of their energy into helping the older generations understand that the UK would never return to the days of old.

  • One answer for one question may not be the answer for the other – we may never have all the information we need to answer a complex question confidently, but we need to take note of our cognitive laziness and force ourselves to understand as much as we can.

  • Be open minded – it’s obviously much easier said than done, but be aware of your own ability to seek out information only relevant to your initial decision / stance. It’s so easy to put aside counter evidence and find reasons to ignore it, but it can often have a huge impact if considered fairly.

The UK has a huge challenge to face and it’s somewhat to blame on our own biases and irrationalities. But, if there were ever a time to unite as one and set aside those differences and tendencies, now would be it.


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