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Dinner with the Royal College of Psychiatrists

Last night I attended the Gala Dinner of the Royal College of Psychiatrists held in the magnificent Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. It followed the college’s annual congress in the huge ExCeL centre, with an estimated 3000 delegates. It offers an ambitious goal for what the BPS should aim for.

As someone who has occasionally annoyed our psychiatry colleagues through the things they think I may be implying in what they think I’ve written (but which I may not have said or they may not have read), it was interesting - and occasionally challenging - to be a guest at their celebration dinner. But it’s important, especially today.

It’s important because the world shifted under our feet this week. We’ve written a lot about Brexit this week – a joint BPS/EFPA statement, a letter to members and in The Psychologist - and there will be more to come.

We’re responding to the consequences of a decision taken by 33,551,983 UK citizens in conditions of high emotion, poor quality information and great uncertainty. Psychological science tells us that decisions made under such circumstances are dangerous things.

In situations of chaos, complexity and anxiety we use ‘heuristic reasoning’ rather than logic. We are swayed by our initial assumptions and by the most recent, most available and eye-catching information, irrespective of its truth or relevance.

We seek out information that confirms – rather than challenges – our assumptions and the company of people who agree with us. Once we’ve made our decisions, psychological science tells us that we tend to justify our actions with ‘hindsight bias’ and minimise any ‘cognitive dissonance’ with selective recall and attributing blame anywhere but to ourselves.

I’m struck by the fact that everybody that I follow on Twitter seemed to be of one mind. And now, after the decision, all my friends seem to agree with me. We are shocked by apparently perverse decisions, partly because we surround ourselves with people with whom we agree and whom we try to ensure agree with us.

I wrote last week about divisive and even xenophobic rhetoric.

If we are to understand the referendum decision, if we are to understand the psychology of social divisions, and if we are to have any basis for advising society about these important issues of psychology – as I think we must – we should also challenge ourselves.

It’s easy to speak to a mirror, and it’s easy to present your thesis to friends. It’s more challenging to listen to people with different experiences and attempt to engage those of different perspectives. But it’s vital that we are part of that debate. I hope I shall be able to remember that in the weeks to come, and remember to keep my ears open and my prejudices closed.

So last night, I had dinner with my friends in the Royal College of Psychiatrists. And… there was much more on which we agreed than on which we disagreed. As the next steps in this complicated political process become clearer, we will find common ground on which to stand together when action is needed.