The Brexit poll

We canvassed psychologically-informed opinion on the EU Referendum result and what happens next.

29 June 2016

As Professor Peter Kinderman, President of the British Psychological Society and Telmo Mourinho Baptista, President of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations, issued a statement on scientific cooperation in the wake of the EU Referendum result in the UK, we put a call out on our Twitter feed for views. We wanted to hear your psychologically-informed opinions on what has happened, and how our discipline might be of use in what comes next. Here, we publish a selection of the responses.

This is in no way intended as the last word… we aim to provide a forum for discussion and debate, so we would like a truly diverse set of perspectives. We will no doubt return to this topic in future print editions, and you are welcome to either email me or log in as a British Psychological Society member to post your comments on this thread.

Dr Jon Sutton

Managing Editor
[email protected]

Acknowledging the confusion

It’s the week after the EU referendum vote and we are headed towards Brexit. Change is in the air and whether we voted to Leave or Remain, many of us are feeling scared, confused, bruised and wounded. We have endured a campaign that tested our faith in our political system, reliant as it was on sloganising, lies and deceit, and an absence of detail about what we would be facing. Many are confused and scared in light of the vicious tone of the campaign too. There is a secondary confusion, as rather than face up to the reality, our politicians seem to have been instructed to recast history: the viciousness we experienced, we are now being told, was simply ‘passion’. Apparently there is no need to recover from this onslaught, we have to ‘look to the future’. That’s the politicians tweeting. Psychologically we know that this is problematic: denying an experience is unsettling and confusing and leads to all sorts of difficulties, for individuals and for communities. 

So far the media seem to have avoided any reflection on their role in this. In order to be ‘impartial’ we are told, it’s all about keeping responses to soundbites and making sure that if an insult is thrown one way, it goes back the other. I am surprised people in the audiences did not end up with whiplash. This insistence on short summaries meant that the media also failed to recognise that complexity needs proper, engaged debate and thought, and that can take time. They also kept us handcuffed to two key themes when the electorate needed to talk about a range of other values too. No psychologist worth their salt would run a session in such a regimented fashion.

One thing has become only too horrifically clear, that we are living in a divided nation. The gaps (or should that be the chasms) that exists between us are now crystal clear and they lie on the fault lines of wealth, of race, left- or right-leaning politics, and of geography, and many are scared that it will be evident on almost any aspect of difference. And this is why I think British Psychological Society Vice President Jamie Hacker Hughes is right to remind us that now is a time when good psychology should be ready to contribute… and there are many contributions to be made. 

As practitioners, we work with individuals, couples, families and groups that act out, sometimes in ways akin to those I mentioned above. We are trained to do this, we do it methodically and comprehensively, attending to facts and to emotion. We know that emotion can provide insights that a simple reliance on facts cannot. As researchers, we recognise that data can have many meanings, that trying to understand the point of the speaker is necessary if we are to interrogate the meaning of a text or interaction. We also have a wealth of experience and information about the damage done by disrespect, racism and xenophobia, and other ugly forms of discrimination. And we also know how to help people recover from this. 

So maybe we should be readying ourselves to talk to our clients about their Brexit-related confusion and bruising when it comes up (explicitly or implicitly); maybe we should be writing to our MPs – yes as citizens but also as psychologists with insight into the dynamics of local conflict and conflict resolution. Our representatives should have the mandate to speak to policy makers and outline what is known about conflict resolution, and what we know about the need to go beyond numbers (whether that be migration-related or economics). We should remind our leaders that as well as facts, our nation needs to get to know their neighbours again, to learn to be curious and respectful of difference, and that hiding away or relying on instruction is not enough to help with these long-standing wounds.

I don’t suggest that we do this alone. But we should contribute. Nor do I think this will be easy – we are not divorced from this ourselves. But at least we have some training in these processes, we have colleagues to support us and when you think it through it this is what the job is all about. And this seems like the time to do it well. 

Professor Martin Milton
Regents University London

A learning opportunity?

As a first-year student, I learned how social psychologists such as Milgram and Moscovici were inspired by historical events to research different kinds of influence. Undoubtedly, the consequences of Brexit will inspire work that will be studied by first-years in decades to come – we’ve already seen evidence of how it has led to displays of deception, discrimination and division. With troubled times ahead, we need to make sense of how we got to this point as a nation, and learn how we can better understand each other in the future. The skills of psychologists will be needed now more than ever. (Perhaps a good place to start will be to use the psychology of persuasion to help us secure research funding during a recession?!)

Kate Brennan
MSc student
Birkbeck, University of London

Attribute substitution and the opacity of the referendum

Decision psychology uses the concept of attribute substitution to describe a particular phenomenon in decision making and decision error. This is the phenomenon where an individual replaces a complex question with a simple one and answers the simple one, rather than engaging with the complexity of the actual question.

Nick Chater from Warwick Business School’s decision science group has very entertainingly applied this to the way the competence of the England manager is addressed in sports commentary. However, in the context of the referendum this predicable cognitive process is more serious in its consequences. The nature of the referendum question invited this cognitive substitution en masse, and the multiple simple questions that have been substituted for the one posed in the referendum have made manifest alarming fractures in our society.

A multitude of different decisions about completely different things have all coalesced into a single overarching number that we are told to believe is about one thing but is in reality about many different things. Some people made the decision one of immigration, others one of emigration, some made it a question of unnecessary bureaucracy, others were thinking about economics and the question was the stock market, for others the question was the NHS, for some the question was an identity one – of being European, of being ‘British” or of being not-European, some were questions of having too little resource and others one of already having too much, some were questions of the past and other questions of the future.

From this muddle of attribute substitution we have a manifest 50/50 split and a psychological civil war. It is critical that we get our psychological savvy embedded in the social world as, in this case, had we ensured that the political process really understood the subtleties involved in asking questions (a core part of our practice as psychologists) we could potentially have contributed to an approach that enabled genuine inquiry and voice aimed at cohesion in difference, rather than the confusion of having to work with a meaningless average that means everything to so many.

We know the power of the framing bias and the questions we ask are critical to this. We must learn to ask better questions.

Dr Joanna Wilde
Work and Organisational Psychology Group
Aston Business School

A 'glass cliff' in the making?

The morning of the referendum result, much of the country woke up to a state of chaos. Had the Leave campaign failed to plan for a Brexit? Meanwhile, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has received praise for her response, and appears to be the only MP with an actual post-Brexit plan. Sturgeon’s good example has led to some debate as to whether we need more female politicians, and particularly as to whether Cameron’s successor ought to be a woman. Coincidentally, Home Secretary Theresa May is considered a frontrunner alongside Boris Johnson in the race to be the next UK Prime Minister. But is this due to her perceived suitability for the position? Psychological research unfortunately suggests there could be an ulterior motive for May’s popularity.

Shock, panic and chaos are the perfect conditions for the creation of a glass cliff. Initially coined by psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam from the University of Exeter, the term ‘glass cliff’ refers to the phenomenon in which women are more likely to gain leadership roles during times of crisis (Ryan & Haslam, 2005). Essentially, in times of crisis, women are more likely than men to find themselves in precarious leadership positions than men, with a far lower chance of success. Unfortunately, due to the risky and precarious conditions in which the glass ceiling is so often smashed, female leaders can find themselves on a glass cliff with a greater risk of falling.

Explanations for the glass cliff phenomenon include the idea that women are better scapegoats than men (Rivers & Barnett, 2013), and their (often inevitable) failure can be attributed to the woman rather than the organisation or system. Ultimately, they are more expendable than men. A more positive explanation is that women are perceived as better suited to lead their team in times of crisis due to their creativity, intuition and nurturance (Haslam & Ryan, 2008). Whatever the reason, research clearly shows that appointment of females to positions of power is more common in risky and uncertain climates.

Based on Johnson’s downbeat reaction to the result, combined with his initial reassurances being shot down by the EU, the coming months could well see a shift in favour of a female successor such as May. In this event, at best we can hope that the female successor will defy the odds, reunite the nation, and secure a good deal with the EU. However, the stakes are high, and it seems far more likely that a female appointment could create a glass cliff from which the risk of falling is great, and we will all fall with her.

Samantha Wratten
PhD student
University of Bath


Ryan, M.K. & S.A. Haslam, S.A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over‐represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16(2), 81–90.
Rivers, C. & Barnett, R.C. (2013). When Wall Street needs scapegoats, women beware. Women’s eNews.
Haslam, S.A. & Ryan, M.K. (2008). The road to the glass cliff: Differences in the perceived suitability of men and women for leadership positions in succeeding and failing organizations. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(5), 530–546.

Now that trust has failed

I have described the EU referendum from the lens of a social-developmental psychologist (see ( I outlined the two camps. The pro-EU camp argued that Brexit would result in economic disruption. The Brexit camp emphasised the negative consequences of migration from the EU. According to interviews and surveys, the EU referendum posed individuals a question: who did they trust?

I described the EU referendum from two social-development models: Common Goods and Marital Relationships. First, the EU was viewed as akin to common goods and related social dilemma games in which cooperation with valued resources is predicated on dyadic or mutual forms of trust. I have proposed that a Brexit win entailed the UK withdrawing their promise to exchange provisions with the EU, which would undermine reciprocated reliability (promise keeping) trust between the UK and the other EU countries. The result of this would be a downward spiral of trust. Second, the EU was viewed as akin to a marriage in which partners are linked social-emotionally and economically. The success of marriage depends on establishing and maintaining trust between partners including promise keeping, honesty and maintaining confidentiality (see Rotenberg’s (2010) trust framework). I argued that divorces often result in dyadic distrust. Guided by that model, I proposed that Brexit would result in depressed trust between Britain and the EU countries.

Each side in the EU referendum debate was actively devaluing the opposition’s views –including personal denigration, allegations of deception, leaks of damaging information leaks, etc. Each side of the debate vehemently challenged the veracity and truthfulness of claims of the other. Furthermore, because trust helps people to predict social and economic environment, I proposed that the expected close vote would result in many people losing faith in their leaders after the decision. Guided by these arguments, I proposed that there would be: (1) a depression of trust in the government and other officials in UK and (2) a downward spiral of social and economic relations between the UK and EU.

Current events have yielded (rather painfully) support for these predictions. As a result of the vote to leave, David Cameron has resigned as PM. The EU officials have attempted to ensure that the UK speedily withdraws from the EU. Waves of Remain-led nationalities and parties are now confronting heightened distrust in their leaders. I suggest that the UK is caught in ‘a failure to trust’. I believe that steps are needed to rebuild that trust in order to ensure the integrity and success of the UK for future generations.

Professor Ken J. Rotenberg
Keele University


Rotenberg, K. J. (Ed.) (2010). Interpersonal trust during childhood and adolescence. New York:Cambridge University Press.

Not on the outside looking in

“Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.” These are not my words, but those of President J.F. Kennedy, in 1963. He was a true believer in the idea that to make the world a better place we need to be committed to each other through treaties, and through international institutions. In the statement lies also a realisation about human beings and psychology. Alone, and focused only on our self interests, we are prone to be destructive. And waiting for evolution to fix that will be at our peril. He knew he was right as a politician. We know he was right as psychologists. True commitments and true greatness come from doing stuff together, not all alone.

I know Norway has been in everyone’s talking points on both sides of the argument in the Brexit debate. And the “Norwegian situation” has either been described as heaven or as hell. But if you truly want to look to Norway after the dust settles after the storm of the Brexit referendum in the UK, you will se that we are a country truly inspired by the very same ideas that President Kennedy expressed.

We are part of almost all international agreements and commitments you can find in the world. It being in human rights, education, science, trade, free movement, worker’s rights. The list of institutions and commitments Norway has could go on far longer then this text allows. As for the EU we are part of the European Economic Area and Schengen. And 30 % of the laws that is voted on in our Parliament comes from the EU.

And we do all this, we commit to all this because we truly believe that the world becomes a better place if we commit to each other. This is the basis of our social welfare system, free health care, free school and universities, and our international commitments. And this came long before we started swimming in oil, gold and myrrh. It is the essence of what Norway is.

So being outside the EU for Norway is not being on the outside looking in. It is being part of an understanding that there are no passengers on spaceship earth, we are all crew, and we all need to commit to working together.

My hope is that the UK comes out of the EU with that same kind of attitude. That leaving the EU is not the start of a nationalistic project of a destructive nature, but rather that you turn it into something that stimulates international commitments and help international institutions to evolve.

Tor Levin Hofgaard
Norwegian Psychological Association

Between denial and anger

‘The best argument against democracy’, said Winston Churchill, ‘is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’ With stock markets wobbling, political parties in disarray and the consequences of Brexit unlikely to be clear for some time, the wisdom the voters is something many may have thought about recently. Given the divisions revealed in the EU Referendum, how do we go forward? Especially in a situation where the vanquished are so worried about the case put by the victors.

While it’s be tempting to generalise about the motivations of the opposing sides (Remainers = elitists and Leavers = anti-immigration) it is likely we won’t fully understand these for a while. It perhaps doesn’t help though that, whatever the actual reasons behind the Leave votes, the Leave campaign became dominated by Brexit as a means of restricting free movement of workers. I¹ve argued before (McGowan, 2014) that, in a time of economic trouble, the appeal of populist parties and movements rests on, as well as a certain practical vaguery, the finding of scapegoats. So for Donald Trump, UKIP, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and The Scottish National Party, the sources of woe are, respectively: Muslim or Mexican immigrants, EU immigrants, The Establishment, bankers/Tories, and Sassenachs. I suggested that this appeal is a call towards a Kleinian paranoid-schizoid position where the world is split into good (inside oneself) and bad (projected into others), with no attempt at considering greater complexity. However, when Remainers start to turn Leavers into the baddies by a similar process it might be worth remembering that the water is muddied by these fears not just being a psychological fantasy, but sometimes having some concrete basis. Scots may justifiably feel that the political consensus in England has moved away from them and, while the best evidence suggests free labour movement is an economic good, it may be less brilliant for a low-skilled and poorly educated worker than for a latte-swilling elitist like myself (Portes, 2016).

For Remainers though it may be too soon to accept the full motivations of the Leavers. The stakes might still feel too high. It’s hard to avoid the impression that, in terms of Kübler-Ross’ (1969) five stages of grief, many are still be somewhere between 1 (denial) and 2 (anger). Thus we have a situation where some people are seriously advocating that this was not a properly democratic process. Reasons offered include: the distortions of the campaign, the percentages required or the legitimacy of referenda more generally. Some are even advocating that the UK Parliament (technically sovereign) should not honour the result. Aside from the questionable sense in disregarding the votes of those who, if we believe the polls, were primarily the poorest and most disregarded people, all such arguments effectively place a specific issue above the validity of the votes cast. Do we really want to start picking and choosing what we are democratic about? The People have spoken in a national referendum, the challenge is that they’ve said such different things.

Dr John McGowan
Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology
Canterbury Christ Church University


Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge

McGowan, J. (2014). The Scottish Question. The Psychologist, 27, June 2014, 398-401.

Portes, J. (2016). How small is small? The impact of immigration on UK wages. 

Post Brexit disorder?

The shock waves of the Brexit referendum are reverberating throughout Europe, as we now face the consequences of the decision taken by the British electorate on June 24th. As someone who voted Remain, I was (perhaps unsurprisingly) devastated by the result, and I am now very concerned that there will be a variety of negative political, economic, social and cultural implications. For instance, there have already been reports of an increase of xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals, and as I write this, I have just seen an e-mail from our BPS President expressing such concerns post the referendum & emphasising the role that psychologists could have in trying to understand how people and society might respond to such upheavals.

What a post-Brexit UK might look like is uncertain, but I fear that we will see increased economic and political uncertainty, possible further austerity, and increased social inequality, with a consequent risk of increased xenophobia and damage to the social fabric of the multi-cultural society that the UK has historically been so proud of. However, I would also caution against rushing into predictions of civil disorder post referenda, as I argued in my blog-post after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum (when the English media wrongly predicted widespread disorder in the aftermath of the result). This isn’t because I don’t think that the social conditions could develop whereby civil protest and/or disorder become more likely (I think they will in a post-Brexit austerity Britain). It’s more that riots are crowd complex social phenomena that are comparatively rare as Reicher & Stott (2011) argued in their examination of the 2011 riots in England. Furthermore, when they do occur it is usually that a chain of trigger events happen within broader social contexts that escalate inter-group hostility and unite previously heterogeneous groups of people into psychological crowds with a shared identity. So, while I feel very pessimistic about the general psychological well-being of UK society post-Brexit, it would be rather simplistic to assume that we will inevitably see increased rioting on British streets without considering other possible factors that might trigger such events in the broader social context in which they occur.

Chris Cocking, Social Psychologist, University of Brighton Twitter: @DrChrisCocking

Like children of divorce

Hope on Thursday, tears on Friday. What on earth happened? When people who feel marginalised, oppressed, forgotten and overlooked are asked to vote in simple terms between two options, Yes or No, Remain or Leave, and the question is interpreted as 'are you happy with how things are?', then they are not going to choose Remain, or Stay (the same), or No Change. They exercise their democratic right to say No, Leave, Stop. They finally have a say and they will use it. They have experienced abuse and interference from rules imposed from a distant power, and some are unable to distinguish between the nearer, UK government, and more distant EU rulers. Others see new people enter their country and feel uneasy. 'Those people are not like me and I don't want them here. Perhaps I can get them to leave, if I vote Leave. '

Previous experience teaches Brits that how you vote is irrelevant, as there is no single transferable vote in national elections. So it doesn't really matter, but actually in a referendum each vote counts!

The shock afterwards, people's understanding of the magnitude and consequences of their protest vote, puts them further in a position of being ridiculed, talked down to, and marginalised again. Rifts appear between those who thought they knew what was best and those who were seen as too old to be sensible or lacking in intelligence. Blame is apportioned to specific groups of people. Meanwhile, ultra right-wing groups use the divisions opening up as a catalyst to promulgate out-group hatred. Peace makers propose that we stop. Don't activate article 50, on which we became overnight experts.

Distraught Brits apologise to foreigners for the Leave voters, taking too much responsibility for other people's actions because they feel guilty and angry that their own voices to Remain have not been heard. Angry and frustrated too that the complexities are not apparent to some people who have oversimplified their decision making. Grief at the loss of a place in Europe turns to anger, disbelief, or calls to action.

Like children in a family where parents are discussing divorce, we need reassurance that we are going to be OK. That we can visit both parties when we want and need to. We need our parents to hold the emotions for us, to help us make sense of the difficult, complicated feelings we struggle with. Daddy Cameron isn't helping much, because he has already told Ma'am he's walking out, uncle George tries to tell us it will be tough, but it can work, and great-uncle Boris says everything is going to stay the same! But we know that can't be true, because we are going to Leave, so the message that is meant to be reassuring turns to worry again. Jeremy falls out with all his friends and disagrees about whether he can lead or not, and while everyone fights, we cry quietly in the corner.

We all need to contain our own emotions, which is demanding and draining so we use social media for light relief, laughing at inappropriate memes or retweeting second referendum petitions, or any other petition or open letter. We seek some control, because it feels like it's slipping away. We're not quite sure who is in control, there doesn't seem to be a plan. Are we leaving or are we in limbo? Uncertainty turns to tummy and head ache, low mood and grumpiness. Our conversations lack finesse and we fall out with people around us. A national vote results in symptoms and relationship difficulties....

Dr Annette Schlosser
University of Hull

Brexit, psychology and human rights

Across Europe, and particularly to people in Britain, the vote to leave the European Union came as a shock and it has left a trail of political and economic consequences in its wake that will take months, if not years to work through. Making any predictions about the impact of this decision on psychology and human rights is impossible as there are so many uncertainties. What we can say is that there are potentially severe threats to human rights that emerge from this and defending these rights becomes an important priority. We are writing as members of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations Board Human Rights and Psychology. The work of the Board has been to collaborate with groups established by and connected with the European Union, so for us the referendum outcome has been of particular concern. The EFPA released a statement jointly by Professor Peter Kinderman (BPS President) and Telmo Mourinho Baptista,EFPA President, reaffirming their commitment to continue to work together whatever the outcome of the current turmoil.

This referendum may be a wake up call about what role we should play as professional psychologists in the future. Can we continue to be impartial in the changes that are taking place throughout the world. Could we have taken a position on whether we should remain part of the EU or leave it? Psychology certainly won’t be immune from the impact of leaving the EU so perhaps we need to take a more activist stance.

There is no doubt that across Europe there is an increasingly vocal and influential movement against the free movement of people (Dennison and Pardijs 2016) and this is fueling community unrest and discord. Psychology has much to offer in this field and we should redouble our efforts to work together across Europe. In our own work we have linked up with the Fundamental Rights Agency – a EU body – that has been doing remarkable work researching human rights violations and promoting evidence based approaches to improving social cohesion . We are also working to develop a pan European curriculum on human rights in psychology education.

Psychologists and their associations need to continue to work together if Britain leaves the EU. It matters to us as psychologists, because fundamental rights values were challenged in these elections as they had strong xenophobic, anti-migration and anti-refugee sentiments. A commitment is needed to defend human rights values.

After last week's referendum there has been an increase in racist incidents reported to the police. Amnesty UK reports a 57% increase in hate crime since the EU referendum.

Perhaps we can see Brexit, not as the final word, but the beginning of psychologists engaging much more actively in political life as we have seen recently in psychologists against austerity.

There is clearly much work to be done!

Tony Wainwright, Member EFPA Board Human Rights and Psychology and Immediate past chair of the BPS Ethics Committee & Polli Hagenaars, Convenor EFPA Board Human Rights and Psychology


Susi Dennison & Dina Pardijs 2016 The World According To Europe’s Insurgent Parties: Putin, Migration And People Power.

European Council On Foreign Relations downloaded from

More information about the Board of Human Rights and Psychology at

Are we now self-determined?

In the aftermath of the Brexit decision social media as well as mainstream media has been filled with explanations and commentary regarding the outcome. Regardless of one’s personal position it has been difficult to avoid the sense of shock that many people are voicing, in part because it would seem that few people expected it. Explanations and analyses regarding the outcome have focused on generational differences, a political elite out of touch with large swathes of the population, city centric multi-cultural metropolitan communities at odds with more provincial and rural communities, as well as other issues such as education, employment and attitudinal splits across the country. I wondered whether psychology provides tools to make meaning out of the current situation?

Some psychological explanations I have read focus on emotional vs rational decision making (system 1 vs system 2 thinking). Personally I do not find this a satisfactory explanation. It seems many people on both sides voted based on their "emotional" feelings towards "independence" versus "togetherness" (me included). Furthermore, there seems clear evidence of confirmatory bias on both sides, where many (again myself included) provided evidence to support their position as opposed to rationally weighing up evidence to form a view. Furthermore, the emotive/rational dichotomy can also easily provide fuel regarding a rather condensing position of the "rational" view as being the correct position and the emotional as being somehow less valid.

Other psychological explanations focused on the obvious role of identity in relation to the vote. But is it a sufficient explanation to state that some identify more with the EU and some less? Lord Ashcroft's EU voting poll of 12,369 voters on polling day provided some interesting data on which I begin to formulate my own naive psychological interpretation of the EU vote. It is clear that identity is a central driver of voting behaviour with 79% of those identifying as English not British voting leave, versus only 37% of those identifying as more British than English. However, this is not quite as straightforward as a narrow versus broad identity split as this trend was reversed in Scotland with those voting to remain were more likely to see themselves as Scottish not British. Attitudinal differences were also apparent between the leavers vs remainers, with those voting to leave more likely to report thinking that life in Britain is worse now than it was 30 years ago, and thinking that most children growing up today will be worse off than their parents. Remainers were more likely to endorse the opposite, thinking life is better and that children are more likely to be better off than their parents. Those who voted to remain were also more likely to see movements such as multiculturalism, feminism, globalisation, social liberalism and the green movement as forces for good, whereas leavers were more likely to perceive these as a force for ill. It also seems clear from the patterns of voting that those in positions of relative wealth, power and influence would seem to be more likely to vote remain (those not working were most likely to vote leave).

Can psychology help provide an account of these results beyond the mere descriptive narrative of differences in positions of leavers and remainers? I was drawn to Self-Determination Theory as a possible perspective that may provide a more psychological interpretation of these differences. Self-Determination Theory proposes that humans are driven by the fundamental needs of autonomy (the feeling of having volition and freedom over one’s choices of actions), competence (the feeling of a sense of mastery and accomplishment) and relatedness (the feelings of being socially connected and having positive and meaningful experiences with others). When these needs are met individuals are more likely to experience Self-Determination as well as positive psychological well-being. When these needs are thwarted individuals may experience negative emotion and may strive to regain or satisfy these needs (or adopt defensive strategies). The pattern of data presented above could be argued to demonstrate that those who feel they belong in both Britain and the EU, those who have resources and power which brings them autonomy and freedom and those with status, which brings with it a sense of competence, are more likely to have these fundamental needs satisfied by the current situation. These were more likely to vote remain. Conversely, it appears to me that these fundamental needs are not being satisfied in many of those who voted to leave. From the data presented above those who do not feel a sense of belonging in terms of either Britain or the EU, those who have least resource and consequently lower levels of freedom and autonomy, and are from the areas where traditional industry has reduced and unemployment and low skilled positions are more common are more likely to have voted to leave. Is it possible that the division in the vote is not purely based on age, education, attitudes, social class but on divisions that are more driven by levels of need fulfilment and experiences of self-determination?

Interestingly we can also turn to the sense of shock and the emotional responses of those who voted remain in the days following the referendum result. Discussions have focused on the feelings of embarrassment and shame in terms of identity, with remainers distancing themselves from being identified with those who they do not feel represent them ("little englanders", "racists", "not in my name"). Remainers sense of belonging is being challenged. Moreover, discussions abound regarding the fall of the economy, the opportunities that have been constrained, the impact on travel/work as well as on the thwarting of opportunities for our children. These freedoms (autonomy) have now been challenged. And what can the remainers do? What power do they now have? The decision has been made, it may have been a slim majority, but it was a majority and to challenge it fundamentally challenges notions of democracy. The remainers are now impotent and powerless, they lack 'competence'. Perhaps it is the challenge to these fundamental needs that has led to the experiences of frustration, anger and resentment, to a negative sense of well-being and a negative sense of feeling self-determined. It may be exactly the same emotions and feelings, driven by exactly the same lack of need fulfilment and lack of sense of self-determination that lead to those voting leave only days before. So perhaps a psychological lens can help us understand some of the processes at play here. And perhaps it is up to politicians to use this psychological perspective to help try and change things to focus more on our need fulfilment, to focus on belonging, autonomy and competence in all of us. Then again, perhaps I am wrong. As of Friday morning, I am obviously part of a minority.

Dr Paul Redford
UWE Bristol

Utter dismay

I have watched the post EU referendum commentary unfold with utter dismay. There seems to be little sense of the ‘other’ and how the ‘other’ might perceive the world or feel. At the micro level, recent local community focus groups for future planning for our locality and again there was no sense of the ‘other’ in the community and what might be their concerns. So these are my questions to those whose research is in this area.

Given that thinking biases show we pay attention to that which confirms our beliefs and disregard information that contradicts our beliefs has modern technologies exacerbated this? Do people now mainly watch things on iplayers etc. that fit with their view of the world? Do people mainly only interact with like minded on remote social networks and does this lead to less exchange of different points of view? If this is the case is this contributing to a more intolerant society?

The misconceptions and stereotyping dismayed me both at the macro and the micro levels. What, as psychologists can we do about this? How can we help people with different views and opinions start to come together and recognise and respect the ‘other’? How can we generate a sense of a multi-needs ‘us’ rather than a sense of ‘me’ and my opinions and experience being the only need? Or am I just turning into a grumpy old woman and it was ever thus?

Margaret Saunders

Sad but not surprised

I feel very sad about the referendum results, but not entirely surprised. The Brexit campaign was built on promises that were never intended to be fulfilled, by politicians who never intended to win. The result is a Pyrrhic victory of epic proportions, and the resultant disappointment is going to exacerbate socio-economic problems for the foreseeable future. I believe it is part of a bigger problem of politics becoming ever more a game of the super-rich, corporate lobbying and propaganda, and less about representing the best interests of the electorate.

I don’t believe the Brexit vote is a sign of endemic racism or that people chose to vote Leave because they are stupid. People are angry about the way that things are, and immigrants are a convenient target. Brexit was presented as an easy answer, and a way to rebel against the status quo.

To paraphrase the metaphor: An immigrant, a voter and a millionaire politician are sitting at the table with 10 cookies. The politician takes 9 to give to his chums and then tells the voter “watch out, the immigrant is going to steal your cookie”.

As an article in the BMJ eloquently explained, the less people feel they have to lose, the more willing they are to gamble on a potentially risky outcome. We can learn why from Silke's research about the radicalisation that leads to religious extremism. This suggests that it is a combination of a strong need to belong, coupled with a sense of marginalisation and injustice, dehumanisation of enemies, group processes where beliefs get hyped up into extreme actions and strong religious beliefs that lead people to become extremists, and underachievers are particularly at risk. Austerity politics that mean that large swathes of people are suffering financially, and feel powerless, hopeless, disenfranchised and exploited, whilst the media constantly blames the situation on “immigrants” and “benefit scroungers”. With the upsurge in racist incidents since the referendum results, and the murder of Jo Cox, I think that we have seen the ugly underbelly of what happens when people feel desperate and voiceless, and continuously hear messages blaming others for their unhappiness or lack of success in life. Rumination is not cathartic and in fact increases anger and violence.

To challenge these poisonous messages we need to decrease the politics of fear that prime us for fight or flight and stop effective reflection about the veracity of the messages we receive. Instead we need increase empathy and mentalisation, and remember that there but for fortune we could be in the shoes of those we scapegoat. We should want to protect human rights, public services, legal aid, benefits and international peace because they safeguard all of us, and rebel instead against the austerity policies that are creating an increasingly divisive and selfish society.

I want my country back from all this hatred and fear-mongering. Immigrants and the EU are not the problem here. We should target our anger against the political system in which politicians make false promises, the richest and most powerful don’t pay their fair share of taxes, whilst the most vulnerable in society are exploited, neglected and vilified.

Dr Miriam Silver
Milton Keynes

Voting out, acting out 

Can we can look to some analytic concepts to understand the result of the referendum? Take transference – it is about understanding the past and our relation to past experience in the present, in order to heal wounds and to move forward with knowledge of what we can change and how we react.

We need to understand our relationship with the world and our place in the past, in comparison to our relationship and place within it in the present. Britain was once a world super-power. It held an empire, which colonised and benefitted from imperialism at an unprecedented scale. It was able to enforce and control its will on the colonies it owned and as such, it reaped the benefits. 

The UK is still an economic behemoth, but its imperial domination is severely diminished. The empire is gone and nations once under rule celebrate their independence from the UK, despite living with the consequences of empire, both good and bad. Consciously, the UK is aware of this, but the collective unconscious is distorted and exaggerated to not accept it - to hark back to an age bygone, whereby the will of Britain is exerted on others for the benefit of Britain. The rest of the world has had a counter-transference reaction to the UK and this is evident in the discourses put forward by various formerly colonised nations and their diaspora, which the UK is struggling to accept.

Jacobs (2004) indicates that if we use a post-modern construction of the way we think about transference, we’re not sure of anything. Our relationships to others are built on perceptions and misperceptions. This is important, because they can be distorted. With regard to a feeling of threat that has been created and a sense of futility about it that has been fostered, the people most susceptible to distortion of fact, relationships and emotions – judging by the data – were social grades D & E. These could be seen as the people with the least amount of power. 

So could this result also be viewed as a defensive mechanism in play? Ferenczi (1933) introduced the idea of identification with the aggressor (explored in greater detail by Frankel, 2002). Habitually, people identify with the aggressor, even in instances where there is no severe trauma. It is the tactic of those in a weaker position (such as those in socio-economic categories D & E) as a form of defence to identify, assimilate and to relieve stress through the mechanics of subordination, divination and acting out the things that they feel will save them.

This acting out has not just been about voting out, there is now a substantial air of fear which may have been displaced and encouraged by the Brexit vote. Even this outpouring of racist sentiment could be viewed as a defensive projection of the fears of the people delivering them to the people receiving them. It’s too hard to affect change against a whole system designed to misinform, misinterpret and misunderstand the thoughts and feelings of those who have been hurt, but it’s easier to project them on to those who are also affected by the myriad of historical socio-economic decisions taken to foster such hatred.

We owe a lot to the theorists that have come before us and have studied the human condition intensely since the devastation of a war that enveloped the world. As George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’. Isn’t that what therapy attempts to highlight?

Jazz Tehara
Senior Counselling Psychologist Trainee
Roehampton University, London.


Ferenczi, S. (1933). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. The language of tenderness and of passion. In Final contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis (pp. 156–167). London: Karnac Books, 1980.

Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi's concept of identification with the aggressor: Its role in trauma, everyday life, and the therapeutic relationship.Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1), 101-139.

Jacobs, M. (2004). Psychodynamic Counselling in Action. SAGE.

Brexit and Other Breaking-up Strategies: A Third Wave Point of View

Daniel Siegel stated that a healthy relationship is the one that emerges from the linkage of differentiated parts of a system. Being in touch with the other ideally means integrating different experiences within me, and between the other and me. If Europe would be a lady, the marriages she attempted to build up can hardly be defined integrated.

When a couple ask a psychologist for help, the latter usually starts the intervention by saying that no one can make a choice on a behalf of a third party, and that the basic therapeutic goal is to reflexively analyse the personal and relational processes involved in their (problematic) experience.

Clients (and citizens) may think that psychologists (and politicians) are windbags. To the extent that the final choice is the one of the client/citizen, they are maybe wrong. To the extent that even the most participative intervention requires a clear-cut stand of the therapists/opinion-leaders, they are totally right.

From a Relational Frame Theory point of view, UK and EU have faced a very populist debate. As Steven Hayes affirmed, the populist tries to alter the functions of already-established verbal relations through rhetoric rather than attempting to extinguish or re-construe them. If we look at the speeches of all the Brexit-actors involved, we may find the same one-sided opinions of the friends of a breaking-up couple. All the assertions seem to be normative, unquestionable, Foucaultian truths: this is right and good for you; what is not right, it is certainly bad.

If we were the couple therapists, we were analysing such processes, the metacognitive beliefs and the dysfunctional implications of such beliefs. At the same time, we were progressively committed in defining what does mean healthy-relationship for each partner and for the couple as a system.

The question at the core, when we deal with relational and/or social problems, is how to participatively promote a new, viable, discursive network between all the persons involved. The question that is maybe lacking in the Brexit debate. As EU citizen and neighbour of UK people, I would have like to listen EU and UK politicians talking about which kind of Europe they are pursuing (beyond Remain and Leave). The problems we are dealing with are a kind of political chronic stress we have to come to terms with. As psychologists, we may consider a few strategies we daily apply in our work.

  1. Chronicity: Mindfulness urges us to consider the problems through the lens of non-reactivity and gentleness. The EU problems are here-and-now constraints we have to accept.
  2. Beliefs: The adoption of a rigid style of coping stands at the core of suffering. The more our beliefs about what should be right-wrong are crystallized, the more they run the risk of becoming dysfunctional.
  3. Narratives: Our verbal constructions of experience define a bi-directional relation with our awareness. To change means to change our narratives.
  4. Participation: A relational problem asks for a relational solution. A bottom-up, participatory intervention bypasses the long-terms effects of the normative statements of presumed experts.

Simone Cheli
School of Human Health Sciences, University of Florence

Do you have a different, psychologically-informed view? In particular, on where we go from here? What would Brexit mean for psychology and psychologists? We want to hear from you – email the editor on [email protected].

Also read some of our pre-referendum coverage.

*Update: Part two now available*