The Brexit poll, part two

Cooke, A. (2016) The Brexit poll, part two. The Psychologist, 29. ISSN 0952-8229.

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As a clinical psychologist, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who are feeling emotional. It’s a large part of the job. And when we’re emotional, it’s hard to think things through properly. Indeed, that’s one of the main ideas behind cognitive therapy.

If there was ever a time when we needed to think something through clearly, it was last week – when we had to decide how to vote in the EU referendum – and now, when we are dealing with the aftermath. The importance of the issues – the events of 2016 will likely have a profound effect on UK life for generations to come – is matched only by their complexity. As a psychologist I worry that some of our voting decisions – and indeed the referendum result – may have been partly the product of emotional thinking. Recent political and economic events have left many people feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, hopeless and adrift. Many have lost their jobs with the closure of traditional industries, and with them often their sense of identity and belonging. Buying or even renting a home is often out of reach, people have lost faith in politicians and feel disenfranchised, local shops and pubs have closed leaving people isolated. Many are struggling even to afford the basics: wages are low and unpredictable or they may be just getting by on benefits. Some have to rely on food banks and have felt humiliated by the experience. We worry for our own and our children’s future. Emotions are running high.

In this context, many of us will have found the oversimplified stories put out by both sides, but particularly in my view by the ‘out’ campaign, much more convincing than we might otherwise have done. It’s well documented that in extremis, people look for someone to blame: the processes of ‘scapegoating’ and ‘othering’ are well documented in social psychology. So the stories are seductive: our problems are due to an influx of foreigners threatening our livelihoods and our public services, and to paper-shuffling, ineffectual Brussels eurocrats siphoning off billions from our national coffers.

Perhaps I’m thinking emotionally myself, but I’m very worried about our future. There are huge echoes for me of earlier periods in our European history when people blamed their problems on ‘foreigners’ in their midst. The racist attacks that have been reported in the days since the referendum are deeply troubling. The 1930s and 1940s are very present in my mind. And as we know, it didn’t end well.

On the other hand, as a ‘remain’ voter I’m only too aware of the danger of othering and scapegoating people who voted to leave. That way lies huge danger too. Maybe I’m even guilty of doing that here. As psychologists we need to put our energies into helping heal, rather than worsening the rifts that this process has opened up between people. But then I’m feeling emotional. Our awareness of psychological processes doesn’t make us immune. But it should make us careful.

Anne Cooke is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
Divisions: Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences > School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology > Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology
Depositing User: Anne Cooke
Date Deposited: 06 Mar 2018 14:28
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2019 14:15

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00