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Blinded by Brexit: psychological breakdown of how it is playing with our minds

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Published on 22 October 2019

Brexit on our minds
Brexit on our minds

You might be a staunch remainer, an ardent Brexiteer or, quite frankly, someone who has given up caring.

But whatever your position on Brexit, the term, and the turbulence it has caused, has seeped into all our lives – and our minds.

Now, in a crucial political week, a psychology expert from the University of Sunderland has told how we, as human beings, are reacting to one of the most divisive issues of our time.

Dr Vanessa Parson, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University, said: “Nobody likes the current situation, on both sides, so responses are resembling the fight or flight response.

“But this basic dual stress response was updated a while ago to include a ‘freeze’ option.

“Many people now accept the position we’re in and aren’t fighting back because they believe it’s a foregone conclusion. Freezing in the face of the issue, because it’s daunting and overwhelming.

“Some individuals are simply accepting what will happen, this is happening on both sides of the debate. Either because they haven’t read anything on it, or they are simply so mentally fatigued reading and hearing about it, they feel they can’t do anything anyway.”

But, as Dr Parson explains, it is not all apathy, as demonstrated by millions of people from both sides of the argument, who are taking to the streets to make their voices heard.

Why are passions so high; and what makes us become so vocal about one issue?

Dr Parson said: “Protests and petitions are clear evidence that many people are fighting back.

“As we get closer to the deadline, people are getting angrier that their views are not being heard and the emotionally charged nature of the situation is leading to people rejecting authority, and the demonstrations could well escalate as we go through October.

“Brexit is an emotionally charged issue, but this means people on all sides are more prone to dig their heels in and resent those disagreeing with them.

“Brexit has become very much an in-group vs out-group situation, but with both sides thinking they’re right. High levels of emotions can hinder communication at all levels, and leads to disagreements and potential problems with relationships.

“But it is also solidifying relationships between individuals, where beliefs match. We are a social species and navigate the world more confidently when we think the same as those around us. Shared beliefs strengthen bonds – but this can create a more powerful in-group vs out-group scenario that leads to tension.”

Dr Parson also suggests that the more our individual view is challenged, the more entrenched we become.

She said: “When an issue is highly emotive, we can become almost more committed to it, because of various psychological mechanisms. To change our minds at this point, on either side, requires a huge re-evaluation of what we believe in, and this can lead to something called cognitive dissonance.

“This is a cognitive situation where we hold conflicting beliefs about actions and views/thoughts/emotions, so we have to resolve it in some way. This either means by changing our mind or by solidifying our position.

“It’s actually much more common for people to resolve cognitive dissonance by becoming entrenched in their beliefs, because the alternative means they have to accept being incorrect. They then fall foul of confirmation bias, which is where only those views which match what they already think are heard, and all other beliefs discounted.

“As a result Brexit has become almost like a self-sustaining view for a large proportion of people, what’s known as a monological belief system, which seems to be made up of mutually supportive beliefs with no room for alternative arguments because everything comes back to a central point of ‘get Brexit done’ and ‘the will of the people’. “