The divisive nature of referendums

We’ve experienced two referendums in the UK in the past 2 years (first Scotland’s Indyref and then the UK’s Brexit). Both have proved socially divisive – across and within countries, across and within regions and neighbourhoods and even across and within families.

Unlike General elections, referendums offer a binary choice – black or white? Whereas what we are choosing to vote for in elections is nuanced because of the mix of manifesto policies and leadership qualities about which one might hold a mix of views. And our lives don’t change irrevocably when one government replaces another and, if we don’t like what we get, then there’s a chance to review and vote differently in 5 years’ time.

In contrast, referendums force us to make a binary choice which (at least in the two most recent cases) will make a huge and irrevocable difference to all our lives. Consequently, having voted we feel challenged to justify the choice we made – particularly if friends, colleagues or even families voted differently. Cognitive dissonance operates and soon we have amassed a whole set of reasons why our choice was right and others’ choice was both wrong and ‘stupid’. The more our ‘rationale’ is challenged by others (or by subsequent events) the more the opinions supporting our behavioural choice become entrenched. It’s easy because we engage in such post-hoc rationalisation all the time and largely unconsciously.

But it might actually be more fundamental than that. Psychology studies (‘the Minimum Group Paradigm) have shown that, even when people are allocated to one of two groups on a purely ad hoc basis, they exhibit in-group versus out-group behavior. They behave in ways which favour members of the same group over members of the other group even if this costs them and their group. If members of one group  are subsequently transferred to the other group, they aren’t treated as favourably as the ‘original’ members  – they have to serve their time as effective  outsiders or ‘migrants’!

So, hypothetically speaking,  even voters allocated randomly into two groups labelled those who voted ‘A’ and those who voted ‘B’,  would start to view those in the ‘other’ group less favourably than those in the their own group. If asked to justify why they thought they were allocated to A rather than B, they would happily generate convincing ‘rationale’ which made them feel their allocation was definitely right and their group was superior even though the selection was actually random.

So, if we think that people who voted differently from us in either referendum are less worthy or even ‘stupid’, let’s remember that, as primitive emotional beings, we are quite capable of developing such views and accompanying ‘rationale’ even if our initial group membership was allocated randomly.

mirror people

How could you lot be so stupid?

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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