How the EU referendum is literally playing tricks with your mind

 
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Boris Johnson And Gisela Stuart Aboard The Leave Campaign Bus
Vote Leave are the Derren Brown of politics (Source: Getty)

Leading Brexiters agree that we’ll be financially worse off if we exit the EU, at least in the short term. So if leaving makes us poorer, why are so many prepared to vote for it?

The credit goes to Vote Leave, the Derren Brown of politics, who are brilliantly managing our cognitive biases and, literally, playing tricks with our minds.

The study of happiness reveals that people who score high on self-deception are happier, until their delusion is shattered. It’s the cognitive equivalent of a sugar high with the inevitable collapse afterwards. Fuelling this self-delusion makes people more likely to vote Brexit, just so long as the collapse isn’t before 23 June.

The science reveals that self-deception peaks with two conditions.

First, a lack of concrete information. The Leave camp has bred ambiguity. From the numbers on the side of their bus to the kind of trade deals we’ll end up with, nothing is definite. The campaign is filled with broad happy phrases like “Freedom” and “Power to the people”, and frightening images, like the Turkish population turning up at Dover or Britain writing a cheque to bail out Italy.

Read more: Brexit: Don't bank on the Swiss model working for Britain

The few facts that Vote Leave does use are removed from their context, deploying what behavioural scientists call the focusing illusion.

The outers make much of the fact that Britain is the world’s fifth largest nation by GDP and so other countries will be bound to renegotiate trade deals, but they say nothing about the huge gap between us and those above.

The four richest nations account for 50 per cent of the world’s GDP. The next four, including the UK, account for 13 per cent. To believe that Britain would be at the top table for global trade deals, you have to believe that Brazil (seventh) would be too, which it isn’t.

Boris Johnson said he was in favour of having his cake and eating it. The Brexit vision of life outside the EU is filled with just such endearing yet logically impossible promises. Why would the Australian point-based system make such a difference when we have a near-doppelganger for non-EU migration already?

Read more: Brexonomics: The five most insidious anti-EU myths debunked

The second condition for self-deception is a high motivation.

The outers paint a version of the plucky British who built an empire on which the sun never set and defeated the odds to win not one but two world wars. We saved Europe, remember, not the other way around.

Armed with a pint of warm beer and the test match playing in the background, it isn’t hard to imagine that Britain’s greatness is innate and that the only thing that holds us back is being shackled to other, inferior nations.

In four independent tests, people were more likely to believe they would have a sunnier future simply because the thought of it had entered their mind. The less effort required to reach this happy upland, the more likely they thought they’d get there.

Vote Leave are keenly aware that their mind delusions don’t bear much scrutiny and so, to distract us, they turn our attention to a common enemy.

Read more: Twelve reasons Britain is better off remaining a member of the EU

Not even in pantomimes does the villain come as perfectly caricatured as Brussels: bloated, arrogant, corrupt and stuck in a bygone era, why would anyone want to be involved with them? No matter that the same could be said of the International Olympic Committee and Fifa and not many Brexiters argued against bidding for the World Cup or hosting the Olympics.

Brexit villains aren’t just Eurocrats. Vote Leave demonises everyone who claims we’re better off in: economists, scientists, historians, leaders of big businesses, leaders of small businesses, world leaders, independent world bodies (the IMF et al).

In so doing, they’ve turned “expert” into an insult, which is conveniently reassuring to those who might otherwise worry about their lack of expertise.

To regain momentum, the In campaign needs to embrace behavioural science. The psychology of loss shows that we mind losing something twice as much as we would value gaining it.

The question Remain should keep asking in the next few days is: at what cost?

The break-up of the UK as Scotland votes for independence? Northern Ireland and Wales to follow? The loss of secure jobs in companies that have chosen to invest in Britain? More expensive flights and longer queues when we go on holiday? Your child’s chance to study abroad or go inter-railing? The quality of our scientific discovery and innovation? Our position as the fastest growing developed country (alongside the US) of the last quarter century?

Don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to lose.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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