As the debate over whether we should be in or out of the EU wages, with arguments centering predominantly over who will be better or worse off, one massive factor has been underplayed. Whilst economics can be calculated by looking at potential loses and gains in trading agreements, the relationships themselves are the most fundamental aspect of the situation. The subtleties of human relationships and interactions will be at the heart of whether Brexit will have a positive or negative impact on the UK. And as obvious as it may sound, the other members of the EU will simply not like us as much if we leave.
The Way Our Brain Works
Taking a huge leap back in time to look at humans 50,000 years ago (which is around when our brains stopped evolving) there were certain factors that were critical to our survival – one was to remain part of a group. Consequently our brain structure evolved to encourage group membership and strongly discourage any factors surrounding ‘going it alone’. Whilst this is not new news, recent advances in neuroscience are allowing us to see just how powerful some of these subconscious mechanisms are.
Being Part of the In-Crowd
As humans we show bias toward people who are part of our in-crowd (the social group which we associate with), overlooking their flaws. Where as we exaggerate negative factors connected to people outside of our group. If you relate this to your own experiences I’m sure you can think of someone who you once thought was a bit of an oddball, but once you got to know them and they became part of your in-crowd you overlooked their oddities.
These factors of in-group and out-group operate all the time at a subconscious level and have been proven time and again by social psychologists. For example in the 1980s a British psychologist called Henri Tajfel showed that even when you divide newly acquainted people into random groups, they will quickly see their newly formed group as superior to other people’s and proactively try to gain advantage over other groups.
Startling new research has shown the extent to which these group dynamics occur. A Swiss neuroscientist, Dr Grit Hein, showed that not only do our brains show greater empathy toward in-group members but for some individuals the reward centres of the brain are actually stimulated when they see someone from their out group in pain. In other words some people actually enjoy seeing those who are not part of their own group suffer.
Group dynamics are so powerful that they can lead to seemingly normal people being pulled into situations where they carry out the most horrendous acts of violence (e.g. the holocaust) and even to associate with people whom they should logically hate (e.g. Stockholm syndrome). So you can see why even at a ‘normal’ everyday level, these subconscious brain mechanisms have a hugely powerful (yet unconscious) impact on decision-making.
Another brain mechanism that encouraged our ancestors to stay with the group and therefore survive was to feel good about belonging to and to feel bad about being rejected from a group. Recent neuroscientific research carried out by psychologists Geoff McDonald and Mark Leary show that the brain responds in a similar way to rejection as to severe pain, making it something we will avoid at all costs.
When we are in pain, or under threat our brains respond by moving into an emotionally driven survival mode. Rational thinking plays second fiddle to largely irrational brain mechanisms. When we are in this mode we do not think straight. I have spent many hours working with senior leaders who are incredibly talented, intelligent, socially adept individuals who make very effective decisions, until they feel like they are under threat. At this point they are as human as the next person, thinking becomes skewed by emotion and decision making more irrational and unpredictable. People who are hurt or threatened will tend to shun, ignore or slight without even being aware of what they are doing. The thing is those threats that can trigger this can be things that they don’t see or recognize: being turned down in a deal, not being invited to a key meeting, not being asked to comment at a conference. Little things that are overtly considered insignificant actually have a huge impact on underlying brain mechanisms. It requires someone to be highly self-aware to be able to step back from such biases.
So What Does this Mean to Brexit?
Whilst it may look like a good idea to leave the EU on paper, the reality is lived out in human interactions, not in a vacuum. By leaving the EU, we would not only be disadvantaging ourselves by making ourselves members of the ‘outgroup’, but by rejecting those who remain in the EU. As a result every single individual involved will to some extent feel spurned, which will in turn negatively impact any decision making involving the UK, in ways that even the most rational leader will be unaware of. Taken at the extreme, the fact that that some members of the in-group (the EU) will actually enjoy seeing the out-group (the UK) suffer this does not bode well. Ultimately it will influence everything from our trading deals to agreements over immigration. And whilst those in favour of Brexit work from the assumption that any minor hiccup in relationships can be smoothed over as and when the time comes the scientific reality points to a far different outcome.