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Tribalism and the Moral Foundations of Brexit

Last Saturday morning I was on the top deck of a bus meandering through Westbourne Grove – an upscale part of west London – enjoying the pleasant scenery of white stucco houses and hipster coffee shops, when the bus stopped suddenly and the driver turned off the engine. Eventually people started getting off the bus. The driver was on the phone with the police, telling them he’d been spat in the face by someone in a passing car and couldn’t carry on. I heard him say it was the third time that had happened recently, clearly as a result of his ethnicity (seemed to be from the Middle East or North Africa). When people feel they can make unprovoked racial attacks in the centre of London with impunity, something is very broken. Ugly nativism is on the rise, fuelled by and in parallel with Brexit – reported race crimes in the UK increased by a quarter in the UK the year after the Brexit vote. Racism is an ugly manifestation of increased tribalism and sense of ‘otherness’. Combined, as it often is with authoritarianism, it is a dangerous mix. Stanley Milgram showed how quickly ‘normal’ people from all types of backgrounds can be easily swayed to do inhumane things. As memories of global conflict fade, we’re just a few jackbooted steps towards resurrecting the nightmares. We only have to look back to Srebrenica in Europe in 1995 for a grisly and stomach churning account of how quickly supposedly civilized societies can regress to barbarism.

Tribalism elevates personalities above facts and loyalty above all. So are we in a hopeless situation? A fresh perspective drawing on social psychology, the concept of moral foundations, attempts to make sense of this reality and provides some useful tools for those looking to cope in the age of tribalism. It can help develop tactics to harness these foundations as a positive force, which can be used, for example, in communicating more effectively about Brexit.

The levels of tribalism we’re now seeing in politics, the tabloids and increasingly on the street is an exaggerated version of fundamental human attribute of ‘groupishness’. According to the book, Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, groupishness is built into our DNA and has generally been helpful in binding people together to cooperate – and compete with other teams over resources. The reason it’s now escalated to fever pitch are varied and the stuff of another article, but it seems driven by an economic system that is delivering increasing inequality, economic uncertainty, an agenda-driven media controlled by vested interests and the Internet. A recent talk by Ipsos MORI nailed the latter point, the presenter said the business model of the Internet is ‘confirmation bias’.

Moral foundations theory suggests there are some universal traits experienced by people from all cultures (some of these are also shared by animals), which have evolved for specific reasons to help us succeed as a species. As such they are innate, though they manifest differently in all of us. Here is a summary from

  1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
  3. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
  4. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  5. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).”

In the Righteous Mind, Haidt proposes a further Foundation, which he sees as increasingly important in today’s world:

6. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation.

Haidt describes how these foundations are like an elephant – a powerful, automatic, unconscious, intuitive, sense of things, whereas ‘reason’ is the small, conscious, reasoning ‘rider’ sitting on top. The rider has to work hard to change the course of the elephant; usually it’s easier to just follow the elephant and develop ex-post reasoning for why you feel this way. Once the elephant has got you believing that e.g. immigrants are bad, the rider figures out a way to rationalize it. This has similarities to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, in which the intuition, fast System 1 does most of the work, bringing in System 2 to confirm hunches.

You can find out where you stand by taking a quiz here: According to the research, it seems that while those of the right-leaning mindsets (broadly speaking those who see themselves as Republicans, Conservatives, Trump supporters and Brexiters) are sensitive to all of these, while those on the left of the spectrum (Democrats, Lib Dems, some Labor and broadly Remainers), tend to focus only on the first two – care/harm and fairness / cheating. It maps out the differences in the US over the past few years here:

“The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. The culture war in the 1990s and early 2000s centered on the legitimacy of these latter three foundations. In 2009, with the rise of the Tea Party, the culture war shifted away from social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and became more about differing conceptions of fairness (equality vs. proportionality) and liberty (is government the oppressor or defender?).”

I found this fascinating – despite an almost definitional requirement to be open-minded, liberals don’t seem to be as aware and articulate as conservatives in sensing and speaking to a large number of powerful moral foundations that move people emotionally. Being selfish and unaware is not how most liberals would see themselves. Fake News and tribalism seems here to stay and likely get worse. However, within this theory there are ways to communicate more effectively about key topics, and tactics that liberals can use to craft messages that might (depending on the inertia of the elephant) get through to conservatives. Haidit suggested some ways to do this to speak to Trump supporters – focusing on things they should care about, such as the vote rigging (cheating), undermining US standing (loyalty), chaotic management (authority, which is about a sense of order) and degradation of the norms of office (sanctity). There are clear parallels for Brexit. Rather than try and reason with committed extremists (on either side), whose elephants are rampaging out-of-control, it’s better to speak to the soft middle and look to start to sow the seeds of doubt that will change the course of their elephant. 

Recent research by the Online Privacy Foundation confirms that Brexit voters and remainers differ in what moral foundations they use (albeit using slightly different terms, and referencing Kahneman’s System 1 vs System 2 thinking):

“The UK electorate’s views of EU membership appear to be strongly influenced according to people’s personality traits, dispositions and thinking styles. Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain in the EU. When compared with Remain voters, Leave voters displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy and appeared more reliant on impulsive System 1 thinking.”

In this way, one can see how different moral foundations can be used to speak to those from across the other side of the divide. So taking as an example how a Remainer might communicate with a Brexiteer, using the moral foundations as a framework could help frame messages and talking points. 

Care / harm:

  • The economy will suffer, as per the government’s own economic analyses
  • We will suffer if we don’t get access to vital supplies, medicines etc. (Or ARE required to get access to America’s chlorinated chicken and hormone-fuelled beef)
  • We’re destroying our childrens’ future who won’t get to live, work and love in 27 countries.

Fairness / cheating:

  • The vote wasn’t fair as per the Electoral Commission
  • They lied about the £350m/week to the NHS
  • 16 and 17 year olds got to vote on Scotland’s independence but not in Brexit

Loyalty / betrayal:

  • This is not how we do things.
  • Churchill was for a united states of Europe
  • Russia’s influence is dangerous

Authority / subversion:

  • There is going to be chaos
  • We did not vote for food stockpiling
  • Other things the government should be doing are being ignored

Sanctity / degradation:  

  • This is not how we do things
  • This is breaking democracy
  • We’re lowering the standards of democracy

Liberty / oppression:

  • We won’t be free in the world 
  • The agenda is being run by a small group of self-interested plutocrats
  • Switzerland did a free trade deal with China – they had to open their country to Chinese imports immediately but have to wait 15 years before they get free access to the Chinese market.

These kinds of messages should really be fleshed out to each aspect of the ‘hot button’ topics, such as immigration, jobs and trade. Most of these messages – and more – are already in the public discourse, though I find this framework helpful to understand what may be missing. While there are a few people who have changed their mind – now a slight majority want to remain compared to a few years ago, the more worrying thing is that tribalism and polarization has increased, with people becoming more entrenched in their views. This is the rider rationalizing the elephant’s direction – hunkering down in the face of questioning. (In one of the many ironies here, those with lower education levels (and thus likely to be hit harder with fewer options) are more strongly in favor of leaving, while those with more education (and who may have more global options at their disposal), more in favor of remain.)

So while this sounds fairly bleak, at least there’s some hope. With the above framework, at least it’s clear where this intransigence comes from. And as this article suggests, to have a chance of changing minds, it makes sense to question your own style of communicating (e.g. is the Remainers’ sense of intellectual superiority exacerbating divisions?) and, crucially, look for commonalities with those with opposing views. As Saving Britain points out, many people voted for Brexit in protest at their abject living conditions (christened by doctors as “shit life syndrome”) and need practical solutions at the local level, far away from London. That, is the subject of a future post. But for now, let’s seek to have a dialogue to understand what moral foundations are driving particular reactions and develop a wider vocabulary to speak to hidden emotional drivers that, unchecked, are taking us into dangerous territory.