What is the Brexit Mindset? (Updated)

Brexit is everywhere
Recently, here in Europe the Brexit has been in the forefront of our consciousness. Not a day goes by that there isn’t a Brexit article in the newspaper, and often there are two or three. The young and cosmopolitan wanted to stay in the European Union. The old and island-oriented wanted out. It’s a tale of urbanisation, of moderns empires, of generations, of social classes… It has been called a Greek tragedy.

Another fascinating thing about the Brexit is that the pro Brexit advocates were so surprised by winning. The victors were more confused than the loosers. The sudden burden of responsibility seems too much for them. And Nigel Farage of the UKIP was facing a literal existential crisis, when the only reason for UKIP’s existence, getting out of the EU, was actually achieved. I once heard John Grinder say: achieving your goals can be a dangerous thing.

Brexit is beautiful
First of all, let me put a positive frame around all of this. It’s a frame that was – to my great surprise – totally absent in the discussion. Here we have an empire, called the European Union, where one of their major provinces – England – leaves. And there is not the slightest hint of war. A huge area leaves the empire by purely democratic means. Why isn’t everybody cheering? Caesar would have sent the legions. Napolen would have returned from Russia to invade. Hitler would have tripled the Luftwaffe. And all the European leadership did was sort of pout and say it was a challenge for Europe. Isn’ t that  beautiful, historically speaking?

Leave and remain arguments
So what is the Brexit mindset? What are the Graves drives and the meta programs that distinguish ‘remain’ from ‘ leave’? Leave said: Britain will do fine on it’s own, it will gain back its former military force  as one of the great world powers. Stay said: Let’s stay in the bigger system, it will provide safety in numbers. Remain said: Britain will be free to manoeuvre without EU regulations, therefore it will prosper economically, negotiating new treaties that are UK focussed rather than EU focussed. Versus: Hello?!? Britain has a 400 billion export to the EU, hampering that will cost us more than any flexibility will gain us. And then there was immigration. Leave says: Leaving the EU will give us back control of our borders. No more Polish workers taking our jobs. No more Syrian refugees taking our housing. Stay says: Even apart from the ethical pluses of doing the right thing towards the refugees, Brits could loose the freedom to travel, study, live and work in the other 27 EU countries.

If Britain – as a nation – had filled out a MindSonar profile, their criteria would have looked something like this:

Criteria (Sorted)

  1. Success versus Safety
  2. Flexibility versus Togetherness
  3. Profit versus Morality
  4. Honour versus Pragmatism

Metacriterion: Autonomy versus Being part of

Graves Drives
From these criteria we can project the Graves categories. On the leave side we see success, flexibility and profit. That all sounds very orange, doesn’t it? It’s about winning. ‘We don’ t need you guys, we can win this on our own. We are competent and we are confidently facing the competition’. And there’s some red in there too: ‘Who the f**k are you to tell us what to do? We’re boss here’. So the leave side sounds very orange and red, both individual drives.

The ‘stay’ criteria are about safety, togetherness and morality. What Graves colours does that bring to mind? Right, blue and green. We ought to help the refugees. It’s the right thing to do. We will be rewarded eventually (blue). And we want to be together. Together we’re stronger. Everybody should be heard. Green. Blue and green, both group drives.

Brexit is a battle between red/orange and blue/green. It’s no great surprise that the leave camp fell apart after the victory. They weren’t that together in the first place. And many of the responses of the winning politicians were quite red: ‘I don’ t think he should lead the country, I am much better suited!’

Something else we can predict, unfortunately, is that the great environmental issues (global warming, sustainable energy, natural farming) will loose terrain in Britain. The blue drive cares about what ought to be done about the environment. The green drive cares about what we might find ourselves in together. But the orange drive cares only about winning and the red drive cares about power.

Meta Programs
The leave arguments were more towards (we will be richer, we will be stronger, we’ll have more freedom). The stay arguments were more away from: the economy will suffer, our safety will be reduced, connections will be lost. An exception was the ‘close the border’ argument of the leave camp. ‘Because we’ ll be overrun by immigrants and refugees’. Clearly an away from argument. And of course there was the ‘absurd Brussels regulations’ argument, which was also away from. Like for instance the ban on large vacuum cleaners in an effort to force consumers to use less energy. Justifying regulations like these, was quite counter intuitive and took complex lines of reasonings. As a matter of fact, the Brexiteers were often spicing up their general positions with one or two very specific examples.

The stay arguments were more specific and reactive than the leave arguments, which were – on the whole – more general and proactive. Basically the leave position was: ‘Let’s leave the EU, we’ll be fine on our own and we’ll be free’. While the ‘stay’ camp was almost literally saying: ‘Wait a minute, let’s first take a good look at all the the consequences this will have’ .

Locus of control
The leave camp was clearly expressing more internal locus of control. Their main argument was that England regain an internal locus of control that was potentially there. It is within our power to do well on our own, economically, in military terms, and so on. While the stay camp took a much more external locus of control position. They were saying: ‘We’re part of bigger systems that we’re dependent on. A lot of global developments are way outside of our control. And if we leave the EU, we’ ll even loose whatever measure of control owe have over that’.

We could dive into this even more deeply, but I just want to mention one more observation. The leave camp seemed to have more kinesthetic arguments, based on gut feelings, pride, fear, irritation. While the stay camp sounded much more visual. ‘If we look at the actual numbers’, ‘If we look at the global situation’.

When we sum up the meta programs, this is the picture:

meta programs-3

So why did the leave camp win? To most people, proactive arguments sound better. People are generally more motivated by positive goals (towards) than by problems that might happen (away from). Positive goals invite a pleasant emotional state. Thinking about problems calls up the emotional state associated with those problems, not so pleasant. And people generally like simple, kinesthetic arguments. ‘If it feels good, I’ ll do it!’ Kinesthetic and proactive. Maybe this has something to do with mirror neurons. People can resonate more easily with kinesthetic arguments. Specific, reactive thinking takes energy. You could say: the argumentation of the stay camp required too much blood sugar from the brains of the British population.

And last but not least, for most people an internal locus of control sounds more attractive than an external locus. ‘Let’s feel proud about our power to control things in the future!’ Especially if it’s a promise of future internal LOC. You get the emotional benefits without the burden of responsibility. It’s an political version of ‘buy now, pay later’: feel powerful now, be responsible later. Taking all this into account, it’s surprising that the leave vote wasn’t even bigger…

Populist politicians
I guess the profile I sketched here, this combination of Graves drives and meta programs, is similar for most populist politicians. They claim to represent the common people and to fight the political establishment and the elites on the behalf of the common people. They are attracting large numbers of voters in most European countries. I am afraid that the more thoughtful, careful, informed, global view will always be more difficult to understand and more difficult to ‘sell’. It takes a greater mental effort to even understand that position.

Rob Wijnberg, a popular Dutch philosopher and journalist, has commented on this too. He notes how right wing arguments tend to sound simpler and more powerful than left wing arguments. Because the archetypal right wing argument is: ‘This is good for us, let’s do it’. Period. General, proactive statements. While the left wing argument is more like: ‘There is us and then there are all these other people, and we all have our interests and our rights, so let’s find a just and workable balance’. More specific, reactive, statements.

Then what?
So if we know this, then what? We can see the Brexit as another example of populist politics. Simply put, it’s a clash between right wing red/orange populists and left wing blue/green reasonable politics. If you are a fan of the populists you can rest assured; psychologically speaking they are holding the better cards. Which they have had up their sleeves ever since Hitler came to power in the thirties of the last century. If you don’t like the populists, like me and most of my highly educated, cosmopolitan friends, then how can you make use of this analysis? I believe that the voice of reason can be more influential that it has been recently. This voice may have  a tendency to speak in a reactive, specific, away from, visual manner, but there is no necessity for this. Reasonable arguments, even though they tend to be more complicated, can be presented in a proactive, general, towards and kinesthetic manner. I believe that reasonable politicians should model the populists in their thinking style and their presentation. And understand that thinking style is not the same as thinking content. Blue/green values can be expressed in this format.

Having talked to my British friend Graham Dawes, I have adjusted my towards/away from characterization of the Brexiteers. Graham explained that the newspapers had played an important role in de Brexit discussion. They were painting a picture – and showing photographs – of hordes of immigrants in Calais, waiting to swarm the UK, sucking the country dry of jobs, health care and housing. They kindled the fears of the British people, using endless repetition, probably motivated by the motto: ‘Sensations sells’.

This is a general practise amongst populist politicians and the newspapers that support them. They will present very specific horrifying examples of what will happen if we don’t help them get rid of the political establishment now. And they will illustrate it with specific examples. The relationship between the example and the danger is often tenuous, but the combination does make a powerful package. In terms of meta programs this  certainly is not ‘towards’ or ‘general’ thinking. This is strongly away from plus highly specific. So rather than characterizing the Brexit mindset as general and towards, I would now call it toward/general and  away from/specific. In other words: vaguely describing the beautiful independence (towards, general) we will gain when leaving the EU, while at the same time showing very specific photographs of the hordes of immigrants waiting to invade (away from/specific). So this is my new graphic:

meta programs_ BREXIT _







About the Author

Jaap Hollander

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Working as a trainer, coach and therapist as well as being director of the IEP, the Institute for Eclectic Psychology. Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching. Most recent book: "Provocative Coaching" (English), fall 2012 (Crown House) available from Amazon.

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