Why most Leave voters won't have bregret

Bregret? Graffiti on a bridge in Oxfordshire (picture by Helen De Cruz)

After the referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU on 23 June, there were a few high-profile cases of bregret, aka regrexit: leave voters who had buyer's regret. Some leave voters admitted theirs was a protest vote, and they now felt it was being hijacked. Some thought that their vote wouldn't count, seeing remain was predicted to win. Letters like this one, with more complex motives, appeared in newspapers:

Letter in Daily Telegraph, 27 June — Note that this author is still unhappy with the EU, albeit regretting his vote.

Several months later, bregret (I'll use the more popular term of the two) has failed to gather momentum. The Google Trends image below shows this very clearly: there was a peak in searches for bregret (blue) and regrexit (red) just a few days following the referendum, but interest has since tapered off. Statistical evidence also suggests that people who voted Leave or Remain did not change their minds to any significant extent.

Interest in the terms bregret (blue) and regrexit (red), as gauged by searches on Google spiked a few days after the referendum but remained very low afterwards.

More qualitative studies with focus groups such as one organized by The Guardian likewise show no noticeable shifts in sentiment. Remain voters are still disappointed about the outcome, Leave voters are pleased, for instance, Nina, a Leave voter from Bradford writes:

“It’s a relief that things are starting to move; a feeling of satisfaction that we are getting out.”

Given what we know about human psychology, this lack of bregret is unsurprising. Several decades of solid empirical studies (for instance, the classic Lord, Ross and Lepper study of 1979) show that when complex social issues are concerned (such as gun rights, capital punishment, abortion), people respond to evidence in a peculiar way: they do not update their beliefs in the face of disconfirming evidence.

In ordinary circumstances, when you are confronted disconfirming evidence you revise your beliefs. For example, when you believe that the recyclable waste will be collected this week, you'll revise your belief in the face of disconfirming evidence, e.g., you see people are putting out their bins of non-recyclable waste. You'll just think: I was wrong about that.

But for a belief that is complex and tied to your identity in some way, you will tend to disregard disconfirming evidence —you'll try to dismiss it as false, or downplay its significance. You will cling to confirming evidence and point to it "See, I was right!" I write "you" because it happens to almost everyone, and it has likely happened to you too. This psychological phenomenon is called belief polarization — instead of your beliefs being adjusted by evidence, they merely get entrenched, no matter what the evidence is.

Climate change is one of the many topics on which people are polarized in their beliefs, especially in the US

Trying to convince people by appealing to facts usually does not work. Both highly-educated people and people with few formal qualifications are insensitive to disconfirming evidence when it concerns the stuff that constitutes their identity. One depressing study demonstrated this clearly: anti-vax parents were given leaflets with either (1) lack of evidence about the alleged link between MMR (the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) and autism, (2) textual information about the dangers of these diseases, (3) disturbing images of children suffering from measles, mumps and rubella, (4) a dramatic narrative about a baby who almost died from measles.

None of these interventions worked. In fact, some of them even strengthened the parents' resolve not to vaccinate their children. This may suggest that well-intentioned leaflets may not work. The anti-vax movement is tied up with personal identity, including striving for a natural lifestyle without chemical interference, and a wariness of big companies.

Measles leaflet — but will it help?

Applying this to the Leave vote, we can likewise see that both Leave and Remain are strongly tied to a complex identity. "It's not the economy", writes Eric Kauffman, Brexit is "a story of personal values". Support for the death penalty predicts voting Leave better than age, religion, or social class. Yet Leave campaigners did not campaign to reinstate the death penalty after Brexit. So what explains the correlation? Leave voters are more authoritarian (in favour of submission to authority), they dislike change and difference more than Remain voters, and prefer more moral and ethnic homogeneity. In that respect, they voted in line with their values: while some Leavers may not like what they perceive as the opacity of the EU government, most Leave voters were mainly turned off by its cosmopolitanism — this feature, by contrast, is what attracts Remain voters. What was painted on the bus was a lie, but it likely didn’t swing the vote.

The Leave campaign battlebus

Gradually, opinions do change, even those that were once divisive, such as on same-sex marriage, or women's votes. But in the short term, it won't happen for Leave voters; there will be no bregret. As Nick Schon writes on Quora:

there will have to be rioting, economic collapse and hunger in the Uk, coupled with everyone in the EU driving gold-plated BMW’s before any of the Brexit voters I’ve met think that maybe it wasn’t a great idea.

Similarly, the resilience of the UK economy in spite of the vote to leave the EU does not sway Remain voters into thinking Brexit might turn out alright.

In the meantime, one thing we can do is ask ourselves what to do if we are faced by a deep disagreement. One sensible thing to do would be to examine (regardless of what one voted) to what extent one's own beliefs might be subject to belief polarization.