Ever since the UK voted to leave the EU, British politics have been in turmoil. As the clock ticks ever closer to March 2019, opinions about Brexit continue to clash, ministers continue to resign – and, most importantly, decision-making continues to derail.
With little hope of any political stability on the horizon, we perhaps need to consider other options for understanding the government’s dithering, in the interests of coming up with a solution. Insights from psychology can potentially help.
We tend to dither when we want to avoid making a difficult choice. We decide not to decide for the time being. This is more common when people struggle to identify or choose between options or when they anticipate high levels of blame or regret for making a bad decision. It’s very clear from the current climate in the UK that both of these apply to Brexit.
Deferring choices appears to be the main strategy used by the government thus far, but with only six months to go, the luxury of putting off decisions until later is rapidly disappearing.
Indecision can also be driven by irrational decision biases. For example, the sunk-cost effect – which has been used to explain why investors sometimes throw good money after bad. People are committed to their past behaviour (their investment) and so fail to change their behaviour despite new information suggesting it’s no longer appropriate.
This behaviour is ultimately driven by loss aversion. People are more sensitive to losses than gains (the hurt of losing a tenner is greater than the joy of finding one). People throw good money (or efforts) after bad in order to avoid accepting loss. They put their blinkers on and hope for the best.
With the estimated cost of the Brexit process projected to be as high as £2 billion in the years leading up to the UK’s formal exit, sunk-cost thinking may well apply. Rather than reconsider Brexit (and accept these sunk costs) in light of new information, politicians seem obsessed with contingency planning for a no-deal outcome that will be bad for Britain. Perhaps they genuinely believe that the costs of a second referendum are higher than that of a no-deal Brexit. Or perhaps they are simply too invested, financially and politically, to turn back now.
Another type of indecision, which is the focus of my own research, is decision inertia. This occurs in situations where individuals are unable to put off their choice, but still cannot decide. It is characteristic of high-risk contexts (such as emergency responding) where the consequences for any choice are likely to be negative, including the consequence of indecision. In such settings, individuals engage in intense, albeit redundant, deliberation over their choice for no gain. They want to feel like they’re doing something to reduce their uncertainty, so they return to old information, rephrase old questions in new ways, and fundamentally get nowhere.
Decision inertia could be used to explain the complete lack of clarity that still exists over Brexit, despite it being constantly ruminated over and discussed in almost all public spheres. As put quite brilliantly by British actor Danny Dyer over the summer:
No one has got a fucking clue what Brexit is.
Getting over indecision
Psychologists have identified ways of helping us reduce indecision. One such way is by using different types of goals. For example, concrete, lower-level goals are more effective than abstract, higher-level goals. So, focusing on a concrete goal to, for example, get the best deal for the economy, is more useful than the vague goal of getting the best deal for Britain.
It has also been found that focusing goals around the avoidance of bad outcomes, rather than optimising good outcomes, can reduce indecision in complex settings. By reorienting Brexit negotiations away from “taking back control” towards doing whatever it takes to cause the least damage to Britain (including the option that it might mean remaining in Europe), indecision could be avoided.
As the Brexit deadline approaches, the government will soon no longer have the luxury to avoid choice. As March approaches, it’s likely that decision inertia will increase and we’ll have more and more redundant commentary on what Brexit means and where Britain might end up.
That said, having a tight deadline and clear goals can reduce indecision, so there is hope that the next six months might force more decisive action. But the government must take action to avoid blindly navigating down the path of indecision. The option of a second referendum might be bad, the option of a bad deal worse, but the option of no deal is seemingly worse of all.