The small margin of the referendum result doesn't only make changing the result seem possible. It also encourages what psychologists call "counterfactual thinking"by Rik Worth / November 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
Since the results of the Brexit referendum hostility between Leavers and Remainers hasn’t just lingered—it’s gotten worse. The Leave camp sees any democratic process that slows down our approach to the big day as a deliberate scheme to abandon the process entirely. The Remain faction, however, warns of a foolish and poorly-planned one-way trip to geopolitical oblivion.
This isn’t just a case of weighing up what it would practically take to change the result—since when has politics ever had anything to do with facts?—but also about how we feel. The vehemence of each group’s assumed correctness and the fire of their passion can be explained by the theory of counterfactual thinking.
Despite its name, this isn’t just thinking the opposite of what we factually know—though that has probably played some part in the whole disaster. It is instead the analysis of how we think and feel about scenarios which could have happened.
Broadly speaking, counterfactual thinking is why we get more annoyed if we missed our train by 2 minutes than if we miss it by twenty. We’re much more likely to tell ourselves “if only I’d got to the station a little earlier” than “well, at least I didn’t miss the train by an hour.”
This is what psychologist call upward counterfactual thinking: wishing something which has happened was better (downward counterfactual thinking is us being thankful things weren’t much worse).
How does this apply to Brexit? Downward counterfactual thinking tends to generate lots of negative feeling like regret, frustration and anger. The easier it is to imagine how we could have ended up in that missed, beautiful, other universe—where we are more successful, more loved and less ravaged by society tearing itself apart—the more intense these negative feelings become.
The People’s Vote is a manifestation of that pain. Not only do campaigners know they have (relatively) few minds to change, but they are also experiencing the frustration of a referendum that Remain nearly won.
The democratic value of a potential second referendum aside, the reason it’s so compelling is that it arguably gives us a chance to be in the reality we just missed. With the 2016 EU vote having been so close, it’s much easier to imagine a couple…