Final year student James Taylor explores public attitudes surrounding Brexit as part of his coursework for Psychology of Nations.

The word ‘prelapsarian’ denotes a specific type of longing – a longing to return to a past of idyllic innocence and purity. The term was originally used to refer to the period of grace before the Fall of Man, as described in the Bible (literally, pre-lapse, before Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden). Because the past of no society is ever innocent or pure, the desire to return to a prelapsarian time is a delusional one. There has never been a time of innocence – every historical age has had its conflicts, its excesses, its own unique horrors. This sort of delusion may seem a harmless one. Unfortunately, it is anything but.

Attempting to contort the complexities of the world into an imaginary, idealised past is a symptom of the times we live in, expressed different ways in different countries. In America, it is Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again. In Britain, it’s the idealisation of both post-WW2 society (where ‘the whole country pulled together’ in a self-sufficient fashion) and of a pre-Industrial Revolution England (of small and quaint villages, green pastures, and comforting stability), both of which played a part in the mythology of the Brexit campaign. When this sad pining for a false past has the tumultuous consequences of a Trump election and Brexit, then prelapsarian considerations need analysis of their root. Why do people long for something that they could never possess, and therefore never lose?

Let’s focus on Brexit. For months before the referendum, and in the two years since the referendum result, experts predicted it would negatively impact Britain – for public health [1], scientific research [2], living standards [3], and for the wider economy in a range of issues [4]. Since it is assumed common-sense that experts know best about the issues they are expert in, why did the majority of the British electorate ignore expert opinion in this instance? It may be, as Michael Gove said shortly before the Brexit referendum, that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Psychology as a discipline can help to explain this reckless impulse.

One potentially applicable theory is that of collective narcissism, defined as “an emotional investment in an unrealistic belief about an in-group’s effectiveness” [5]. It could also be defined as a belief in unparalleled national greatness, in what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “narcissistic self-adoration of peoples”. People are emotionally invested in the greatness (at times even superiority) inherent in their group, and they support this belief because it boosts their self-esteem [6]. “I belong to a group that is great, and therefore, I am also great”.

The belief that leaving the EU would bring tangible benefits for Britain (or at the very least, the belief that the negatives of leaving would be offset by predicted future advantages), despite constant expert opinion to the contrary, is a good example of an unrealistic belief. This also ties into a wider cultural belief in the qualities British people supposedly possess: enduring troublesome issues with a ‘stiff upper lip’, politeness, and a cup of tea. We, as a nation, “keep calm and carry on”. This is not something based upon reason, but is in fact an emotional belief fuelled by misremembered history [7], and the mundane desire to improve your own self-image by grafting other people’s (oftentimes mythologised) successes onto your own personality – secular ancestor worship, updated for the modern era of fake news. There is not anything special or unique about being British – the idea that Britain is uniquely able, among all other nations of the world to weather social and economic change on the scale of Brexit is a falsehood.

Oftentimes, this collective narcissism doesn’t just stop at in-group love, but instead bleeds over into hatred of the out-group [8]. It is, psychologically speaking, a short distance between celebrating your in-group’s position and celebrating its relative position of superiority against out-groups. This is oftentimes a negative, causing inter-personal conflict in many cases [9], often on flimsy bases and with far-reaching consequences. The path from celebration of Britain’s attributes, to the hatred against those supposedly ‘against’ Britain (the EU and non-British immigrants, notably), is a well-travelled one.

This is not the only way that collective narcissism interacts with out-groups. Groups/individuals experiencing collective narcissism report high levels of perceived threat [10] from out-groups, regardless of what levels of actual, objective threat actually exist. Because of this inflated sense of threat, the individual or group experiencing the collective narcissism will react disproportionately. It makes a certain kind of logic – when an in-group you adore is confronted by a dangerous threat, then a radical solution may be needed to protect it. The trouble arises when a mild problem, or a problem that doesn’t truly exist, is ‘met’ by a response that is socially damaging in some way.

Collective narcissism has also been shown to be related to inter-group aggressiveness [11], and appears to be more effective than national attachment and national identification [12] in creating out-group rejection. Brexit voters obviously held negative opinions about the EU (otherwise they would have voted to remain within it). The theory of collective narcissism would explain the desire to leave the EU, as a circular form of self-defence. The Brexiteer is acting pre-emptively against what they perceive as an out-group hostile to their very existence.

It may be that the circumstances that led to a Brexit vote are too complex to be encapsulated within a single psychological theory. Whether that’s the case, this theory can help to explain certain aspects of Brexit – the unrealistic belief in post-Brexit conspiracy, an exaggerated sense of threat from the EU, and inter-group aggressiveness. And that is worth investigating, to make sure that events like these cannot be sleepwalked into, again.