6 July 2023

Brian Cox proves that clever people are more susceptible to Brexit confirmation bias

By Laura Dodsworth & Patrick Fagan

Brexit is now, in a majority of voters minds, linked with high interest rates, trade friction, travel friction and general incompetence. The reality may be more complex, but that doesn’t matter – it’s about perception, and the perception is that Brexit is not only a failure but a liability. And there is more pain to come. This is why in my view, coupled with demographic change, it is inevitable that we will soon begin the process of rejoining the single market and customs union no matter what Labour or the Conservatives say at the next election. This irresistible pressure will probably split the Conservative Party, which is ironic because Cameron’s only strategic aim in calling the referendum in the first place was to placate fringe elements of the Party. Thanks Dave! 

Brian Cox’s tweet about Brexit has shown that even a physicist with a brain the size of Jupiter is not above Brexit confirmation bias. This is less surprising than it should be.

It’s well-known that people who voted to remain were more likely to be intellectuals and academics. Three quarters of those with a degree voted to remain, compared to a third of those with no qualifications. A study of over 11,000 participants found that Leave voters had lower numeracy skills. By contrast, the derisive term ‘gammon’ was liberally applied to all those allegedly stupid, red-faced, jingoistic people on the far-right who voted to leave the EU.

Left-wing people do tend to be more intellectual. From a psychological point of view, they are more cognitively open and fluid. The trouble is they often take this as proof that their opinion is correct. In fact, you can be so open-minded your brain falls out, as the saying goes. And, to paraphrase George Orwell, there are some things so absurd only an intellectual could believe them.

In our forthcoming book, Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist we explore two psychological principles that underpin this tendency. Confirmation bias is our tendency to view the world through the lens of our past experiences, accepting information that supports our views and rejecting information that doesn’t. Motivated reasoning, meanwhile, is our tendency to intellectually rationalise our opinions and behaviours, which may actually be driven by forces of which we have little conscious awareness. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning run through our attitudes and pronouncements on all things. No one can claim to be completely ideologically and politically neutral. People see what they want to see, to fit their outlook on the world. Brexit has been one of the dividing issues of our time and offers a powerfully encapsulated example of bias.

One of our nation’s favourite physicist’s tweets was the perfect example of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Cox focuses on the perception of Brexit and, in doing so, mislays two important points. First, he is disingenuous about the long-standing work by many in the media, politics and academia to do precisely this: create a perception that Brexit has been a failure. Secondly, his own biased perception leads him to potentially the wrong conclusions.

We think ‘clever’ people are above all this bias and tribalism, but in fact they can be the among the most vulnerable of all. Intellectualism is not necessarily a defence against bias or brainwashing; it can be a weakness. It makes people good at justifying their beliefs (even if wrong) and therefore more likely to spiral into rabbit holes disconnected from reality.

This is what the rational brain does: it rationalises. Whereas people generally used to believe that the conscious brain made all of our important decisions for us, the psychological consensus these days (as advertising guru Rory Sutherland put it) is that the emotional brain is the decision-making Oval Office, while the conscious brain is more like the Press Office, coming up with explanations after the fact.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very smart but believed in fairies. It was probably a case of motivated reasoning since his son had recently been killed in the war and he had a deep spiritual need to fill. Likewise, Steve Jobs thought he could cure his cancer with juice, and Remainers blame all of our country’s woes on Brexit. 

Experiments have shown that intellect can actually make people more vulnerable to bias, in part because smarter people are more likely to rationalise their choices – but also because they have more confidence in their opinions. This is particularly true of people who are slightly, but not exceptionally, bright. These people are sometimes known as ‘midwits’. They have the intellect to grasp a political opinion but not to dissect it critically. As in the Dunning-Kruger effect – whereby people who know a bit about a subject overestimate how much they really do know – a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Intellectual types also tend to have a certain personality that predisposes them to conform with the ‘current thing’. Academics, scientists and doctors tend to be co-operative and organised. This is often a good thing (you want your doctor to be kind and to follow the rules), but it does predispose them to doing what they’re told and not rocking the boat.

The dominant cultural narrative, the social norm, has consistently been ‘Brexit = bad’. Smart people, especially the midwits and the dutiful, are more likely to recognise and comply with that norm. They can see that following the crowd will be beneficial for their career and social standing, so they follow the crowd. It can also take the form of a ‘luxury belief’ – that is, an opinion which only the upper crust are able to hold. It takes a certain class of person to be affected by airport queue times and not by mass uncontrolled immigration.

Ultimately, the lesson for us all is that intellectual thought should be balanced with intuition, wisdom and humility; that we should all accept our beliefs are flawed in some way, with value to be found in the perspectives of others. And that, maybe, Brexit isn’t really that bad.

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Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it by Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan, is out 20 July, £22 (Harper Collins).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.