The votes are in and Britain has chosen to leave the European Union (just in case you have not heard). The reactions range from disbelief to grief to celebration. The media describes the event as "an earthquake", a "victory for the common man and country", an "existential crisis" and "an uncertain future." But what does it look like through the Lenses of Wisdom, especially since we are viewing as outsiders from "across the pond"?
Looking first through the Fractal Lens, we see that the "earthquake" metaphor is an apt one. Under the complexity view of history, structures like the European Union often build up over time like grains of sand piling up in ever higher towers. but may suddenly experience "earthquakes", or partial collapses.
The European Union has been growing steadily since the end of World War II, beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, and then moving to the Common Market of the 1960s. The United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973. More countries joined thereafter, especially after the collapse of communism in 1989. New treaties were signed in the 1990s making the countries even closer and the Euro currency debuted in 1999. The EU continued to grow in size, influence, complexity and rigidity. It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and added its 28th member, Croatia, in 2013.
Given this trajectory, most predicted that the EU would continue to strengthen in a more-or-less linear fashion, and a narrative of "destiny" of further expansion and integration was associated with it. This kind of linear or teleological view of history is usually mistaken in the long run. In fact, as the sand-pile complexity model predicts, the larger and more rigid a structure becomes, the more it is prone to cracks and sudden collapses, like we have just witnessed.
The complexity model does not predict what will happen next. Like earthquakes, though, the model does predict that the likelihood of additional "tremors" or collapses will be higher now for some period of time. And indeed, there are rumblings in a number of other countries already about holding their own referendums.
Nassim Taleb notes in many of this works the concepts of "fragility" as applied to complex systems -- that if an organization is highly rigid or authoritarian like the old top-down Soviet system, one big crack can break apart the whole thing like the shattering of a porcelain cup. The EU does not appear to be that fragile since each country's entry or exit is controlled by an individual agreement and not directly dependent on the others. Thus, the EU was able to exist prior to the UK's entry in 1973 and has built in mechanisms for countries to join and leave. Thus, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of either the EU or the UK may be greatly exaggerated.
Paradoxically, this may make the immediate future even more uncertain, because the range of possibilities is greater. There could be further disruptions, but there could also be restructurings that ultimately strengthen the union longer term. It could also simply lead to another referendum or new agreements or arrangements that accomplish the same goals, by-and-large, outside the framework of the EU itself.
Looking now through the Prospecting Lens, from all reports, the campaigns for and against were hotly contested and emotionally driven. Voters did not decide based on a rational System 2 calculations of what the specific relative benefits or drawbacks to their individual situations were likely to be. Indeed, it appears that in some circumstances, regions such as Cornwall that are receiving subsidies form the EU voted "Leave" and are now considering how to deal with the negative economic impact. Others have stated that they considered their votes to be merely a form of protest and were surprised at the outcome, which they did not believe would actually occur.
Voters on both sides instead relied largely on System 1 heuristics, and in particular:
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE) and THE NARRATIVE FALLACY. To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future.
Here, there were two competing narratives. The first, which is the linear history narrative described above, was the narrative of the destiny of the European Union that would improve the lives of all of its residents. The counter-narrative was that the European Union had not in fact improved the lives of many or most Britons, and that they would be better off returning to more local control of their country. The latter harkened back to basic notions of patriotism and the triumph of the little man. As one Leave supporter wrote about the Leave voters after the vote:
"These are the unfashionable towns and cities you see embroidered on Union flags and St George flags behind the goals at international football tournaments and being waved by the Barmy Army at overseas England Test cricket matches.
This was a triumph for the decent, forgotten folk of Britain, the silent majority who form the backbone of our nation, the descendants of those who fought for freedom at the Somme, on the beaches of Normandy and in the skies above Kent."
Which narrative one preferred was not based on mathematical calculations, but largely on two other heuristics:
AFFECT. Emotions influence judgment. “People let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world;” and
AFFECTIVE FORECASTING. We are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. When asked the very difficult question, “Overall, how happy is your life?” we substitute an easier question, “How happy am I right now?” We don’t know our future selves very well.
Emotions regarding membership in the EU ran high, and the voter turnout reflected it. While many could easily recognize that membership in the EU had benefits, many also felt that only some UK citizens were reaping those benefits or were reaping them disproportionately. Polls revealed that voters with more degrees were more likely to have voted to Remain, while those with more working-class backgrounds were more likely to have voted to Leave. Financial markets suggested that some of the biggest beneficiaries of UK membership in the EU had been the financial system and banks in particular, as those institutions saw the steepest immediate declines in value when the results were revealed.
Others were concerned about how much the country had changed. The demographics of the voters revealed that older voters were much more likely to have voted to Leave than younger voters.
One can envision a typical Leave voter as someone similar to Tony Walker of the famous "Up" series of English citizens who have been interviewed and featured every seven years in documentaries dating back to 1964. Tony grew up in the East End of London as a typical white working class citizen. At the time he is interviewed in 56Up in 2012, he is lamenting how much things have changed -- his old neighborhood is now populated by immigrants and he feels somewhat abandoned by his country's leadership, spending much of his time at an expat community in Spain.
Meanwhile, the typical Remain voter might be characterized as a recent University graduate who was looking forward to living and working in other parts of the EU without having to go through visa or immigration processes.
This leads to the this additional System 1 heuristic:
THE HALO EFFECT. The warm emotion we feel toward a person, place, or thing predisposes us to like everything about that person, place, or thing. Good impressions tend to positively color later negative impressions and conversely, negative first impressions can negatively color later positive impressions.
In this case the Halo Effect attaches to the Remain voter as an attachment to the idea of European Unity, and attached to the Leave voter as an attachment to the nostalgia of a past that now seems relatively idyllic and certainly less complicated.
Both halos are idealized, but taken to extremes by the deranged resulted in tragedies or near tragedies. Thus, a week before the vote we saw the pro-EU MP Jo Cox murdered by a man claiming he was doing it "for Britain".
Finally, a look through the Mimetic Lens reveals just a little more.
The two narratives and their political representatives were obviously mimetic rivals. Both sides relied largely on emotional appeals and scare tactics to goad voters into supporting their side -- or more directly, to vote against the other side to avoid a predicted parade of horribles. What was perhaps most striking was division of rivals within political parties themselves, notably with Prime Minister David Cameron and popular former London mayor Boris Johnson taking opposite sides. On the left, the party supported Remain, but there are now rumblings for the ouster of leader Jeremy Corbyn for being lukewarm if not hostile to the party's position.
Much of the ugliest parts of the campaigns involved veiled or outright scapegoating. Some of the Leave side scapegoated immigrants and rallied around that issue. Indeed, the EU itself has served as a convenient scapegoat for the problems that some have faced. It is very easy for a politician in the U.K. to blame the "Bureaucrats in Brussels" rather than take responsibility or ameliorative action at home.
Following the vote, the losing side has already taken to its own scapegoating. Pro-EU Prime Minister David Cameron has accepted the mantle and already resigned. Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure by his party to step down as some members of his leadership have already resigned for his shadow cabinet as form of protest.
But the real blaming has yet to begin. The relatively uneducated rural populace in England and Wales are the most likely targets, particularly in the urban centers and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Pro-Leave politicians will most certainly also be blamed for any negative effects on the economy, real or perceived.
On the encouraging side, despite the murder of Jo Cox prior to the vote, there has been little in the way of violent crowd protests or violent government crackdowns involving casualties like some of the Bloody Sundays of yesteryear. Prior to the vote, there were some incidents like this one in Dover, but notably few.
While pro-EU crowds have taken to the streets the weekend after the vote, and begun signing petitions for a second referendum, they have been peaceable thus far.
Regardless of the eventual outcomes, we can only hope that they continue to be the results of democratic processes that are allowed to play out over a good deal of time. Despite sometimes sensational media reports, my guess is that cooler heads -- regardless of outlook -- are likely to prevail in a society steeped in traditions of democracy and fortitude, with or without an actual stiff upper lip.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.