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Privileged and Overconfident but Full Steam Ahead!

Updated Friday, 2nd June 2017
How negotiations can be affected by priviledge and overconfidence, in a third article on the psychology of Brexit and contemporary politics by Volker Patent.

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Young people in formal suits and dresses on bumper cars, challenging each other A common stereotype of contemporary politicians is that they are Oxbridge-educated members of an elite, millionaire set. David Cameron’s Cabinet was notably composed of members of the ‘Bullingdon club’– the infamous Oxford University dining club. Even in Theresa May’s Cabinet, which has the lowest number of private-school educated ministers since 1945, 33% of the total positions are held by an Oxbridge educated group, whilst most of the others are from  well-ranking universities. Several of her cabinet are millionaires, including Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. This gives the impression that - although nowhere near as extremely advantaged as some previous governments - this is nevertheless a government of the privileged. One might also add to this that being an MP and a government minister is a privilege in its own right. 

From a psychological perspective, privileged educational, social and economic backgrounds give ample grounds for being confident. While self-confidence is generally regarded as a positive attribute, it can also take on the malignant form of over-confidence. Psychologically, overconfidence can be defined as subjective confidence in one’s judgments that is greater than the objective accuracy of those judgments.

In relation to Brexit, over-confidence seems readily apparent when considering the belief that the UK will have foreign nations queueing up for trade deals. Here ministers have displayed confidence in their belief that trade with non-EU trading partners will easily replace lost trade with the EU. However, there is no overwhelming evidence of who those partners will be, their willingness to engage in favourable trade relations, or their respect of human rights. In fairness, there seems to be some acknowledgement that the terms of a hard Brexit would be economically painful, but this is typically justified because of a confidence in the long term prospects, and Britain’s influence in the world as a former colonial power. Even among Leavers, there is little good news about the immediate economic impacts. The emptiness of such perceptions is further apparent in the long-term decline of the UKs diplomatic clout on the world stage, except as an ally of more powerful countries such as the United States, or as a member of the EU. Few have explained why nations that were oppressed by colonial Britain, and for whom the inequalities established by empire and the atrocities carried out during wars of independence are still raw issues, should now welcome their former masters with enthusiasm and goodwill.

Overconfidence in the governments’ capability to make Brexit a success suggests a belief in personal and institutional capabilities that may ultimately turn out to be unfounded. The latest indication regarding this is the leaking of news of the conversation between Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May, with German media reporting a UK government that appeared to have unfounded confidence in the outcome of Brexit and in the process of negotiation. While the report in German media has been denied by the UK government, it is unclear what counter-reasons there are to be confident about the negotiation process.

From Ignorance to Self-Importance

Another psychological effect related to overconfidence is known as the Dunning Krueger effect. In 1999, Dunning and Kruger studied university students by giving them tests of grammar, logical reasoning and humour. They then gave the results to students and asked them to rank themselves in terms of their position in the class.  They found that students who did less well in the tests tended to have inaccurate assessments of their own rank compared with students who performed better. Students with high ability were found to underestimate their competence, assuming that others must also find the tests easy to complete. Follow-up studies based on Dunning & Krueger’s initial findings support the idea that people of both high and low ability are poor at estimating their own competence.

It is unclear to what extent government ministers are aware of the limitations of their own ability to understand the full implications of Brexit. As I explained in my first article, by selectively ignoring expert advice and being likely to operate in a groupthink  bubble that prevents information being fully considered, it is highly possible that the government is mistakenly operating on the assumption that they have sufficient understanding of the process and the outcomes of Brexit. It is unclear to what extent an overconfident elite group such as the government might consider themselves aware of the limitations of their own thought processes.

There are over 200 psychological biases reported in the psychological research literature, and while not all are relevant to politics, some may provide valuable insights into what lies ahead. Rather than pursing British superiority and exceptionalism, and the rigid positon of the demands made by Brexiteers, a more humble approach may be needed. Recognising that even ministers and ambassadors are human beings, with human limits to their competence, might encourage the government to listen more carefully to its experts, and to information that runs counter to their existing beliefs and preferences. At the very least, the way in which biases can affect decision-making and understanding of the world should give us pause for thought. 


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