Might Brexit make us more dishonest?

When Lying Feels the Right Thing to Do reports three studies we did on what made people less or more likely to submit fraudulent insurance claims. Our first study found that people were more likely to cheat when rejected; the other two showed that rejected claimants were just as likely to cheat when this didn’t lead to financial gain, but that they felt more strongly when there was no money involved.

Our research was conducted as part of a broader research programme to investigate the deterrence of deception; our goal was to understand how to design better websites. However we can’t help wondering whether it might shine some light on the UK’s recent political turmoil. The Brexit campaigners were minorities of both main political parties and their anti-EU rhetoric had been rejected by the political mainstream for years; they had ideological rather than selfish motives. They ran a blatantly deceptive campaign, persisting in obvious untruths but abandoning them promptly after winning the vote. Rejection is not the only known factor in situational deception; it’s known, for example, that people with unmet goals are more likely to cheat than people who are simply doing their best, and that one bad apple can have a cascading effect. But it still makes you think.

The outcome and aftermath of the referendum have left many people feeling rejected, from remain voters through people who will lose financially to foreign residents of the UK. Our research shows that feelings of rejection can increase cheating by 15-30%; perhaps this might have measurable effects in some sectors. How one might disentangle this from the broader effects of diminished social solidarity, and from politicians simply setting a bad example, could be an interesting problems for social scientists.

4 thoughts on “Might Brexit make us more dishonest?

  1. While the article looks superficially reasonable, the more I think about it the more worried I feel. If one of the most able and expert scientists I know of can get into such a muddle over a relatively simple political issue, we are all in serious trouble.

    “The Brexit campaigners were minorities of both main political parties and their anti-EU rhetoric had been rejected by the political mainstream for years…”

    Very true. But the implication, it seems to me, is the opposite to the one Professor Anderson draws. It is that, for years, both political parties and the “political mainstream” have not only ignored one of the deepest wishes of the British people – to leave the EU – but have consistently pursued policies that were directly contrary to it.

    Today, as a result, we have a House of Commons that lacks all political legitimacy. Yes, they were all elected in last year’s General Election, so they are technically legitimate. But the UK is supposed to be a democracy, isn’t it? Yet we are “represented” by a bunch of people most of whom disagree with the majority of the voters about the most important issue of the day. And our constitution apparently provides no way to reconcile or fix this organic failure.

    If the new PM takes us quickly and directly out of the EU, thus obeying the clearly expressed will of the voters, well and good. If she attempts to do so and is defeated in a Parliamentary vote, she must call a General Election. And then we’ll see.

    1. Leaving aside that 2 per cent is not “the clearly expressed will of the voters”, it seems that the boot is on the other foot – half the (voting) population that does not want to leave the EU now feels not only disenfranchised, but is going to be actively drawn into something they do not want. This does not include those who were deliberately left out (people from EU countries that have been domiciled in the UK for years, and 16-18 year olds). There is probably a larger number of people with unmet goals now than those who wanted out of the EU. If Ross’s research is correct, then we are in for an increase of dishonesty purely on that basis, let alone the uncertainty and unavoidable social and economic damage that will be the result of whatever happens next, whether Art 50 is quickly invoked or not.

  2. Perhaps I might add the following snippet, proving that matters are even worse in the USA:

    “Note that 2014 was an election year and the congress that bordered on near single digit approval was entirely re-elected though, minimally, 85% of Americans hated them. Can anyone explain, I certainly can’t”. (Gordon Duff)


    How valid is the legitimacy of a legislative branch whose approval rating is 13%? And what can we say about the process that, by ostensibly “democratic” means, keeps such people in power for decade after decade?

  3. Ross – you might find some of this material useful in your deliberations:

    Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time:

    How facts backfire:

    Powerful Psychological Forces That Make Good People Do Bad Things:

    Why Honest People Do Dishonest Things Scientific American:

    Is Lying Bad for Us?


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