“Vote Leave, take back control” was the slogan of the Brexit campaign. It was used extensively by those advocating Leave both before and after the referendum. The strength and reach of this message might suggest to us that many in the UK felt that they lacked control over their country, and so, of their lives. Recent research in social and political psychology explains why and how a lack of control might have predicted support for Leave, and what it means for national identity.
Control and autonomy are fundamental human motives. People need to feel that they have a say in what happens to them, that events in their lives occur as a result of their actions, rather than at random.
When people lack control, they often try to restore it. These attempts can take different forms: some turn to religion, appealing to the control of God, others look for reassurance in the political system. For example, they may be motivated to support a political party in government – at least, if that government appears to be in control.
This, however, was likely not the perception of those who voted Leave—in fact, the Leave campaign postulated that the EU had diminished the UK government’s autonomy and control of the country.
Crucially, research shows that low feelings of control can also engender national identification. People who invest effort in building ties with a social group do so, at least in part, because they feel it promises the recovery of control over their lives. And of course, the nation with which one identifies is just one such social group – on a very large scale.
Indeed, national identity was an important predictor of support for Leave. However, there are different ways in which people can identify with their national group. One theoretical model distinguishes between narcissistic national identification and more conventional forms of national identity.
Collective narcissism, an extension of individual narcissism to the group level, is characterised by an exaggeratedly positive evaluation of one’s in-group, associated with a conviction that the group is underappreciated by outsiders.
This conviction seems to foster an excessive need to defend the in-group image. National identification without this narcissistic character – the more ‘conventional’ form – is more secure, well anchored, and fairly resistant to perceived threats from other groups.
In our work on Brexit, we found that it was national collective narcissism—not simply national identification—that predicted voting Leave in the referendum. Both collective narcissism and support for Brexit were stronger if people felt the UK had been disadvantaged in the EU for a long time.
These associations are not unique to the UK. In a recent study in Poland, we found that national collective narcissism was associated with a conviction that the country is getting a bad deal from its membership in the EU, which was further associated with willingness to support a hypothetical ‘Polexit’.
Feelings of low personal control might play a role here. Collective narcissism is a type of identity that increases in response to threats to personal control. It seems that when people feel they are losing control of their lives, they seek to defend their national image and interests more.
However, these efforts do not prove enough to restore feelings of control.
In fact, our research demonstrated that collective narcissism did not boost feelings of personal control in the long run. It seems that to feel in control, people need to go beyond a focus on their group’s image, and contribute to their group more meaningfully.
In order to do this, however, they might need to feel that the government is responsive to their needs and requests. Perceived responsiveness is associated with confidence in our socio-political institutions. Indeed, at least moderate levels of such confidence are needed for people to become politically active and involved in democratic processes (e.g., via voting).
If people feel that the political system nurtures personal control, this will also likely foster a more constructive national identity. Our work indicates that increased personal control encourages secure (i.e. non-narcissistic) national identification, which in turn predicts greater group loyalty as well as tolerance of members of other groups.
If the Brexit process fails to satisfy the public’s need for control, we may see a further increase in collective narcissism. This could have detrimental effects both on international relations and the relations within the UK.
Yes, collective narcissists might be willing to defend the image of the group, but they tend do it in destructive ways, and might even hurt members of their own group along the way. Low personal control might exacerbate these tendencies.
If the government wants to make Brexit a success, it should focus less on the UK’s image in the negotiations, and more on ensuring the public feels it has a voice, both during the process and afterwards.
By Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, Senior Lecturer in Political Psychology at the University of Kent.