Policy engagement at Queen’s

Emotions and EU Referendums: From Grexit to Brexit

Dr John Garry examines the role that emotions play in referenda, and what this might mean for the competing campaigns in the upcoming UK referendum on EU membership.

Emotions and EU Referendums: From Grexit to Brexit

Fear and anger are powerful political emotions, and especially so in the kind of dire economic circumstances at play in Greece. In the very brief referendum campaign the choice on offer was framed by the Yes and No sides largely in emotional terms. The EU – particularly Germany – implicitly played on fear. The message to Greeks was: if you vote No terrible things will happen. Greece would be on its way out of the Euro and economic chaos for Greece would follow, making a grim economic reality a whole lot grimmer. The Greek government, in contrast, fuelled citizens anger – directed at the EU for seeking to humiliate the Greek people and condemn them to endless poverty with austerity measures that many believe don’t work and won’t ever work.

This emotional cauldron might be thought to be the opposite of the kind of calm, rational discussion that ideally should occur in a thoughtful, evidence-based referendum campaign. However, we know from research in political psychology, and as demonstrated in the Irish EU bailout referendum, that the emotional and rational parts of the brain should not be seen as opposites but rather that they interact, with different emotions triggering different ways of thinking. Voters who are anxious and afraid in a referendum campaign are more likely to focus on how the outcome of the referendum may be a threat to their well-being. They will be motivated to become informed about the implications of voting Yes or voting No and will vote in a way that minimises risk. The EU painted a picture of the No vote being the riskier of the two options for Greeks but did not succeed in making enough Greeks anxious enough to vote Yes. The Greek government did a better job at triggering anger and angry voters are less concerned with risk. They tend to more certain and more concerned with moral judgement: punishing the bad guys for what they have done in the past. The actions of the EU in imposing economic hardship on Greece  were the focus of such anger, with many voting No as a consequence.

The Greek referendum contrasts with the Irish ‘bailout’ referendum in that fear trumped anger in the latter but anger rather than fear was salient in the former. Emotions are also likely to play a key role in the impending UK referendum on EU membership. The ‘stay in the EU’ campaign will likely highlight the dreadful things that will happen if the UK leaves the EU, focusing on future uncertainty. The ‘Let’s just leave’ campaign will be more likely to focus attention on the past than the future and prompt voters’ anger at the terrible ways that the EU has meddled in UK affairs. The battle over how to get people to think will arguably be a direct consequence of the battle over how to get people to feel.

The featured image in this article is used under a Creative Commons licence.

Professor John Garry
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Professor John Garry is a Senior Research Fellow in the George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. Professor Garry is Principal Investigator on the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project entitled 'Randomly Selected Politicians. Transforming Democracy in the Post Conflict Setting.' Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Visiting Professor of Political Science and an International Fellow at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University. John Coakley is a Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, and a fellow of the Mitchell Institute at Queen's University.

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