The psychology of systemic consensus

Nov 15, 2018·Alasdair Macleod

We are all too familiar with established views rejecting change. It has nothing to do with the facts. Officialdom’s mind is often firmly closed to all reason on the big issues. To appreciate why we must understand the crowd psychology behind the systemic consensus. It is the distant engine that drives the generator that provides the electricity that drives us into repetitive disasters despite prior evidence they are avoidable, and even fuels the madness of political correctness.

Forget the argument, look at the psychology

A human prejudice which is little examined is why establishments frequently stick to conviction while denying reasonable debate. Anyone who addresses the unreason of the establishment risks their motives being personally vilified and attacked. There are many fields of government where this is demonstrably true.

Leadership is too often based on prevailing beliefs, with minds firmly closed to any evidence they might be wrong. Even Galileo was forced by the Inquisition in 1633 to recant his scientific evidence that the earth revolved around the sun – a thoroughly reasonable and logical though novel proposition to the independent mind. But it wasn’t until 1992 that the religious establishment at the Vatican forgave him for being right.

That was 359 years later and long after it mattered to Galileo. Fortunately, when the establishment view departs from the facts it rarely survives as long. Socialism, economics, climate change and Brexit show the same static opinions insulated from inconvenient contradictions. This is not to say the establishment need be judgemental. Democratic government at its best tries to remain neutral and reflect a balance of opinion. But there are times when it loses sight of firm ground and becomes subverted by the psychology of its own established but unfounded beliefs.

The debate over Brexit is a classic illustration of psychology over reason, where few Remainers or Brexiteers have changed their views since the referendum in 2016. Influential Remainers are, by and large, those who have worked in government during the forty-five years of Britain’s increasing transfer of political power to Brussels. There are others who vehemently believe that being part of a larger economic unit is more secure than exposure to free markets. There are also those who believe Brexit will directly affect their lives and fear the uncertainty. Whatever their reasoning, their subconscious instinct is to seek protection in a guardian establishment rather than risk a commercially-based proposition.

The purpose of this article is not to debate Brexit, or any other government policy, but to explain the psychology of systemic consensus. Brexit is only an example of a wider phenomenon and serves as a topical example. This article expands the scope of the work of Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, both of Toronto University, who examined the longstanding link between theories of overpopulation and climate change.[i] I argue that their thesis is also applicable to other instances of human debate, where psychological factors inhibit reason. Brexit will be our case study, being topical, but I shall refer to other examples as appropriate.

Brexit’s propositions

There are two main propositions upon which Brexiteers base their argument. The first is the loss of British sovereignty, by which they mean the right of the British electorate to determine its collective future. Traditionally, this has been the preserve of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, with an elected Parliament enacting all legislation which is then administered by the courts through criminal and civil law. These established democratic rights have been increasingly abrogated to an unelected executive in Brussels. True, there is a European Parliament to which the British electorate sends representatives, but it cannot initiate legislation, nor can it to all practical extent exercise control over the executive. The remote Brussels executive is also superior to national parliaments and imposes regulations which have to be adopted in national laws. The European Court of Justice is the supreme court, overruling national legal systems.

Being in the EU means the loss of democratic accountability for the British electorate. The Brexiteers say it is a simple matter of fact. Being out of the EU and reverting to full parliamentary accountability would be a return to long-standing democracy, which nearly everyone agrees is the best form of government.

The second major issue is arguably the lesser of the two, and that is whether Britain’s economic prospects are better in the European Union customs area, or independent from it. The empirical evidence is Britain did spectacularly well in the nineteenth century by removing all trade barriers and tariffs and having no trade agreements, owing its pre-WW1 global status almost entirely to unrestricted trade. The Brexiteers claim the economics supports the empirical, with EU trade in goods accounting for only 8% of Britain’s GDP, and declining relative to trade in goods with the rest of the world.

It is interesting to note that the Government’s economists and their supporters do not fully engage on the economic issue, with only the Brexit-supporting European Research Group (ERG) making the economic case seriously. This does not appear to be because of media focus. Rather, the economic establishment lost credibility at street-level by forecasting an economic slump in the event of Brexit. It was clear that the UK Treasury, the Bank of England, and the IMF set the inputs to their economic models in such a way that a Brexit outcome from the referendum would be dire. Instead, inward investment has increased, defying predictions that European and foreign corporations would sell up. The UK economy is now booming, despite the uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations.

In contrast with the ERG’s positive critique, the Remainers have continually resorted to scare tactics, such as claiming Calais will be shut to Dover’s shipping (denied by the Calais port authorities). They claim all flights from the UK to the EU and flights crossing EU territory will be threatened (ridiculous, being against international aviation law, and Britain’s Air Traffic Control controls transatlantic flights into Europe anyway). They claim that drugs for the NHS will be withheld (really?). And so on. All the establishment Remainers have done is resort to using fear as a substitute for debate.

Remainers have never adequately addressed the issue of democratic accountability either, presumably because they know they cannot win that debate. Instead they skirt round the issue. Logically, given the attestable facts on democracy and economics and having had two years to consider the democratic and economic issues, one would think increasing numbers of Remainers would accept their original position was untenable and revise their stance. Not so. They remain firm as ever, rather like the Vatican and its long-standing denial of Galileo’s discovery.

Six psychological factors                                      

Denial of something that is increasingly obvious must be down to human psychology. In Chapter 6 of Desrochers & Szurmak’s work, they identify six identifiable factors which we will take in turn to enhance our understanding of the psychology of debate. I list them under the following headings (they differ slightly from the original):

  • The iron triangle of crisis
  • The psychology of entrenched arguments
  • Motivated reasoning
  • The core theoretical theme
  • The anointed elite and
  • Optimism and pessimism

The iron triangle of crisis

Brexit poses a threat to the institutions which owe their existence to the continuing membership of Britain in the EU. A good example are the UK’s quangos[ii] which liaise with some 53 EU quangos in Brussels. The UK’s quangos administer EU regulations in the UK under delegation. They are politically unaccountable and can wield considerable power. Brexit, with its promise of freer markets is a fundamental threat to their existence, firstly because it will sever long-standing operational relationships with Brussels, and secondly because the quango-crats are opposed to free markets by virtue of their employment. There is also the threat to their personal employment prospects.

It is these quango-crats that are the source of some eighty government papers on the impact of a no-deal, covering a range of industries from banking to nuclear research. Each paper has deliberately presented a worse-case for disruption and costs, with no mention of potential benefits. As the essayist HL Menken put it a hundred years ago,

“…the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the population alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”[iii]

These quangos and others employ highly qualified experts to come up with independent analyses of the consequences of Brexit. The public is meant to be impressed by their apparent neutrality. It is a fair bet that none of these independent experts concede that Brexit is positive; that’s not what they are tasked to do. The quango-crats are fighting for their own survival and are vehemently defensive.

And then there’s the media, which are always quick to report a potential crisis, but not balance its reporting by forensically questioning the statist position. The quango-crats behind it all are rarely, if ever taken to task, being civil servants answerable only to ministers. Question the minister, and he merely repeats his experts’ advice, which coming from the experts goes uncontested.

Questioning is reserved for the challengers, the Brexiteers who are in the position of upstarts, the party seeking to overturn the established order. The state broadcaster, the BBC, readily points out the headline-worthy negatives spoon-fed to it by government experts. But in its “balanced reporting” it is naturally sceptical of anything Brexiteers offer in response, and their positive message can never be as newsworthy or believable as that endless series of state hobgoblins.

This trinity, this iron triangle as Desrochers and Szurmak put it, is therefore comprised of existing establishment interests, the promotion of fear of change, and media management. It is a feedback loop of career and protectionism driven by the psychology of entrenched arguments, which is our next topic.

1.    The psychology of entrenched arguments

A rational approach to absorbing and understanding new information would be to address it logically and without bias. Clearly, this does not happen. Our brains are still wired as they were in our hunter-gatherer days, when our decisions were based on a choice of fight or flight. We therefore have a natural tendency to hold onto a protected position after it becomes untenable.

Imagine being part of a community of primitive cave-dwellers and fight or flight becomes a group decision. We will support each other in uncertainty well after a crisis point has passed, breaking ranks after flight has become the only option. It is survival by inward-looking mutual defence, not attack. It is the deep psychology behind groupthink, or the psychology of entrenched arguments. It leads to the cliff-edge of crisis.

Researchers from Cornell University have examined the phenomenon.[iv] They found that “participants prefer to learn information from in-group sources and agree more with in-group members on moral and political issues”. This takes groupthink into persistence territory where the flight option has long passed, and existing views become more entrenched. Awareness of the true situation becomes compromised through self-ignorance of the flaws in the group’s knowledge and judgement. It even has a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect.[v]

To this self-ignorance can be added a group’s overestimation of its understanding of controversial issues, leading to the illusion of “understanding bias”. The more members of a group who debate an issue, the more understanding bias is reinforced. You see evidence of understanding bias in wider politics, particularly when opinions coalesce over time into different political ideologies. In America, the Democrats are as intellectually capable as the Republicans, yet the two parties have retreated into sharply differing understanding biases. We also see this with Brexit, where the establishment’s reaction to an attack on the political status quo becomes increasingly entrenched.

Entrenched arguments are reinforced by naïve realism. A naïve realist assumes he or she personally is both rational and unbiassed in the assimilation and assessment of the facts, and further assumes that those who do not reach the same conclusions are ignorant, biased or both. Naïve realism is the product of a false consensus, under which those that agree with the naïve realist are seen to be more rational than those that do not. Entrenched arguments and naïve realism become the driving force behind motivated reasoning.

2.    Motivated reasoning

We naturally believe in scientific research, assuming that all those PhDs from top universities conduct experiments for the same reasons as we were taught at school in chemistry lessons. Unfortunately, the scientific community’s motivation, in both the natural and social sciences, is not so pure. Scientists are human and need to earn a living, which is far easier to do if they go with the general confirmation bias. In the post-education world, a scientist needs a paid position, recognition and to publish frequently in respected journals. Good ideas become suppressed and poor data to back bad ideas are too frequently the result of this motivated reasoning.[vi]

It was best summed up by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University:

“Scientists in a given field may be prejudiced purely because of their belief in a scientific theory or commitment to their own findings…Prestigious investigators may suppress via the peer review process the appearance and dissemination of findings that refute their findings, thus condemning their field to perpetuate false dogma. Empirical evidence on expert opinion shows that it is extremely unreliable.”[vii]

Admittedly, Professor Ioannidis was writing about research in the natural sciences, but the methods and empirical evidence extends to the social sciences as well. It describes well the research papers published by central banks and the economist professors in universities. It is also characteristic of the opinion silos in government departments.

We even have an example of the refutation of findings this week. A professor of moral philosophy at Oxford is launching a “controversial ideas” journal where researchers can publish ideas anonymously. To quote Professor Jeff McMahan in a Daily Telegraph article on Tuesday, “There is an increasing tendency that I see within academia and outside for people to try to suppress views they don’t like and treat them as wicked and unspeakable, rather than confront those views and refute them.”

A journal of anonymous controversial ideas is a timely response to the all-pervasive political correctness at Oxford, which the university authorities are too weak to resist. It shows that at our top universities, students are quick to learn the power of managing an agenda to control their fellow students and tutors, who seem powerless to resist. These are the leaders and administrators of tomorrow, likely to deploy the same tactics when in their future careers, understanding they must take control of the agenda.

The small rebellion by Professor McMahan confirms that the peer review process is used not for the purpose for which it was designed, but to contain dissent on the campus, supporting Professor Ioannidis’ point. Motivated reasoning, such as political correctness, is all about building a core theoretical theme.

3.    The core theoretical theme

One way in which experts refute opposing evidence is by sticking to a core theoretical theme. I recall email correspondence I had with a well-known financial journalist in 2016, which ground to a halt when he declared,

“In my view, the record global savings rate (27pc) is the root cause of our problems. Some way must be found to rotate this into consumption to rebalance the global economy.”

In other words, he adheres to a core theoretical theme. He was obviously not prepared to debate why he was of the view that the record global savings rate was the root cause of our problems. We are not judging whether it is correct, only that he holds it, he assumes it. He was signalling he will not be shifted, so further debate is pointless. This is true of all state-funded economics, which this opinion reflects. Numerous papers have been written to justify this stance. But if Professor Ioannidis is right about empirical evidence showing expert opinion is extremely unreliable, and which appears to be confirmed in the fields of economics and monetary theory, it explains the closed minds to balanced debate. So long as a core theoretical theme is adhered to, it becomes almost impossible to overturn.

This journalist’s determination to stick to his core Keynesian theme is his membership card for the anointed elite.

4.    The anointed elite

We all want to belong, to make a difference, to enhance society. We know that to do so we must have influence and the best way to do that is to join and promote a cause that has the establishment’s support. There is nothing like that comforting feeling of an open invitation into the parlours of the great and the good. Well-known figures with this access use their fame and position to anoint themselves alongside the elite and continue to have a career for so long as they play the game.

The phrase was the description of the economist and political theorist, Thomas Sowell, who is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He came up with it in his pithily named 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-congratulation as a basis for social policy.

We have all come across it, even though we may not recognise the truth behind the phenomenon: the independent expert frequently called on by the media for comment in a specialist field. These experts rely on being informed by government insiders. They adopt and keep the expert mantle in their own right, but it is never made clear that they owe their media status almost entirely to their faithful projection of the elite’s intentions. If they are stupid enough to turn critic, they are immediately unanointed and they know it.

It applies to ex-politicians and media correspondents alike. If, say, a financial correspondent for a national newspaper doesn’t play along, he risks being dropped from background briefings by the elite at both the finance ministry and the central bank, while his confrères at other journals continue to be invited. “That journalist from the Daily Screech is unreliable. Best not include him in our off-the-record briefings.” The threat of exclusion is the surest way for the elite to ensure that its message is the one that prevails.

We saw this unravel when Donald Trump assumed the presidency. The anointed elite were out, along with their media cronies. Instead, President Trump is busy creating his own anointed elite, while excluding the previous elite’s favoured media from off-the-record briefings, accusing them of promoting fake news.

The anointed elite, overthrown by the relatively optimistic bullishness of President Trump, promised a relief from the pessimistic prospects of being ruled by a Clinton administration. This is our final topic.

5.    Optimists v. pessimists

The glass-half-full optimists and the glass-half-empty pessimists are not split evenly across two sides of an issue. In practice, the establishment and those with a position in society are protective and pessimistic about change, while the commercially-minded outsiders tend to take a more expansive, optimistic view.

Psychologists tell us that as humans we have two personalities. One half of us protects what we have, giving us a sense of location, property and home. The other half is a traveller in search of new vistas, foreign relationships and trade. Journalist and activist Jane Jacobs (of New York City and then Toronto) identified and described these two patterns of moral precepts as guardian and commercial syndromes.[viii]

We have a different mix of these characteristics as individuals, communities and even nations. The two syndromes show different characters, which is why some of us are adventurers and others home birds. Commercial relationships are outgoing, and honesty in business is rewarded, while guardians are protective and favour loyalty. Commercials shun force and come to voluntary agreements, while guardians shun trading and exert prowess. Commercials are collaborative, competitive and respect contracts, while guardians are exclusive, take vengeance and respect hierarchy. Commercials are open to inventiveness and novelty, while guardians expect obedience and discipline. And so on.

The commercials’ activities encompass work in making and trading, while the guardians are political leaders, administrators, educators, and upholders of the law. The two syndromes are a neat explanation for the different mindsets and social duties of the private sector compared with governments. We can also see where this split lies in the Brexit debate. It is clearly one between the Brexiteers viewing the commercial opportunities of Brexit optimistically, and the Remainers as pessimistic guardians of the status quo. It is small wonder that despite the UK Government promising to deliver Brexit, it is actually doing everything it can to compromise it.


As pointed out in Desrochers and Szurmak the longest-running consensus today, from Malthus onwards, has developed over population and climate change. This is the sole topic to which the two scientists applied their research, but it shows the psychology of debate is not just a modern phenomenon. It is also valuable for explaining other contentious human issues. One such is the Marxian question: does the state have supremacy over its people? It’s socialism versus free markets, the guardian versus commerce. Why is it we condemn national socialism and not its close cousin being pursued by the far-left? One is an entrenched core theoretical theme supported by the anointed elite, the other is not.

At the heart of it is not an imagined yin and yang of government and its people, but the conflicting ideals of the guardian state and the commercial mores of the governed. And if you think you can argue against the guardian, think again: you will be ignored. In some jurisdictions you even go to jail.

The existence and extension of state intervention is now explained from a psychological standpoint. From it follows much else. Nationalism, economics, currencies and everything the free markets have lost control over have been subsumed into a guardian’s syndrome, lost to the free will of those that pay the taxes.

It is characteristic of the pessimistic guardians that they fail to appreciate the role and importance of the progress that the commercial syndrome pursues. The econometricians and economists paid by government have even written it out of their text books. We can go even further: the guardian state dislikes progress because it means the people are escaping out of its regulatory control into new activities not foreseen. New regulations and new taxes have to be devised when business activities and their profits migrate beyond reach.

No amount of civilised debate will resolve these issues, which is a depressing thought. So long as the state sticks to its agenda, progress is restricted and turned into cyclical retrenchment by means of a government induced credit cycle. And even then, when retrenchment fails for both commerce and guardian, the guardian’s reaction is to apply more turns of the anti-progressive screw. Instead, like the leading cavemen of old, the state will seek to embraces us more tightly, so that it does not die before we do.

Eventually, the establishment gets left so far behind reality that it capitulates. It took the Vatican 359 years, the Soviets 72 years, and the Chinese 27 years. Britain’s membership of the EU and its predecessors will have been 46 years by March next year, when we have been told Brexit will be Brexit.

Capitulation often turns into a cliff-edge. In the case of the EU, will it and its currency survive the next global credit crisis? The credit crisis is a recurring event driven by central banks’ monetary policy, which is increasingly unstable and impervious to rethinking. Logic suggests it might mark the end of the British establishment’s groupthink, if Britain distances itself from a collapsing euro. Alternatively, like our caveman ancestors sticking together in the face of danger, perhaps the British establishment will embrace the EU even tighter in its hour of need.

Whatever happens, for Brexiteers seeking to overthrow the establishment view, it will require more than reasoned argument. It requires them to take control of the agenda and develop it for their objectives, a lesson they should have learned as rebellious students at university.

Bear all this in mind as the whole debate passes through yet another critical point this week.

[i] See Population Bombed! By Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, published by The Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2018

[ii] An acronym for quasi-autonomous national government organisations.

[iii] Menken (1918): In Defence of Women

[iv] Ceci and Williams (2018): Perspectives on Psychological Science: Who decides what is acceptable speech on Campus?

[vi] Kruger and Dunning (1999): Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Personal Psychology 77(6) pp 1121-1136.

[i] Philip Ball: The trouble with scientists:

[vii] JPA Ioannidis (2005): Why most published research findings are false: PLoS Med 2(8):e214

[viii] Jane Jacobs (1992): Systems of Survival.

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