Headlines 2016

Explaining Brexit and why we don’t understand our opponents


Jonathan Haidt, New York University, at a seminar in Stockholm organized by IFN. Photo: Bosse Johansson.

Psychology is crucial to understanding today's society, explained Professor Jonathan Haidt, Stern School of Business at New York University, during a breakfast seminar in Stockholm. He commented on Brexit and said that mass immigration and the multi-cultural urban elite's positive attitude towards immigration means that more and more people will join the ranks of conservative ideas. Aida Hadzialic, Minister for Upper Secondary School and Adult Education and Training, explained that the government must respect the people's sentiments – 70% of Swedes are concerned about immigration. They believe that basic Swedish values are threatened. Hadzialic added that "we must build a national identity that includes everybody".


To the general public Jonathan Haidt is most well-known for his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In both the book and his research he focuses mainly on morality in politics. In his speech in Stockholm, he explained the principles of moral psychology:

Intuition comes first, and reasoning comes only in second place, Haidt explained. A conclusion is therefore that facts and reasoning rarely can convince a person to change his or her mind.

“We reason to find justification for what we want to do or say in order to persuade others.” Haidt explained that, the way we all work, you only need to find one piece of evidence to support your cause, and then you are done.

In The Righteous Mind you can read about six intuitive principles of morality (our “moral taste buds"): Care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. “We are designed for care and nurturing, and this system is very clearly evident in left wing movements.”


Jonathan Haidt, professor at the Stern School of Business, NYU, has written the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Photo: Bosse Johansson.


Haidt explained that leftist politicians often see fairness as equality, which in turn is linked to compassion. In contrast, people on the right of the political spectrum see fairness in proportionality which means “no free riders, no slackers or cheaters”. In this context Haidt mentioned the Law of Karma saying that if you are lazy you should suffer. And if the government bails you out things are “out of whack”. For example, if a group gets something without giving anything back this is seen as harmful. The conservatives also see authority as something positive, opposed to the left-wing.
Overall, explained Haidt, left leaning people primarily base their intuitions on the intuitions care as well as fairness and to some extent liberty. But they reject authority and sanctity.

He explained that that’s why we see so many left-wing Americans welcoming immigrants to the US. “There are groups that help people to illegally enter the United States. For them it is a question of compassion.”
Right-wing people, on the other hand, base their intuitions of fairness, freedom (national sovereignty), loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Last but not least Jonathan Haidt writes in his book that “morality binds and blinds”.



Haidt has in his research studied the vast differences between people's opinions in major cities and in the countryside. Photo: Bosse Johansson.


Jonathan Haidt divides people into four psychological groups. He explains what these different groups see as "sacred".

  • Progressives: focus on victims; fighting racism etc.
  • Liberals/Libertarians: liberty (free markets).
  • “Status quo” conservatives: God, country, traditions (this group will ally itself with the authoritarians only when something is perceived as a normative threat. "They are not selfish but moral guardians, as they see it.")
  • Authoritarians: Moral cohesion and order is in focus.

Haidt has in his research noted that there are large differences between opinions of people living in large cities and others living in rural areas. During the seminar in Stockholm Haidt showed a graph where the difference was huge between those who were for and against Brexit in the City of London and elsewhere in the country.

Against the background of the British referendum and yes to Brexit Jonathan Haidt concluded his lecture by giving the background to what is happening in today's Western democracies:

1) Successful capitalism creates prosperity.

2) Prosperity attracts mass immigration.

3) Prosperity shifts urban elite toward hyper-tolerance, sacralizing victims, pro-immigration.

4) Immigration, plus elite multi-culturalism, activates authoritarians.

5) When authoritarians attract status-quo conservatives, they often become the majority.

This is what happened in the UK with Brexit.



From left is seen Aida Hadzialic, Minister for upper secondary school and adult education and training, Magnus Henrekson, Professor and Managing Director IFN, Johan Hakelius, Editor in Chief Fokus, Lotta Gröning, Historian and Columnist Expressen, Jonathan Haidt, Professor NYU, and Niklas Ekdal, writer and commentator, moderated the seminar. Photo: Bosse Johansson.


Have we reached a turning point, Niklas Ekdal asked. Yes, said Haidt and continued:

“It's about the cosmopolitan global elite who do not understand nationalism, tribalism and dismiss it as racism. Those tensions have been simmering and popping up all across the western world and at some point they had to boil.”

Haidt believes that people on the right of the political spectrum can understand those who are left. They are exposed to left-wing ideas and can understand it. But people on the left side of the scale can’t understand people on the right. They are not exposed to right-wing ideas and reject what exposure they have.

Jonathan Haidt explained that he can’t dismiss the Brexit-followers as crazy irrational people, “as an American I love Europe but find EU to be a disturbing creation”.



Photo: Bosse Johansson.


In the panel the following joined Jonathan Haidt:

  • Aida Hadzialic, Minister for Upper Secondary School and Adult Education and Training
  • Lotta Gröning, Historian and Columnist Expressen
  • Magnus Henrekson, Professor and Managing Director IFN, Research Institute of Industrial Economics
  • Johan Hakelius, Editor in Chief Fokus

Niklas Ekdal, writer and commentator, moderated the seminar.

In the media about the seminar (in Swedish):

Column on the editorial page, Svenska Dagbladet

The Axess blog

Editorial page in Dagens Industri

Editorial page in Dagens Nyheter

About the seminar in Svensk Tidskrift magazine

Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Grevgatan 34 - 2 fl, Box 55665, SE-102 15 Stockholm, Sweden | Phone: +46-(0)8-665 45 00 | info@ifn.se