Cultural anxiety, Brexit and the general election

In my last post I asked the question of how we can best find and create meaning in our lives. In particular I focused in on two trends — Brexit and the Fourth Industrial Revolution — as examples of phenomena transforming the traditional means with which most people have created meaning in their lives, namely through a shared worldview with others.

In the second post in this series I explore this further by bringing in concepts from social psychology and applying them again to Brexit but also the forthcoming general election. In doing so I aim to build the argument for the role of social innovation in helping people find meaning in changing times.

The existential malaise of modern capitalism

The continuation of capitalism is predicated on the notion that it is the best system we’ve yet devised to give and sustain meaning in life. Atomisation, competition and diversification (among other features) means that as a system, capitalism has long facilitated the ability among the majority of us to pursue our own individual interests and goals whilst being able to reference some higher level objectives (such as improved productivity and profit, as these are linked to living standards).

Yet increasingly we are witnessing repeated system failures in capitalist societies, giving rise to a substantial number of people who no longer see it as an economic and political system (as currently conceived at least), that provides them with the ability to live life to the fullest. In the U.K. we’ve already seen the implications of this politically, with the surge of movements such as UKIP and Momentum and events such as Brexit. We’ve also seen it in the States with Bernie Sanders and of course Trump-with his vision for a more nationalist economic policy, and (despite the results) we’ve seen this sentiment echoed in other Western countries too, such as France and the Netherlands.

One explanation for this trend is that few of us like sudden, disruptive change. Yet change is now a consistent feature of modern capitalist societies, which are characterised by rapid technological developments and a reliance on migration in the pursuit of economic growth (among other things). The modus operandi of modern capitalism, and political systems based upon it, requisites constant, disruptive change. The current political economy is therefore out of sync with what we as human being require to find meaning in our lives.

Shaping the future by understanding the past

Disruptive changes call into question our worldview. And when this is called into question, the meaning and purpose of our whole lives is thrown into doubt.

You can see how this manifests politically on both sides of the Brexit divide. On the ‘Remain’ side, many people suddenly become very passionate about an institution they may have taken for granted for many years. They don’t want a change to their worldview of Britain as a European country. Yet even on the ‘Leave’ side — the instigators of a sudden, disruptive change — fewer voters seemed to be calling for a brand new vision for the country than those seeking to return to a previous version of Britain (as inferred by Chart 1).

Chart 1: Relationship between voting Leave and agreement with the statement ‘Things in Britain were better in the past’

Source: British Election Study 2016

Events such as Brexit necessitate developing a deeper understanding of how people understand the world and interact with it. This is something I have learnt again and again through my work in social research, community development and latterly, design. Yet it is all too often overlooked in conversations about political economy. It is only then that we can begin to better understand and account for people’s reactions to developments and certain events, as well as predict the impact of future shocks and disruptions, such as the huge technological developments currently gathering momentum. This understanding should therefore be central to any attempts to affect structural change to the economy through social innovation.

The cultural anxiety buffer

If the current general election campaigning has highlighted anything, it’s that everyone has their own particular view of the world. While it’s relatively simple to see the differences in worldview between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn for instance, it can be more difficult to spot the differences in worldview between people on the street, though of course there will be many. For example, lots of people are proud and very supportive of the NHS, and it will likely be one of key domestic policy issues people consider at the polls in June. But when it comes to the question of how it should be run and paid for, you start seeing lots of differences within this group of NHS supporters, with some people supportive of a rise in national insurance contributions and income tax, and others likely to argue for increased competition within the healthcare system to raise standards, necessitating greater private sector involvement. Effectively you have people applying multiple worldviews — from neoliberalism to social democracy — to achieve a similar goal. The assumption of a common goal can therefore obfuscate these fundamental differences, and this is an important point for those interested in social innovation to reflect on. While there may be agreement on the end goals, not everyone has the same definition of what a ‘better world’ looks like.

Despite the inconsistencies between individuals and even within an individual’s own outlook, social psychology suggests that a key way we understand the world is through shared ‘cultural worldviews’ with others. A cultural worldview is defined as “a set of beliefs about the nature of reality shared by groups of individuals that provides meaning, order, permanence, stability, and the promise of literal and/or symbolic immortality to those who live up to the standards of value set by the worldview”. Obvious examples include religion and political ideologies, and even if there are subtle differences between adherents to these worldviews, these can help create a sense of order and structure in a world which otherwise defaults towards entropy.

Worldviews therefore have a useful social function, as they contribute to self-esteem (defined as “one’s belief regarding how well one is living up to the standards of value prescribed by the worldview”). Through a shared cultural worldview with others, we’re able to assess how well we are personally living up to the standards expected. This helps us construct meaning in our lives and create a sense of purpose. As an approach to problem solving, social innovation also certainly fulfils this criteria.

Taken together these two concepts — the cultural worldview and self-esteem — are referred to as ‘the cultural anxiety buffer’, protecting us from a life otherwise devoid of meaning. Social psychologists argue that, as the anxiety buffer is socially constructed, individuals are highly dependent upon each other for validation (to boost and maintain self-esteem) and for maintaining their cultural worldview (to retain an overall sense of purpose and objectives). To avoid the abyss staring back into us, we need a sense of direction and the occasional shot in the arm.

Consequently, the theory posits that a great deal of individual and social behaviour is directed toward preserving faith in the cultural world view and self-esteem. When faced by threats to our identities, strengthening our worldview or self-esteem makes us less prone to anxiety. Conversely, any weakening of these structures makes us more prone to exhibit anxiety or anxiety-related behaviour in response to threats. This theory thus enables us to explain the differing responses of Left and Right to the same event.

In the UK, the Conservative party have arguably strengthened their worldview in response to the actual and perceived economic threats started by the 2008 recession and accentuated by Brexit, putting in place a range of policies which they hope will make capitalism function better. As a result their self-esteem probably couldn’t be higher at the moment, thanks to the absence of further recession to date and some signs of growth. Conversely the Labour party has largely sought to reassert itself as the champion of the welfare state, though clearly exhibits anxiety-related behaviour in terms of how the recession, Brexit (and election defeats) have undermined its raison d’être.

The backfire effect

So when faced with threats to our view of the world, we’ll more than likely redouble efforts to find evidence that supports our own worldview and undermines that of others (this is also one of the reasons it’s pointless having arguments online). This is known as ‘the backfire effect’. For instance before the referendum, much was made of the economic case for and against remaining in the EU. Immediately after the referendum, there was a huge scramble for evidence to vindicate either side’s position. You can also even see this anxiety reflected in the need to call the upcoming general election too — the Prime Minister wants to enter Brexit negotiations with a stronger mandate from the electorate, who she is effectively asking to endorse her worldview. The nature of elections also means that in the process, the electorate will be discrediting the worldview of other parties, providing her with an expanded pool of evidence validating her own perspective of reality.

The mortality salience hypothesis

If our worldview provides us with psychological protection from an otherwise unfair and unpredictable world, then it figures that when its legitimacy is questioned, we’re going to respond in one of two ways. Firstly, as described above, we’re going to reiterate our belief in our worldview and surround ourselves as much as possible with others who believe the same (more on this in a later post). Secondly, we’re also going to take more of negative view of people whose behaviour, beliefs, or mere existence impinges on that worldview (e.g. such as those who don’t believe in God or the legitimacy of the Queen). A strengthened positive evaluation of those who support our worldview, and an enhanced negative evaluation of those who deviate from our worldview, maintains or increases our faith in that worldview. Therefore social psychologists hypothesise that ‘mortality salience’ — namely, events which create uncertainty and ultimately remind us of our mortality — amplify our preferences for connecting with worldview-supporting others over worldview-challenging.

The constant changes characteristic of modern capitalism (of which I will write more about soon) effectively act as mortality salience events. Often these can be life and worldview affirming, though when they impinge on the socio-political fabric of a society, they can trigger mass anxiety.

Lessons for social innovation

I think this has important implications for anyone trying to ‘create change’ using the tools in the social innovation toolbox. Firstly, there’s clearly a need for a new vision of capitalism which does not hold up economic growth as the only and ultimate goal in life. In the pursuit of ever increasing profits and productivity gains, our current economic system is continuously and increasingly running roughshod over the mechanisms by which people create meaning in their lives. This triggers cultural anxiety and furthers socio-political disruption, with an increasingly alienated and aimless population ultimately counterproductive to the goals of economic growth and prosperity.

This brings me to my second lesson — the need for a clearer alternative, which is better defined and codified. Lots of people in the social innovation space talk about ‘changing the world for the better’ (myself included), but are rarely able to articulate what this end goal looks like or the baseline against which they are measuring their progress. In effect, social innovation needs a clearer worldview. But more than this, there’s a need to bring others on board with this ambition, which will most likely require demonstrating how it will improve their lives and security.

This leads to the third and perhaps most important point — building the evidence base to validate this worldview. But importantly this doesn’t mean retrofitting and/or stringing together piecemeal ‘alternative facts’ to support your existing worldview. It requires regularly reflecting on the objective reality most people are facing daily, absorbing that learning and iterating your delivery, policies and processes in response, whilst keeping on track towards your desired end goal. It is only then that we can start moving towards economic and political systems which treat people as something more than automatons — as humans.

In my next post I will be looking into the role networks play in creating and sustaining worldviews, and the lessons this can offer for social innovation.

Social researcher and writer. Putting theory into practice, to make the world a better place.