Brexiters told us that leaving the EU would be quick and easy and would save us £350m a week. With a chaotic no-deal looking a real possibility, however, Jacob Rees Mogg now tells us it could take 50 years to reap the benefits.
What he’s doing here is something con-men have always had to do – stopping their victim going to the police when the goods they have charged him for fail to arrive. This job is called cooling the mark out, as described (pdf) back in 1952 by Erving Goffman*:
An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.
Rees Mogg is employing the method Goffman called “stalling.” He’s saying that the goods will turn up, but just a bit later than promised and at a higher price.
The thing is, this tactic could work. It plays upon several psychological mechanisms.
One is a desire for consistency. As Robert Cialdini says:
Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. (Influence, p57)
One aspect of this is that people hate admitting even to themselves that they were wrong. They therefore look for reasons to believe their decision was a good one, and downplay evidence to the contrary. Stock market investors hold onto losing stocks in the hope they’ll break even: wishful thinking causes them to over-estimate future returns. The same wishful thinking might cause Leavers to think a chaotic Brexit will be worth it eventually.
Secondly, there’s the “if it’s expensive it must be good” syndrome. Peddlers of textbooks and financial advice play upon this by charging extortionate amounts. They do so because it works. As Dan Ariely famously showed, expensive placebos work better than cheap ones.
It’s for this reason that college societies often have humiliating initiation ceremonies. Having borne the cost of joining the society, you value its membership more highly (pdf).
Relatedly, there’s the “ikea effect”. We tend to value things more highly if we have struggled for them; the home-assembled bookcase looks better than the factory-made one.
In this way, the very fact that Brexit is initially expensive might actually sustain support for it. People will think “if it’s this much trouble, it must be worth having.”
And here’s the thing. A clever con-man can exploit these mechanisms and extort even more money from the mark. He can play the ancient Spanish prisoner (or advance-fee) con. The goods have been held up on route, he’ll say, and a small extra payment will release them.
In the Brexit context, this extra fee might well consist of labour market deregulation. To take advantage of the new trading opportunities outside the EU, they’ll say, we must be as competitive as possible.
It’s no coincidence that so many Brexiters such as Dominic Raab are also de-regulators.
Nor, perhaps, is it a coincidence that so many of them act just like con-men.
* Hat tip to Dan Davies’ superb Lying For Money.