International Debate

Multiplying Social Divisions: The Psychology of Us, Them and Rivalrous Cohesion Following the EU Referendum International Debate
A quick quiz: What do you see here - the end of captivity of he shattering on links keeping us together?

Multiplying Social Divisions: The Psychology of Us, Them and Rivalrous Cohesion Following the EU Referendum

July 14, 2016 1656

Beaking chain

A quick quiz: What do you see here – the end of captivity or the shattering of links that kept us cohesive?

Social psychology unequivocally tells us that the best antidote to prejudice and group-based self-interest is to build bridges, links and, above all, positive social contact between members of different groups.  The European Union referendum decision means that this is an antidote we would do well to produce in large doses and as quickly as possible.

As well as beginning the long and painful divorce with the EU, the United Kingdom is also entering a social space with very different, and very worrying, characteristics. This is a future dominated by rivalrous cohesion – a key theme in the Centre for the Study of Group Processes‘ academic research for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (PDF here). Rivalrous cohesion is a situation in which ‘ingroup’ solidarity and identity is forged by hardening intergroup rivalry, mistrust and hatred. Rivalrous cohesion is particularly likely to occur when times are hard and when people’s sense of control, status and identity are all under threat (sound familiar?). It encourages a ‘winner takes all’ mentality. Inevitably, ‘all’ typically turns out to be much less than it could be. Everyone loses.

The referendum campaign and its result have promoted deepening conflict and competition between different groups. They have embedded rivalrous cohesion in the narrative of almost every discussion and policy decision.  It is situation in which identities become increasingly defined by intergroup conflict4. These forces threaten to divide us socially, economically and physically. Rivalrous cohesion is apparent on many fronts.

First, and most obviously, news coverage is already depicting the EU as an exploitative combatant that will do its best to ensure the UK gets a ‘bad deal’, in order to demonstrate the UK’s folly in leaving.

Second, leaving the EU also creates space for narratives about multiple ‘enemies within’. The pro-remainers and pro-leavers have marked out strongly different visions of the society they want, signposting years of political polarisation around issues of migration and human rights. Increased levels of intercultural persecution within the UK are a significant risk in the years ahead. Worryingly, for Europeans who live and work in Britain, their legitimacy as citizens may perpetually be questioned by others if it can no longer be taken for granted that those from all EU countries have a right to live and work in the UK. We are keenly aware of many non-British academics in UK universities who describe their anxiety and dejection about their voice, rights and security in the years to come. The same concerns may affect employees of internationally orientated organisations of many types.

Third, there is the possibility of hardening of regional battles and claims. Scotland’s vision of its future poses a direct political and economic challenge to the rest of the UK. If Scotland seeks a further mandate for independence this will further hardening the schism with England that was already widened following the Scottish independence referendum. Should Scotland also try to remain within the EU, the UK will have to accommodate two tiers of British citizen – those with and without EU rights and opportunities. Bizarre economic incentives might follow for companies and institutions to relocate from London to Scotland. Even if Scotland remains within an exited UK, it is likely to demand compensation for the loss of EU revenue by claiming even greater support from the overall UK budget. Unless concerted efforts are made, there are no obvious prospects for stopping the deepening of social and political divides between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Wales could also be afflicted as it seeks to ‘retain’ the equivalent of its EU subsidy – a demand that now creates a direct conflict of interests with England and the rest of the UK, particularly if the UK government is strapped for cash, and if it continues its current preference for tax cuts over strategic expenditure.

Fourth, if there are growing divisions within the UK the effects will be felt most strongly and will last longest for today’s young people. This fact raises the spectre of another type of schism — an enduring period of intergenerational conflict. Young people already report experiencing more discrimination (of all types) than any other group. Prior to the referendum, parliament rejected the opportunity to extend the vote to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the government’s recent requirement that students must re-register on the electoral register every academic year helped to exclude many. The referendum was also held just at the end of university terms – a time at which it was quite likely that many students would be busy with exams, not be able to vote where they were registered, or may have been travelling.  The older generations have wielded their numerical power in this referendum and have determined a future that most younger people did not wish for. If one looks around the world, it is often younger people who mobilise to join groups that try to change established political structures. Distancing younger people from older generations is likely to increase rather than reduce their rivalrous cohesion against the system, and is potentially a path to political upheaval.

There are other ways in which the timing and preparation for this referendum did not chime with ambitions for an inclusive, cohesive, tolerant and dynamic society. The vote coincided with the opening stage of the UEFA European Championship. The question in the forefront of most people’s minds (at least regarding sport) – how can we defeat our European rivals? As a psychological prime for ‘Brexit’ it would be hard to come up with something better.

The lack of unity and clarity in the Remain campaign, signalling uncertainty over their common purpose, and clear reluctance amongst different political parties to share the same stage until very late on, was another symptom of the woes of rivalrous cohesion – divided we fall. And even those leading the Leave campaign rapidly succumbed to their internal battles. The loss of face for leaderships of both the Conservative and Labour parties plunged both into dwelling on their deeper internal schisms, creating even more distance between the voter-at-large and those at the top of the political tree.

And what of the university world? It seems that universities themselves were not particularly persuasive in most of the towns and cities they inhabit, raising the question of why the voices of ‘experts’ were so faint or were so easily disregarded. Perhaps this owed much to the public’s skepticism toward ‘experts,’ a skepticism strategically reinforced by Michael Gove and others in the Leave campaign. Perhaps it reflected the civil service-like reticence of our public institutions to ‘take sides’. But not everything is just a matter of debate. Sometimes the correct answer is obvious and it is our responsibility to say so. Universities individually, as well as collectively, could clearly have done more to defend the value of expertise.

In a Brexited world, things will clearly be different for UK academics. The prospects for research are uncertain. For UK-based academics involved in Horizon 2020 and other EU programmes, this atmosphere of uncertainty and perhaps betrayal may find their EU partners reaching to find more secure and dependable leaders of projects, while their non-EU partners may be wary of ‘siding’ with UK researchers and the risk of offending others across the EU. Quite what the position will be on student loans and tuition fees in Scotland and Wales seems very unclear. Unless Wales and Scotland opt for the same tuition fees regime as England, a situation that already has created inflexibility and lack of mobility of UK students across these internal borders looks like becoming even more entrenched.

Although academics cannot change the result of the referendum, we should work to find ways to prevent it from turning into a social and human disaster. We will need a strong voice and to insist that we are heard by government. We cannot assume that our practices, procedures and ethos – most of which are strongly underpinned by principles and laws developed within an EU framework – will remain intact or unchallenged. We will not be able to rely on the wisdom of EU science consensus as the context for good use of evidence in policy decisions or research strategy. We cannot assume that a market that is about to be ‘opened up’ in HE will be as well defined and well protected as at present. Above all, we will need to work together as a coherent system to avoid descending in to our own brand of rivalrous cohesion.



Abrams, D. (2010). Processes of prejudice: Theory, evidence and intervention. Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Research Report 56 (118 pp). London, EHRC. ISBN 978 1 84206 270 8.

Abrams, D. (2016). In pursuit of harmonious cohesion. The Psychologist, 29 (2), 111-112., and

3 Abrams, D., & Vasiljevic, M. (2013). DR11. What happens to people’s identities when the economy is suffering or flourishing? Driver Report to Government Office of Science, Future of Identity programme,. (29pp). [Full report]

4 Abrams, D., & Vasiljevic, M.D. (2014). How does macroeconomic change affect social identity (and vice versa?): Insights from the European context?, Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy (pp 1-28). doi: 10.1111/asap.12052



Dominic Abrams, FBPS, FAcSS, FBA, is professor of social psychology and director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the School of Psychology at the University of Kent. He is currently vice president (social sciences) of the British Academy and editor of the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. Giovanni A. Travaglino, PhD, is research associate at the centre.

View all posts by Dominic Abrams and Giovanni A. Travaglino

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