How status anxiety fuels protests and poor decisions
The recent referendum in Britain has thrown up more questions than answers. While a small majority voted to leave the EU, no one seems to quite know why.
A lot of soul searching is taking place in the columns of the British newspapers, mostly trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong and why people would vote to exit from a union with other nations that promoted equality, free trade, a high degree of economic security and a greatly reduced risk of war.
What made them feel so bad? It would seem that referendums are a flawed means of discovering public opinion on specific issues. People tend to vote against the government of the day, rather than thinking through carefully what the issues really mean. A good example of this would be our own relatively recent referendum held in 2013 to see if the Irish people wished to abolish the Senate.
At that time, most of the people I spoke to felt that the Senate was a waste of public money and we would be better off without it. However, on the day, the majority voted to retain it. They did so not because they felt strongly on the issue, but rather to give the then government a sharp shock and as a means of protesting about matters that had nothing to do with whether we retained our Senate or not.
The same has occurred in Britain, where dissatisfaction with their government motivated the voters rather than strong feelings for or against the EU. This is, of course, dangerous stuff and the repercussions will be felt throughout Europe for many years to come.
So why do we behave in this irresponsible manner?
I found some of the answers in a great book called 'Status Anxiety' by Alain De Botton. It is a well-researched work that probes how and why we act in certain ways, by backing up theory with historical fact.
The vast majority of people would deny that they are concerned about their personal status but on the other hand, we should consider the way we behave and how we act to bolster our self-esteem.