Shaping the Modern World With a Stone-Age Brain: The Brexit Referendum and the Moral Foundations Theory


  • David S. Smith


Decision making is not always a reasoned process. It is often subject to reflexive heuristics. The Moral Foundations Theory is a popular theoretical framework that characterises political decisions by adherence to an evolutionary criterion. Based on recurrent ancestral pressures, this model anticipates our species’ tribal history has resulted in a set of intuitive ethics: Care/ Harm, Fairness/ Cheating, Loyalty/ Betrayal, Authority/ Subversion, and Sanctity/ Degradation. Focusing on the winning side, this paper analyses official communications, polling data and media coverage to explore how the Leave campaigners intentionally or unintentionally appealed to the public’s moral intuitions. In doing so, it aims to show why evolutionary psychology potentially offers a useful layer of analysis with which to understand contemporary politics.