Be careful when you label a possibility ahead of you as unimaginable: your imagination may well be tested to destruction.

ave you ever attempted to log on to a website you rarely use, only to find that the password you entered is not accepted? And if so, did you try the same password again, only with more vigour the second time (and perhaps even a third time)? I have.

The more we believe something to be true — even something as trivial as what a password is– the more we reject signs that we are wrong. We not only hang on to our conviction, we also go on to express it more forcefully. Hitting the keys harder is not going to make any difference — of course we know that. And yet we feel as it will somehow make the password be recognized after all, because we just cannot imagine that it might be wrong.

The persistent premier

I have been thinking about this kind of weird persistence as I watch British prime minister Theresa May. She has doggedly been trying to get the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (WA) she negotiated with the European Union approved by parliament, for over three months now. The plan was that it would be endorsed on 11 December 2018, well ahead of Brexit day, 29 March 2019. But after seven ministers (including the Brexit secretary himself) resigned from the government because they opposed the WA, she deferred the vote, fearing that she would be “defeated by a significant margin”. That fear was well justified. On 15 January 2019, the House of Commons voted against the agreement by 432 votes to 202. Even given the government’s wafer-thin majority — with the support of the 10 Northern-Irish Democratic Unionist Party MPs, it can only count on 326 seats of the 650 in the House — this was a truly historic defeat, the scale of which had not been seen for over 100 years.

Brexit deferred? Unthinkable, but true (foto via youtube)

Yet, just like the person who cannot believing that the password they just keyed in is wrong hammers the exact same sequence into the keyboard a second time, she tried again. And again, the agreement — with nominal and insignificant changes — was voted down in the second ‘meaningful vote’ on 12 March, this time by 391 votes to 242. Undeterred, she put it to a third vote on 29 March (the original Brexit day), promising to step down if the agreement got approved. Even that commitment was not enough: it was once more defeated, by 344 votes to 286. A government source said, without irony, “We are at least going in the right direction.” And there is now serious talk about trying for a fourth time to get it passed.

What is behind this remarkable succession of failed attempts? It has the hallmarks of someone pursuing a course of action in the belief that the alternatives are unthinkable. For Mrs May, the alternatives are revocation of Article 50 (cancelling Brexit), a long delay (which would involve holding European elections), and leaving the EU without a deal. All are unacceptable, and hence unimaginable for her.

But she is not alone in parliament with that kind of conviction. To the extreme Brexiteers, the so-called backstop to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic, incorporated in the WA, is unthinkable. It would commit the UK to maintaining Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and operating much of the rules of the Single Market in the province, until the EU agreed it was no longer necessary. On the other side, a majority of MPs decided that the “no deal” scenario, whereby the UK would leave without any agreement in place, is unthinkable — it was rejected by 400 votes to 160.

Stages of unthinkability

When we use the word unthinkable, it is often a linguistic hyperbole, an exaggeration to underscore the strength of our opinion or our belief. It is similar to wanting to avoid an undesirable outcome “at all costs”, or saying we’d “do anything” to prevent it from happening. Ands long as it is just hyperbole, or as long as there is no chance that we would actually have to take steps and literally ‘do anything’, that’s fine — strong words are part of our vocabulary.

But if we mean it, and treat courses of action or outcomes as genuinely unthinkable, reality may end up calling our bluff, and expose us as unable, unprepared, or unwilling to ‘do anything’. How does that happen?

We can look at it as different stages. In the first one, deliberately calling something we don’t want to happen ‘unthinkable’ gives us permission to envisage only a future in which it does not figure at all. The unthinkable simply won’t happen, so why then should we worry about it?

In the next stage, doubt might begin to creep in, but we can engage in what is known as motivated reasoning. We come up with reasons why the unthinkable won’t happen, or ways in which it will be averted or prevented from happening. For example, if we believe it is unthinkable that rising sea levels as a result of climate change will submerge cities like London, New York, or Shanghai, we can dismiss the science that predicts it as speculation, or we can put our faith in the resourcefulness and the human ingenuity of government and civil engineers, who will come up with a solution.

As long as it is unthinkable, we’re fine

Returning to the Brexit situation in the British parliament, we can see how this second stage plays out there. Perhaps prime minister May calculated that with her deal being the only one on the table, the hard Brexiteers may not like it, but they may be even more frightened of the prospect that Brexit is softened or even halted that they will approve it. Likewise, the proponents of a softer Brexit and the recalcitrant Remainers will prefer this deal over the prospect of a no-deal exit. Her tactics since December would certainly seem to support this analysis.

The hard-line Europhobes, however, believe that Theresa May will ultimately have to stand by the 2017 Conservative party election manifesto and deliver Brexit, without a backstop and if need be without a deal. On the other side, MPs trust that Mrs May will act in the interest of the nation, and not let a cliff edge, hard Brexit happen.

In the third stage, the reality of the unthinkable begins to dawn. Preventing the unthinkable requires taking action. The backstop is unthinkable, but so is no Brexit — so we could now see some MPs, who had previously forcefully attacked the withdrawal agreement, voting in favour. We could see Mrs May, to whom not leaving on 29 March had been unthinkable before, going to the EU and asking for an extension.

In the last stage, the bluff is finally called: how unthinkable is ‘unthinkable’ really? We’ve seen MPs reject the ‘no deal’ option by a huge majority of 240. But they will now need to decide what it does find thinkable. Against the wire, there is no time to restart negotiations with the EU to come up with an alternative deal to the current WA, and the stark reality is that only two other unthinkables remain: a long extension, or revocation of the whole Article 50 process.

The Brexit process has been costly so far: it has consumed inordinate amounts of parliamentary time, and large amounts of money have been spent by businesses and the government preparing for it. But it provides us with a salutary tale of how not to handle the unthinkable.

It is not sufficient to consider what we do not want as unthinkable. We have to say what is thinkable instead. We have to know how the thinkable alternative will be realized. And above all, we need to understand what sacrifices we will need to make to end up with the thinkable option instead of the unthinkable. It hardly bears thinking about.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on April 5, 2019.

Thank you for reading this post— I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to share it far and wide — use the Facebook and Twitter buttons nearby, click here to share it on LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. And if you would like to read more of my articles, check this link (there is a new post every Friday).

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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