Brexit Stage Left: Cultural Cognitive Model Fail

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Author’s note: I am simulposting this post both at LinkedIn Pulse and at Bowlby Less Traveled.

By now you probably have heard that the UK voted to leave the EU or the European Union. This decision now goes by the name Brexit, which is short for British Exit. Pundits are speculating that the Brexit vote represents a vote against such things as immigration policies and globalization, and for such things as a renewed sense of nationalism. Just the other day Alan Greenspan—Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006—told reporters that the Brexit vote is just the “tip of the iceberg.” I take this to mean that we can expect other such votes or referendums. With apologies to Snagglepuss, I’d like to frame the Brexit vote (and other such votes to come) as an indication that current cultural cognitive models are failing: Brexit stage left.

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of John Bowlby’s work in the area of attachment theory. In specific, I’m drawn to Bowlby’s work because of his focus on what he calls Inner Working Models. I tend to use the term Inner Working Cognitive Models because it’s a bit more descriptive. The idea is rather simple: Somewhere stored in our brains is a cognitive map or model. And, yes, we use this cognitive map or model to navigate the world, especially the world of social relations. Bowlby put forth the idea that an early history of safe and secure attachment relationships helps to develop (if all goes well) an open and adaptive Inner Working Model. Conversely, an early history of insecure attachment helps to develop a closed and rigid Inner Working Model. Sadly, Bowlby’s focus on Inner Working Models is an often overlooked aspect of his work. I’m a former field geologist who did a lot of geologic mapping, so I’m fascinated by the idea that we have a map or model in our heads. Actually, there are entire disciplines that, in large part, study cognitive maps. These disciplines go by such names as spatial cognition, cognitive mapping, and wayfinding behavior. [1] These disciplines bridge between such areas as geography, psychology, and cognitive science. Interestingly, such critters as bees, birds, and humans use Inner Working Models to navigate their respective worlds. But there’s one group of researchers who really fascinate me: cultural cognitive model mappers.

Back in the 1990s, a group of researchers led mainly by historian Robert Artigiani, cognitive researcher Vilmos Csanyi, and systems theorist Ervin Laszlo, developed the idea that there are such things as cultural cognitive models. Simply, cultural cognitive models or maps allow individuals to build bridges to social, political, and economic worlds. I find this to be a fascinating idea because what it says is that cognitive models fall on a continuum that holds the individual on one end, and large collective worlds on the other. When you think about it, this is not such an earthshaking idea: myths and religions have been bridging between individual and collective worlds for ages now. What the above researchers do is to critically and analyticalally evaluate cultural cognitive models over the ages. As you might intuitively guess, when cultural cognitive models or maps are effective as far as mapping individual experience to collective experience, life is good. But when they fail, here are some of the trends that pop up on the scene:

  • people tenaciously clinging to the old model that is in the process of failing
  • people actively working to identify and bring about a new model
  • people digging up and embracing models from the past that may have worked in an earlier place and during an earlier time
  • people embracing the chaos and confusion as some type of liberating nurturing rain

Conservative social critic Christopher Lasch talks about some of the above trends in his 1979 book entitled The Culture of Narcissism—American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. On the trend of “embracing the chaos and confusion,” Lasch writes, “The New Age movement has revived [the old cultural cognitive model of] Gnostic theology in a form considerably adulterated by other influences and mixed up with imagery derived from science fiction—flying saucers, extraterrestrial intervention in human history, escape from the earth to a new home in space.” I cannot help but think that the current fascination with anything smacking of superheros fits this New Age mold. Lasch continues, “New Age spirituality may take strange shapes, but it is a prominent feature of our cultural landscape, like fundamentalism itself, which has grown steadily in recent years.” One only has to look at the Middle East to see the growth of fundamentalism.

So, all this to say that Brexit stage left may be about crumbling cultural cognitive models. If this is true then we should expect to see such things as:

  • people clinging to the crumbling model
  • people searching for a new model
  • people reactivating old models from the past
  • people framing chaos and confusion as some sort of liberation

My best wishes to those people searching for a new model. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that Bowlby recognized that Inner Working Models can take on collective form when he suggested that Inner Working Models can be passed along from generation to generation transgenerationally as Bowlby put it.


[1] The best book I know of that talks about how and why Inner Working Models are formed is one by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio entitled Self Comes to Mind—Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010).

Further Reading:

Csanyi, V. (2005). If dogs could talk—Exploring the canine mind. New York: North Point Press.

Downs, R. & Stea, D. (Eds.). (1973). Image and environment—Cognitive mapping and spatial behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Esser, A. (Ed.). (1971). Behavior and environment—The use of space by animals and men. Proceedings of an International Symposium held at the 1968 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Dallas, TX. New York: Plenum Press.

Golledge, R. (Ed.). (1999). Wayfinding behavior—Cognitive mapping and other spatial processes. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kitchin, R. & Blades, M. (2002). The cognition of geographic space. London: I.B. Tauris.

Lasch, C. (1979). The culture of Narcissism—American life in an age of diminishing expectations. NY: Norton.

Laszlo, E., Artigiani, R., Combs, A. and Csanyi, V. (1996). Changing visions—Human cognitive maps: past, present, and future. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Laszlo, E. and Masulli, I. (Eds.). (1993). The evolution of cognitive maps—New paradigms for the twenty-first century. The World Futures General Evolution Studies, Vol. 5. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Nisbett, R. (2003). The geography of thought—How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why. New York: Free Press.