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identity & the Scottish independence debate…

These are historic times for Scotland, and the people of the United Kingdom. Depending on our views, opinions and beliefs, we will be variously watching the outcome of Thursday’s independence referendum with a mixture of hope or dread, optimism or pessimism, confidence or anxiety. And although some in the UK may be indifferent, few would argue that this process has been anything less than a hugely engaging, invigorating and interesting time for Scottish (and British) politics.

Speaking both as a Psychologist and as someone who has lived and worked in Scotland his whole life, and who will be voting on Thursday, I can only say that this has been a fascinating journey for me that has stirred me on both an emotional and rational level. I know I am not alone. At points I have felt frustrated, excited, dismayed, overjoyed, bored, annoyed & angry, upset, and filled with hope and anxiety in equal measure. I have often been confused and lost in the detail of the various arguments and counter-arguments. Goodness knows what lies in store after Thursday. It really has been a hotbed of thoughts and feelings, and, at this point, with the race to the winning post too close to call, I can literally feel a knot of anticipation in my stomach. The sensation is not a million miles away from that which I’ve experienced before in the build up to a cup final.

For the record, I am currently undecided on which way I will vote. Many people feel the same, and whilst such procrastination may have given us all sleepless nights, it has also created a feeling of empowerment, and the sense of a personal stake in the future of this small country that few of us have ever experienced previously. Our votes count, and it feels good!

On a purely psychological level, it is worth drawing out a point from the debate that I have found interesting and challenging – the role of identity.

Identity is an important variable for us as individuals in amongst all of this, that has influenced how we may have aligned ourselves and in the way in which we will ultimately make our decisions. Although it has grabbed less of the headlines than other elements of the debate, I actually think that it is one of the most important factors of all.

We all have an identity or sense of self of some description (however loose or ill defined that might be) – it is part of what makes us human. We form and develop our identity through both child and adulthood experiences, and through contact with ‘significant others’ - parents, siblings, family, friends, peer group etc. Although it is quite a difficult concept to pin down, as far as we understand it a person’s identity will tend to be quite stable over time, although obviously prone to influence and change in relation to circumstance. Exactly how much of an individual’s identity is wrapped up in their country or sense of nationhood will vary from person to person, but the Scottish independence debate will certainly have brought this into much sharper focus for those of us involved.

Personally, I’ve found it challenging and quite confusing at times. Do I identify myself as more Scottish, or British? Perhaps I am both in equal measure. Can I abandon one for the other? I am not quite talking existential crisis here, but the referendum debate has certainly made me stop, think, and assess where I am at, and where I am likely to be in the very near future. I’m not sure I have arrived at a clear answer yet. Pass me the whisky, please…

Another thing to consider is the influence identity has over our perceptions of the debate. This will be affecting many of us, whether we are aware of it or not. Because identity sits at the heart of who we are, it has the capacity to guide and influence how we interpret data. For example, someone with a very strong Scottish identity will sense, assess and appraise information relating to the independence debate in a very different way from someone with a strong British identity. Psychologists refer to these kinds of tendencies as ‘confirmation biases’, and they are really powerful influencers over behaviour. They can make for entrenched viewpoints and difficult-to-change opinions, and, in extremis, they will cause people will filter out, selectively ignore or discount evidence that sits contrary to their side of the argument in order to confirm their own world view. I know these things because I did it myself for a while. I started off as a firm No voter, and for a long spell I would generally scoff at, criticise, or disengage from near enough any line of communication from anyone associated with the Yes camp. It’s changed over time though, and at points in the past week I have even found myself doing the same the other way round.

Every now and again I have found it helpful to try and be mindful of such biases in my thinking whilst making an appraisal of the facts of the debate. It’s really hard though, and I know others will feel the same - it’s not like you can just set your identity to one side. And of course, looking forwards, there is going to be a winner and loser in this referendum, and whichever direction we choose, it’s going to be damn hard for those who identify with the option we reject.

As I say, these political times could not get any more interesting for us Scots. Bring on the 18th...

Yours in psychology,


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