Brexit strongly linked to xenophobia, scientists conclude

‘I think the Leave campaign gave a new, acceptable way to express xenophobia’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Monday 27 November 2017 17:52 GMT
Personality traits that indicate prejudice have been linked to support for Brexit
Personality traits that indicate prejudice have been linked to support for Brexit (Getty)

Fear of immigrants and foreigners is associated with support for Brexit, according to a pair of studies conducted by an international team of researchers.

Results of the two studies presented in the same paper suggest that psychological predictors of xenophobia were strongly linked with voting to leave the EU and support for the outcome of the referendum.

These findings were true regardless of voter age, gender or education.

Stand Up To Racism protest in Croydon

The association between widespread xenophobia and Brexit has been discussed extensively both in the run up to the referendum, and in the time that has elapsed since.

In research for the paper, the team wanted to examine the extent to which prejudice was actually associated with support for the referendum’s outcome. They began by identifying psychological groups associated with xenophobic views.

“There are three groups that we can differentiate that are supportive of those sorts of views,” said Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, a social psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the lead author of the Frontiers in Psychology paper.

Two of these personality traits are commonly used as predictors of prejudice, and have previously been implicated in voting for radical right-wing parties.

These were right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation – the idea that one’s group needs to fight for superiority in the world.

The third is a particular focus of Dr Golec de Zavala’s research, a trait known as “collective narcissism” – a belief in the unparalleled greatness of one’s country.

“From Brexit, Trump and support for Vladimir Putin in Russia to the nationalist, ultra- conservative government in Poland, studies from our and other labs show that collective narcissism systematically predicts prejudice, aggression and a tendency to interpret innocent behaviours as provocation to the national group," said Dr Golec de Zavala.

Dr Golec de Zavala and her collaborators then looked at the relationship between these three predictors and attitudes towards immigrants and the EU.

The first study took place shortly after the EU referendum, and it consisted of an online questionnaire of 280 participants who had voted in it. The second study involved 226 people and took place after the Government announced support for a “hard” Brexit option in September 2016.

They found that the three personality traits they examined were independently related to xenophobia and support for Brexit.

Though xenophobia has often been cited as a key factor in the referendum result, many have emphasised the multifaceted nature of Brexit.

“It’s not helpful to look for one answer for why people voted for Brexit. There are obviously lots of different reasons for why people voted remain or leave, including sovereignty, immigration, protest vote or local issues,” said Dr Hannah Jones, a sociologist at the University of Warwick who was not involved in the study.

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That said, Dr Jones said she was “not surprised by this finding,” as “the perceived threat of immigrants is something that has been fostered by successive governments”.

Home Office campaigns such as the controversial ‘go home’ vans have been accused of playing into people’s fears around immigration.

“The received wisdom around Westminster is that you can’t talk to people about the pros and cons of immigration, you have to take fear of immigration as a given,” she said.

A spike in hate crime over the past year has been attributed by some groups to tensions that have followed the Brexit vote.

"The Brexit referendum seems to have led to a further rise in 'anti-foreigner' sentiment,” said Christian Ahlund, chair of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

“What people see is acceptable, they do,” agreed Dr Golec de Zavala.

However, she notes that the traits she described in these studies tended to be more permanent fixtures of people’s personalities.

“People have those sorts of beliefs in a more or less stable way. That would mean that they had them before Brexit. Those attitudes were made salient by the Leave campaign, and were more likely to mobilise these people. “

“Personally I think the Leave campaign gave a new, acceptable way to express xenophobia,” said Dr Golec de Zavala.

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