Perceptions on immigration and political trust shaped Brexit vote

One explanation for Brexit suggests it reflected people’s worries about immigration. Another is that it reflected people’s distrust of the political establishment. Now new research from psychologists on peoples’ attitudes in Kent and Scotland suggests that it was the link between these two factors that was particularly important.

Researchers at the University surveyed people just before the UK Referendum vote in June 2016 and found that concern about the impact of immigration and a distrust of politicians combined to amplify feelings of threat and lack of identification with Europe in Brexit voters.

The study, led by Professor Dominic Abrams, of the School of Psychology, featured online surveys conducted with 1,000 residents of Kent, where a majority said they intended to vote to leave, and 1,000 people in Scotland, where a majority said they intended to vote to remain.

The participants were asked about their trust in politicians, their concerns about acceptable levels of immigration, feelings of threat from immigration, how much they identified as European and their voting intention.

Although a majority in Kent were pro-Brexit and a majority in Scotland were pro-Remain, in both regions researchers found that people were most likely to opt for Brexit when their feelings of threat and a lack of identification with Europe had been amplified by the combination of concern about immigration levels and distrust of politicians.

Professor Abrams suggested the findings demonstrated Theresa May’s strategy of offering voters a combination of strength and stability in the General Election ‘was understandable’ as it appealed to Brexit supporters’ ‘desire for greater political control and trustworthiness in future’.

The paper, entitled Immigration, political trust, and Brexit – Testing an aversion amplification hypothesis (Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Giovanni Travaglino), is published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.