British citizens who agreed that immigrants threaten their values and way of life were more likely to have voted to leave the EU, research led by Goldsmiths, University of London has found.
This xenophobia, or a fear of other groups, was a strong predictor of a ‘Brexit’ vote regardless of people's age, gender or education the study showed. It also identified the belief that the UK is so great it is entitled to privileged treatment – a belief that the researchers describe as ‘collective narcissism’ – as a new voting variable.
But the research found that people who just thought it was great to be British or simply valued their British identity were not more likely to reject immigrants or vote for Brexit.
Previously some explanations of the 2016 referendum result, in which almost 52% of British citizens who participated voted for the UK to withdraw from the EU, highlighted the role of a voter's age, gender or education in their voting behaviour. Others suggested that the Leave campaign may have mobilised xenophobic attitudes by emphasising a fear of foreigners. In fact, one study, conducted by an independent lab, showed that being exposed to the Leave campaign narrative about the UK and the EU increased British collective narcissism.
To investigate these questions further, researchers from the UK, Poland and Portugal measured the effect of xenophobia – or the belief that immigrants to the UK threaten the country – on voting behaviour. They found that this belief was strongly related to the tendency to vote in favour of Brexit and to be happy with the referendum's outcome, regardless of age, gender or education.
Led by Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, the researchers then tried to establish what kind of people believe that immigrants threaten the UK. They found three distinct groups: authoritarians, who fear other groups will threaten the traditional status quo in their country; people high in social dominance orientation, who compete for their group's dominance over immigrants; and collective narcissists, who believe the UK is so great it is entitled to privileged treatment but complain this 'true importance and value' is not recognised by other countries. Importantly, the research also found that people who just thought it was great to be British or simply valued their British identity were not more likely to reject immigrants or vote for Brexit.
Although other studies have implicated right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation in voting for radical right-wing parties because of the perceived threat of immigrants, collective narcissism has almost never been examined in the context of political behaviours such as voting.
Dr Golec de Zavala said: "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.”
The researchers caution that as the study was conducted after the Brexit referendum, it may be that the 'yes' vote increased people's xenophobia. It is clear from the research that the vote was associated with prejudice, but this relationship might have been strengthened by the outcome of the referendum because people felt more empowered to express xenophobic attitudes.
Dr Golec de Zavala said: "Collective narcissism is not a good attitude to have. If we value diversity and harmonious relations between various groups in the society, we should study how this becomes a group norm and find ways of preventing it from happening and spreading."
A report of the research, entitled ‘The Relationship between the Brexit Vote and Individual Predictors of Prejudice: Collective Narcissism, Right Wing Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation’, is published in the open access journal Frontiers in Psychology.