The Role of Cognitive Ability in the Brexit Referendum


On June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom delivered a historic verdict by voting to leave the European Union in a contentious referendum. The surprising outcome, with 51.9% supporting the Leave campaign, triggered significant political and economic ramifications. Notably, the Brexit decision exposed deep divisions among politicians, celebrities, and the public, leading to a complex withdrawal process from the EU.

This article delves into the multifaceted factors influencing the Brexit vote, focusing on the understudied role of cognitive ability in shaping individuals’ voting behavior.

The Varied Landscape of Brexit Support:

The Brexit referendum witnessed a diverse array of endorsements and oppositions from prominent figures, with celebrities like Mick Jagger and political leaders like Boris Johnson advocating for Leave, while others like J.K. Rowling campaigned for Remain. The unexpected outcome perplexed experts and economists, challenging predictions made by polling firms and bookmakers.

Misinformedness and the Brexit Campaign:

An extensive academic literature has emerged to comprehend the referendum result, emphasizing the correlation between voter characteristics and the decision to Leave or Remain. However, the role of cognitive ability, despite its prevalence in social media debates, has been overlooked. The article underscores the significance of individual vulnerability to misinformation and disinformation during the Brexit campaign, affecting democratic processes.

Media Influence and Misinformation:

The influence of media, especially the British Tabloid Press (BTP), played a crucial role in shaping the pro-Leave campaign. Headlines were characterized as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Speculative,’ contributing to widespread misinformation. Studies reveal a strong association between misinformedness and a preference for Leave, emphasizing the impact of media, particularly on individuals with lower educational levels.

Cognitive Ability and Decision-Making:

The article delves into the relationship between cognitive ability and voting behavior, considering its direct and indirect influences. Research suggests that higher cognitive ability and analytical thinking are linked to an increased capacity to detect and resist misinformation. Conversely, lower cognitive ability may lead to susceptibility to false memories and judgmental biases.

The Role of Personality Traits:

Examining the relationship between cognitive ability and personality traits, particularly the Big Five, reveals correlations with attitudes toward the EU. Openness is associated with support for Remaining, while Conscientiousness aligns with support for Leaving. This insight adds depth to the understanding of how cognitive function indirectly influences voting behavior through personality traits.

Behavioral Biases and Decision Errors:

The article highlights the impact of behavioral biases on decision-making, suggesting that those with lower cognitive ability are more prone to succumb to judgmental biases. Using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), the study identifies a reliance on fast, automatic, and emotional decision-making (System 1) among Leave voters, potentially classifying their choice as a decision error.

Empirical Analysis:

Utilizing a nationally representative sample from the UK Understanding Society panel survey, the study explores the relationship between cognitive ability and voting preferences. The analysis, controlling for various socioeconomic and sociodemographic factors, reveals statistically and economically significant evidence that higher cognitive ability is associated with a greater propensity to vote Remain.

Discussion: Unraveling the Cognitive Threads of the Brexit Referendum

The culmination of this study delves into a nuanced discussion that unpacks the intricate relationship between cognitive ability and voting behavior in the context of the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. The three key findings unearthed by this research pave the way for a deeper understanding of the multifaceted dynamics at play.

Cognitive Ability and Voting Behavior

The primary revelation of this study is the discernible impact of cognitive ability on voting behavior. Contrary to the prevailing narrative that socioeconomic factors exclusively shape political choices, this research underscores the significance of cognitive function. The literature on cognitive ability and vulnerability to misinformation aligns with this observation, suggesting that erroneous reporting during the referendum might have disproportionately affected individuals with lower cognitive ability. Furthermore, the study raises the possibility that those with lower cognitive ability may be more receptive to divisive ideas, contributing to the broader discourse on the influence of cognitive function on democratic decision-making.

Spousal Influence on Voting Behavior

A second noteworthy finding emerges from the acknowledgment of the profound interdependence among couples within households. The study illuminates that a spouse’s cognitive ability significantly influences an individual’s voting behavior, surpassing the impact of the individual’s own cognitive function. This challenges conventional research paradigms that predominantly consider political behavior as an individual-level variable. The recognition of spousal influence introduces a novel dimension to the discourse, emphasizing the need to examine political decisions within the context of household dynamics.

Moreover, even when individuals within couples vote in opposing directions, cognitive ability remains a crucial factor in explaining voting behavior. This finding underscores the enduring impact of cognitive function on decision-making, irrespective of spousal discord.

Cognitive Ability Advantage within Couples

The third key finding quantifies the impact of a cognitive ability advantage within couples on the likelihood of voting to Remain in the EU. The study reveals that possessing a one standard deviation cognitive ability advantage over one’s spouse increases the likelihood of voting to Remain by a substantial 10.7%. This statistical evidence reinforces the pervasive influence of cognitive ability within the intimate realm of household decision-making.

Implications and Challenges for Future Research

The findings of this study prompt reflection on the broader implications for democratic processes, especially in the face of escalating amounts of misinformation. The “competence principle,” as described by Brennan, raises ethical questions about decision-making by a potentially misinformed electorate. The study suggests potential avenues for mitigating the adverse effects of misinformation, including the consideration of cognitive ability in voting eligibility or placing greater trust in expert opinions.

However, the study also acknowledges its limitations. The positive correlation between cognitive ability and voting to Remain may be susceptible to omitted variable bias, particularly concerning an individual’s trust in politicians and government. The complex interplay between cognitive ability, trust in experts, and political attitudes requires further exploration. Additionally, the reliance on self-reported data introduces the possibility of biases such as social desirability, urging caution in the interpretation of results.

Furthermore, the study’s focus on a specific referendum invites future research to extend these insights to elections, acknowledging the distinctions between voting behaviors in referendums versus traditional elections. As the democratic landscape evolves, understanding the intricate connections between cognitive function, decision-making, and democratic processes remains a pivotal area for ongoing scholarly exploration.

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