The findings, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, are based on the results of a pair of studies that aimed to assess the values and social outlooks of supporters of leaving the EU in the aftermath of the June 2016 referendum commonly called Brexit.
While several explanations of the referendum’s result – which surprised many – have been presented, the new research points to a collective fear of immigrants and foreigners as the primary factor that unites Brexit supporters.
Led by Goldsmiths, University of London psychologist Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, an international team of researchers conducted two studies following the referendum which sought to measure the effect of xenophobia on voting behavior.
The first was conducted immediately after the vote in July 2016, while the second study began in September 2016 after the British government announced its support for a “hard” Brexit option, which would see Britain give up all trade and customs ties to the EU.
The results of the first study – based on a questionnaire sent to 280 Brexit voters – revealed three personality traits were independently related to both xenophobia and support for Brexit. These include right-wing authoritarianism (“obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn”), social dominance orientation (“we should not push for group equality”), and collective narcissism (“I will never be satisfied until my national group gets all it deserves”).
Although other studies have implicated right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation in support for ultra-conservative political candidates, collective narcissism has rarely been considered in the context of voting behavior.
“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 behaviors as provocation to the national group,” Golec de Zavala said.
Since the studies were conducted after the referendum, the researchers caution that the “yes” vote to leave the EU could have increased Brexit supporters’ xenophobia. However, the team says the research clearly finds Brexit support was associated with prejudice.
“Collective narcissism is not a good attitude to have,” Golec de Zavala said. “We should study how this becomes a group norm and find ways of preventing it from happening and spreading.”
She added: “We should vet our leaders more carefully in this respect because leaders have the power to make such attitudes normative in their groups.”