The world has been shaken by Britain’s decision to exit the European Union. What are the psychological factors behind this seismic event?
The vote was carried by three separate factors – age, wealth and geography – with the old, the poor and the non-London English ensuring that the Leave campaign won.
There are seven different psychological factors playing out here.
1.The Delusion of Minority
Immigration played a crucial part in the vote, though it was notable that some places with the highest immigration – the city of Manchester for example – had a high remain vote. But perceptions are everything and a common belief among whites in both the UK and the USA is that they risk become a minority in their own country, with the associated disadvantages commonly associated with minorities. Though this is not true, this belief inclines the believer to advocate more extreme policies such as closing borders.
2. The Power of the In-Group
The leave campaign fostered a strong sense of in-group solidarity against the “swarm” of outsiders coming to Britain. The “them-and-us” frame of mind generates positive feelings of solidarity against the out-group. These emotions are in turn caused by increases of the social-bonding, feel-good hormone oxytocin in the brain . The downside of such in-group solidarity is that it inclines people to lose empathy for others in the out group and more inclined see them as objects rather than as fellow human beings.
3. Education, Abstract Thinking and Empowerment
There was a strong association between voting leave and lower educational attainment in the referendums. Accepting the arguments of the remain campaign required the use of abstract concepts to do with regulatory alignment, open markets, strategic security and global influence and these clearly had little impact on people less inclined to the sort of abstract thinking that education fosters. Thinking abstractly actually makes people feel more powerful  and feeling powerful as opposed to threatened actually fosters open-mindedness and reduces prejudice against the out group.
4. Unhappiness and Income Inequality
Britain’s economy was booming before Brexit and this was a major reason for the high levels of immigration. Why then did the increased national wealth not make people happier with the status quo? While it is generally true that people become happier as their countries wealth grows, this does not happen if the wealth inequality is also growing. In other words, we only feel well off in comparison to others, not in absolute terms. In the deregulated global economy, inequalities are increasing and so boosts in gross national product can still leave those lower down the economic scale feeling disgruntled. This was very likely a factor in Brexit. 
5. Control and change
Feeling a sense of control is key to a sense of wellbeing and such positive emotional states reduce prejudice. Globalisation and disruptive technologies have already eliminated millions of jobs and will continue to do so at an even higher rate. The combination of socio-economic-cultural change and feeling out of control in the face of that change is very corrosive of a sense of wellbeing and leads to the support for radical policies – such as England and Wales leaving the EU.
6. Nostalgia and age
Leave voters were on average much older than those voting remain. One of the features of the ageing brain is the so-called “positivity bias” whereby positive emotions and thoughts predominate over negative ones. This bias can result in a “rose-tinted spectacles” effect in memory leading to a nostalgia for past times of harmony, tranquility and cultural homogeneity. It also disinclines the older brain from thinking about the possible dangers of taking such a radical step as leaving the EU.
7. Empire, humiliation and superiority
The British Empire’s demise is barely 70 years old and folk-memories of national dominance live on for centuries, but is particularly strong among older people who would still remember the map on their school classroom wall showing the vast pink glow of Empire spread across the world – as indeed I do. Individual pride and self-respect flow from such national dominance and the converse is also true – a sense of humiliation when it goes. There is little doubt that part of the emotional energy of the Leave campaign was a sense of humiliation redeemed and a sense of national – and hence personal – superiority regained.
It remains to be seen how long this survives the international turmoil that is following on the wake of this momentous decision.
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1. De Dreu, C.K.W., et al., Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011. 108(4): p. 1262-1266.
2. Smith, P.K., D.H.J. Wigboldus, and A. Dijksterhuis, Abstract thinking increases one’s sense of power. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2008. 44(2): p. 378-385.
3. Oishi, S. and S. Kesebir, Income Inequality Explains Why Economic Growth Does Not Always Translate to an Increase in Happiness. Psychological Science, 2015.