Voters who backed Brexit are 'less flexible' and 'worst at coping with change'

People who backed Brexit are likely to be less flexible in the way they think that their Remain counterparts, a new study has suggested.

The study by the University of Cambridge, which looked at “cognitive flexibility”, suggests that the way our brains process everyday information helps to shape our ideological beliefs and political decision-making – including attitudes towards the 2016 EU Referendum.

The study, which looked at differences in “cold cognition” or emotionally-neutral decision-making, combined cognitive tests of more than 300 UK citizens with questionnaires designed to gauge their social and political attitudes, measuring the extent to which someone displays a more “flexible” or more “persistent” cognitive style.

Cognitive flexibility is characterised by adapting with greater ease to change, while cognitive persistence reflects a preference for stability.

According to the findings, people with higher cognitive flexibility were less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic ideological stances and more likely to support remaining in the EU, as well as immigration and free movement of labour.

<em>Brexit-backers – those with less “flexible” cognitive thinking are more likely to back leaving the EU, the study found (Pictures: Getty)</em>
Brexit-backers – those with less “flexible” cognitive thinking are more likely to back leaving the EU, the study found (Pictures: Getty)

Those with higher cognitive persistence showed more conservative and nationalistic attitudes, and in turn were more likely to back Brexit.

Leor Zmigrod, lead researcher and Gates Cambridge Scholar, said: “Voting is often thought to be an emotional decision. People describe ‘voting with their heart’ or having a gut reaction to particular politicians.


“While emotion is clearly integral to political decision-making, our research suggests that non-emotional cognitive information processing styles, such as adaptability to change, also play a key role in shaping ideological behavior and identity.

“By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudes.”

<em>Complex – despite the findings, Zmigrod admitted people’s ideologies are often “highly complex”</em>
Complex – despite the findings, Zmigrod admitted people’s ideologies are often “highly complex”

The study used a a card-sorting task as well as a neutral word association task.

The researchers also found that participants who reported greater reliance on routines and traditions in their daily lives were likely to support Brexit and immigration control.

“The results suggest that psychological preferences for stability and consistency may translate into attitudes that favour uniformity and a more defined national identity,” said Zmigrod.

But she added that ideologies are often “highly complex” and: “there are many reasons people believe what they do and vote the way they do”.

“In today’s politically-polarised climate, it is important to understand more about the psychological processes behind nationalistic and social attitudes if we are to build bridges between communities.”

The research, conducted by scientists from the University’s Department of Psychology, is published today Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.