Xenophobia found to be strong predictor for Brexit vote regardless of age, gender, or education

Last year, 52 percent of UK citizens voted in favor of Brexit, starting the country on a path to leave the EU. In a new study, researchers have found that xenophobia – the fear of other groups – was strongly linked to the yes vote regardless of age, gender, or education. The study also identified collective narcissism as a predictor of election results. Collective narcissists believe that the UK is entitled to special treatment because of its greatness, which is not being sufficiently recognized by other countries. The study’s lead author Agnieszka Golec de Zavala of Goldsmiths, University of London, tells us more.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala: We were interested in whether collective narcissism predicts political behaviour such as voting. Collective narcissism refers to a tendency to exaggerate the importance of your own group and expect a special recognition for it. In this case, national group collective narcissism refers to the belief that the UK is exceptionally great, but this greatness is not sufficiently recognized by other nations. It differs from feeling proud to be British or thinking of oneself as British. We know only that collective narcissism predicts xenophobia. We wanted to see whether there was a link between collective narcissism and voting motivated by xenophobia.

RG: Can you tell us what you discovered?

Golec de Zavala: We found that xenophobia – the fear of other groups – predicted the Brexit vote regardless of people’s age, gender, or education. British citizens who agreed that immigrants threaten their values and way of life and take their jobs were more likely to vote Brexit. Three types of people expressed such concerns. One type can be described as authoritarians – people who feel threatened by others because they do not like change. The other type are people high in social dominance orientation who prefer when their group dominates others. The third type are British collective narcissists. However, people who just thought it is great to be British or who thought their British identity is important to them were not more likely to reject immigrants or vote Brexit.

RG: How did you work out if a person held xenophobic views?

Golec de Zavala: We asked participants to what extent they agreed that immigrants in the UK “threaten the UK’s way of life; threaten the British citizens’ jobs and economic opportunities, personal possessions, their personal rights and freedoms; physical health”; “violate reciprocity of social relations by choice; violate the British citizens’ trust; hold values inconsistent with those of the British citizens”. Agreement with those statements was strongly related to the tendency to vote Brexit and to be happy with the referendum’s outcome.  

RG: Do you think leave voters held these attitudes before the “Leave campaign” began? Or did the campaign bring them out?

Golec de Zavala: The fact that individual difference variables predicted xenophobia suggest that they did exist previously. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that the Leave campaign strengthened them. In fact, findings in social psychology suggest it is very likely it did. I believe this campaign, in particular, allowed people to spell out, and reinforced, a collective narcissistic definition of their national identity. Leave campaign made some believe that it is OK and patriotic to fight for “purity” of British identity. It provided a language to voice prejudice without feeling that you abuse the norm of political correctness.

RG: Is there anything political leaders can do to change these views?

Golec de Zavala: Politicians can discourage such views instead of encouraging them. Political leaders function like managers of national identity. They propose and proselytize their version of what it means to be British. If we want to reduce xenophobia, we should dissociate acceptance of xenophobia and intolerance from our understanding of what it means to be British.

RG: What do you want people to take away from your study?

Golec de Zavala: My work introduces collective narcissism as a new variable to consider when predictions for political behavior are made. National collective narcissism stood behind the Brexit vote but also behind the Trump vote in the US. It is linked to support for the nationalist, ultraconservative, Eurosceptic government in Poland and in Hungary. It is linked to support for dictatorial rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia. The concept of collective narcissism was first introduced to describe the sentiments stirred by the Nazis in Germany.

Our studies show that collective narcissism systematically predicts prejudice, aggression, and a tendency to interpret even ambiguous or innocent behaviors of others as provocation to the national group. If we care about diverse societies and harmonious intergroup relations, a collective narcissistic definition of our national identity is not what we should strive for or spread. We should vet our leaders more carefully with respect to the vision of our national identity they promote, because leaders have the power to make such a vison normative in groups that follow them.

Feature photo courtesy of Theophilos Papadopoulos.


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