Cognitive ability mattered in the UK’s vote for Brexit

The study found that of the people with the lowest cognitive ability, only 40% v
The study found that of the people with the lowest cognitive ability, only 40% voted Remain, whereas 73% of those with the highest cognitive ability voted Remain.

Susceptibility to misinformation and disinformation likely to have played a part in the Leave vote.

  • Published on Wednesday 22 November 2023
  • Last updated on Thursday 23 November 2023

New research from the University of Bath’s School of Management finds that higher cognitive ability was strongly linked to voting to Remain in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union Membership.

The study shows that cognitive skills including memory, verbal fluency, fluid reasoning and numerical reasoning, were correlated with how people decided to vote.

Lead author Dr Chris Dawson , from the University of Bath’s School of Management , said: "This study adds to existing academic evidence showing that low cognitive ability makes people more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation. People with lower cognitive ability and analytical thinking skills find it harder to detect and discount this type of information.

"We know that evidence has been put forward that information provided to the public in the months leading up to the referendum was contradictory, false and often fraudulent, especially regarding the pro-Leave campaign, and that this information proliferated on social media platforms."

The research, published in PLOS ONE , used a nationally representative sample of 6,366 individuals from 3,183 heterosexual couples collected as part of a large survey called Understanding Society. They found that, of the people with the lowest cognitive ability, only 40% voted Remain, whereas 73% of those with the highest cognitive ability voted Remain.

The researchers emphasise that it is important to understand that findings are based on average differences between large groups of voters.

"Depending on which side of the debate you fall, reading this may fill you with anger or joy. However, both these emotions are an error of judgement," said Dr Dawson.

"It is important to understand that our findings are based on average differences: there exists a huge amount of overlap between the distributions of Remain and Leave cognitive abilities. Indeed, we calculated that approximately 36% of Leave voters had higher cognitive ability than the average (mean) Remain voter," he said.

Importantly, the study looked at couples living in the same household to equalise people’s experiences, as well as controlling for demographic information such as political beliefs, education level, income and newspaper readership.

The research found that having a high cognitive ability partner and the highest cognitive ability in the couple both increased the likelihood of voting Remain.

"Low cognitive ability can lead to decision errors and many Leave voters are now saying they regret their choice. The study highlights how the rise in misinformation and disinformation, and people’s inability to counter this information, is undermining the democratic process and can be used to influence democratic outcomes," said Dr Paul Baker from the University of Bath School of Management, co-author of the study.

Cognitive ability and voting behaviour in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership is published in PLOS ONE by Dr Chris Dawson and Dr Paul Baker.