The majority of Brexit voters think the UK is exceptional, underrecognized in the world, and entitled to privileged treatment — so they shot themselves in the foot to prove it. A new study looks at how base emotions such as xenophobia and perceived British supremacy led the UK out of the EU. Pride in the one’s British roots, however, wasn’t linked with higher support for the exit, the authors note. But something else was.

So 1930.

Protesters outside the American Embassy in London rallying to demand that prime minister Theresa May repudiate Donald Trump’s entry ban on Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Yemeni, Iranian, Sudanese and Libyan nationals for the next 90 days as well as the indefinite ban on all Syrian refugees.
Image credits Alisdare Hickson.

Last year, some 52% of UK citizens voted that their country should exit the EU — a decision since christened “Brexit”. A new study found that the single strongest link between those who voted yes, regardless of age, gender, and education, was xenophobia — the fear of everything perceived as “foreign”.

The paper further identifies collective narcissism as a predictor of the results. Collective narcissists are people that believe a certain group they belong to (such as a country) is amazing, special, and overall great, a state of affairs which is not sufficiently recognized by those exterior to the group (other countries).

“[Collective narcissism] differs from feeling proud to be British or thinking of oneself as British,” said Agnieszka Golec de Zavala of Goldsmiths, University of London, lead author of the study.

“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.”

The team reports that xenophobia was the best predictor of the Brexit vote for all citizens, regardless of age, gender, or education. Brits who believe that immigrants erode their values and way of life, or that they take jobs away from UK nationals, were more likely to vote for Brexit. These citizens, the team reports, fall into three categories. First are those who feel threatened by others because they fear change. The second is represented by people “high in social dominance orientation”, who find it desirable and perhaps just that the group they belong to dominates all other groups in society. Finally were the British collective narcissists.

By contrast, the researchers found that “people who just thought it is great to be British” or who held their British identity in high regard weren’t any more likely to reject immigrants or vote for Brexit than others.

Some xenophobia with your tea, sir?

To tease out these connections, the team drew on two batches of studies that asked participants to what extent they agree 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” or that they “violate reciprocity of social relations by choice, violate the British citizens’ trust, or hold values inconsistent with those of the British citizens”. Study 1 looked at the role of collective narcissism in comparison to national identification and Study 2 compared collective narcissism and national attachment. Both studies compared the two factors as predictors of the perceived threat of immigrants, the referendum vote, and support for the referendum’s outcome. Study 1 was conducted in July 2016 just after the EU referendum in the UK Study 2 was conducted just after the UK government’s support for the “hard” Brexit option was announced in September 2016.

Pro-EU London protest.

Pro-EU march from Hyde Park to Westminster in London on March 25, 2017.
Image via Wikimedia.

The results of Study 1 revealed that collective narcissism (i.e. “My national group deserves special treatment”), right-wing authoritarianism (“Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn”), national identification (“Being from my national group is an important reflection of what I am”), a domineering social orientation (“We should not push for group equality”), and a perceived threat posed by immigrants were both linked to higher support for Brexit and voting “yes”.

Study 2 confirmed the links in study 1 and further showed that effect of national attachment (“I am glad to be a member of my national group, I think that members of my national group have a lot to be proud of”) on the Brexit vote “was not significant” — i.e. while the other independent variables could be used to predict each participant’s vote on and support for Brexit, national attachment couldn’t.

Asked whether she believes that voters held these attitudes before the “Leave campaign” or that they were brought out by it, de Zavala said that “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.”

She says that politicians’ discourse can help encourage or discourage such views. Ultimately, if we want to nip xenophobia in the bud, we should take it and intolerance out of what it means to be British — though, that’s golden advice no matter where you hail from.

The study brings an uglier side of politics and human psyche to light, one which we’d rather not look at. At the same time, it’s one whose destructive outcomes we can’t bear to ignore any longer — as many disillusioned Brits, and their counterparts in other countries, are realizing.

“National collective narcissism stood behind the Brexit vote but also behind the Trump vote in the US,” de Zavala explains.

“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.”

The team’s research shows that collective narcissism “systematically” predicts prejudice, aggression, and causes ambiguous, even innocent behaviors of others to be perceived as a 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,” de Zavala adds.

The paper “The Relationship between the Brexit Vote and Individual Predictors of Prejudice: Collective Narcissism, Right Wing Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation” has been published in the journal Frontiers Psychology.

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