We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Higher Cognitive Ability Linked to Voting Against Brexit, Study Finds

Silhouette of a person putting a vote in a ballot box.
Credit: Element5 Digital/Unsplash
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 2 minutes

People with higher cognitive ability may have been more likely to vote to “Remain” during the Brexit referendum – a vote that decided whether the United Kingdom (UK) should leave or remain a member of the European Union – according to a new study published in PLOS.

Drawing associations with Brexit voting

In June 2016, the UK held a referendum on whether it should remain in or leave the European Union, culminating in a close vote in which 51.9% of voters opted to leave, with 48.1% voting to remain.

The referendum campaign was fraught with controversy and was incredibly polarizing among the British public. The results were a shock to the economy, causing one of the largest single-day losses in the FTSE markets and the value of the British Pound Sterling.

Since the vote, academic studies have been trying to understand the results by studying voters’ socioeconomic, sociodemographic and psychological characteristics, seeking to draw associations between voting either Leave or Remain. However, the potential role of voters’ cognitive abilities has not been thoroughly explored.

“The link between cognitive ability and voting behavior in the referendum has always featured in an anecdotal type of way in the UK, mainly on social media platforms,” said Dr. Chris Dawson, lead author of the study and associate professor of management, marketing, business and society at the University of Bath, in an interview with PLOS. “Given this narrative, we thought it would be interesting to see if there was any empirical evidence to support it.”

Higher cognitive ability linked to voting Remain

The researchers analyzed data from Understanding Society – a large survey of over 3,000 heterosexual couples from the UK. “This is a nationally representative sample so it can speak to these sorts of sensitive research questions with validity,” said Dawson.

In one part of Understanding Society, cognitive function was measured using five tasks that assessed factors such as working memory, verbal fluency and fluid reasoning. In another part, respondents were asked to record whether they voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum.

Want more breaking news?

Subscribe to Technology Networks’ daily newsletter, delivering breaking science news straight to your inbox every day.

Subscribe for FREE

The team’s analysis revealed a strong link between higher cognitive ability test results and voting Remain. “Our main finding is that for those lowest on cognitive ability, only 40% voted Remain, whereas 73% of those highest on cognitive ability voted Remain,” Dawson explained.

“We also showed that this difference, while smaller, still emerged when we controlled for individual differences in income, personality, age, gender, education, political views, newspaper readership and a variety of other socioeconomic and sociodemographic factors,” he continued.

Additionally, they found that couples within households were highly interdependent; respondents whose spouses had higher cognitive ability were significantly more likely to have voted Remain. Meanwhile, for couples in which one partner voted Remain and the other voted Leave, having a higher cognitive ability than one’s spouse was linked to an even higher likelihood of voting Remain.

Nonetheless, Dawson acknowledges that there are possible underlying explanations for their findings, such as dis- and misinformation: “We hope people take note of our research findings. Media outlets have always circulated some misleading information, but the rise of social media and the internet has sharply increased the scale and accessibility of misinformation and disinformation and of increasingly divisive messages.”

“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. We calculated that approximately 36% of Leave voters had higher cognitive ability than the average (mean) Remain voter,” Dawson explained. “But what our results do imply is that misinformation about the referendum could have complicated decision-making, especially for people with low cognitive ability.”

Reference: Dawson C, Baker PL. Cognitive ability and voting behavior in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership. PLOS. 2023. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0289312 

This article is a rework of a press release issued by PLOS. Material has been edited for length and content.