Why the British really voted for Brexit

Three million voted on a whim. Nearly double the eventual margin of the final result

It was as early as July 2016 when one British national broadsheet warned of “Brexhaustion”, claiming the UK public were being crippled by Brexit fatigue. This was a mere three weeks after the EU referendum. Now nearly four years later, as we approach the beginning of the end - or is it the end of the beginning? - the perplexities of Britain’s exit from the EU may have finally overwhelmed the British psyche. The British body politic is not so much hoping to “Get It Done” as much as it is aching to “Make It Stop”.

Boris Johnson himself is said to have now banned the B-word altogether, in just the latest example of Brexit mind games. Brexit has provided a compendium of case studies in political psychology. Perception has mattered more than reality. With the closing down of David Cameron’s “Nudge Department” to make room for Boris Johnson’s “assorted weirdos”, the headshrinkers have well and truly moved into Whitehall.

All that theorising about “imperial hang-ups”, “sado-populism”, and “acts of national self-harm” makes for entertaining copy, but much of it is speculative punditry rather than evidence-based knowledge. There is actually quite a lot of science to consider when looking at the psychology of Brexit. Newly emerging datasets can help us reverse-engineer the chaos.

For example, consider the noisy decision-making that lay behind the Brexit experience. In the original referendum, one-in-ten voters did not decide how to vote until the day of the referendum itself. They literally rocked up to the polling stations with an open mind. Staring down at blank ballots with pencils in hand, they wondered to themselves: should I tick “Remain” or “Leave”? Three million voters voting on a whim. Nearly double the eventual margin of the final result. Remember, though, every vote counts.


Psychologists working in the field of political psychology have long noted the problem of “rational ignorance”. Basically, it is rational for voters to remain ignorant about politics. Each single vote will be far outnumbered by the millions cast by other people, so there is no compelling reason to spend time and energy on exhaustive research. The personal costs of becoming informed will outweigh any direct tangible benefit. As a result, only very few voters spend time grappling with the real issues. Most just vote emotionally. They are happy to follow crowds, board gravy trains, and jump on bandwagons. But read a manifesto? No thank you.

A second important problem - one that has many implications outside of Brexit - is the challenge of “active information avoidance”. This is where people go to effort to actively avoid information that they don’t like. Instead, they spend their lives interacting with people who agree with them. They end up accumulating wholly misleading feedback about the merits of their own views - which is, after all, the point.

The research suggests that we all do it. We confine ourselves to a social circle of people who share our opinions. These days, we call it an “echo chamber”. The result is that we end up truly shocked when we discover that we actually form a minority. In fact, when faced with this reality, we often just refuse to believe it.

Echo chamber effects are exaggerated by a variety of instinctive human thought processes that psychologists have researched for years. We are prone - always - to polarise into competing tribes. “Out-group homogeneity bias” makes us dismiss our adversaries as a faceless mob. The “third-person effect” tricks us into believing that nothing can fool us. The “Ikea effect” convinces us to take pride in whatever we have created, no matter how wonky or deficient. “Just-world” beliefs make us feel that if only we could have that second referendum, the right thing will happen in the end.

We think other people in a group know what’s going on just because they are nodding. They look at us. We are nodding too. Nodding is contagious. Hence the problem of “social false consensus.” Pluralistic ignorance rules our lives.

In the end, we are so cut off from other people’s perspectives that we simply cannot believe that they think the way they do. Before the 2019 UK election, Remainers still thought that they somehow formed a majority. At one point Jo Swinson believed she could literally become prime minister by promising to block Brexit.

Maybe this is why Remainers often describe Leavers as insane. So ensconced are they in the Remain echo chamber, they simply cannot imagine how a rational Leave-voting person might feel. Or that such a person even exists.

Leavers and Remainers display fundamentally divergent social and cultural attitudes.

The surveys tell us that Leavers prefer their steaks well done, dislike beards, understand Cockney rhyming slang, think Doctor Who is a Tory, and are sceptical about the climate emergency. Remainers, not so much. In the end, Brexit is not just a political divide, it is a culture war.

As such, explanations for Brexit need to account for people’s personalities, their emotions, and their sense of place in the world. As I say, Brexit is a compendium of case studies in political psychology, a true teaching moment. We should see Brexit as a chance to learn more about how our societies function, and about how people make sense of stressful events.

Brian Hughes is Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway. The Psychology of Brexit: From Psychodrama to Behavioural Science is published worldwide by Palgrave Macmillan.