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Investigating the effect of Brexit on attitudes towards immigrants

Blog • • Dr Fernanda Leite Lopez de Leon

Today is the anniversary of the “article 50” trigger-day. In one year, the UK will begin the transition process of leaving the European Union. Much is speculated about the social consequences of this divorce, and how the interactions among individuals from different nationalities will evolve within the UK.

Front pages of UK newspapers on the day that British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50.

Front pages of UK newspapers on the day that British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50. Credit: Hugh Pinney/Getty Images

Europeans changed their status after the Brexit vote

The outcome of the EU referendum changed the status of Europeans in the UK to 'out-groups'. The Brexit vote was perceived as a statement against immigration, with repercussions for the 2.5 million Europeans (or 4% of the population) living in the UK (2011 Census). Immediately after the referendum, hate crime against Europeans living in the UK increased, with media and policy sources linking these to Brexit. The common wisdom explained this anti-social behaviour as a consequence of unearthed racism that was somewhat legitimised by the election result.

Does perceived support for Brexit affect attitudes towards immigrants?

In a new study, joint with Dr Markus Bindemann, we test this common wisdom and investigate whether and how racism towards immigrants is affected by the perceived support for Brexit among the population. We conducted this study in public libraries in the South East of England and among students at University of Kent.

In our experiment, we made use of the wide regional variation in the support for Brexit in the country to manipulate individuals’ perceptions on the Brexit vote outcome. Although most people know that 52% of the population voted to ‘leave’, there is less awareness of the results for local and nearby constituencies.

We conducted an incentivised quiz on facts about the UK; both British and Europeans participated. The goal was to prime participants to think about Brexit.

  • As part of the survey, a seemingly randomised map animation was used to ask participants about how certain constituencies had voted in the EU referendum. Although these constituencies appeared to be random, the constituencies were pre-selected.
  • Participants were asked whether they thought these areas had voted to ‘leave’ or ‘remain. They were then informed of the correct answers.
  • One group of participants was consistently shown constituencies that ‘voted to leave’ on the map and another group was shown constituencies that ‘voted to remain’. For the third and control group, the map showed a mix of the constituencies, but to prevent them from thinking about Brexit, we asked them instead about the percentage of females in these areas.

An example of the map shown to participants

An example of the map shown to participants. Credit: Dr Fernanda Leite Lopez de Leon

Individuals primed about pro-‘leave’ constituencies predicted that other places experienced a larger Brexit vote-share

Since participants were primed to think about either ‘pro-leave’ or ‘pro-remain’ from the quiz, we expected this bias to be reflected in their predictions on how other places in the country voted. This, in fact, turned out to be true: individuals who were asked about 'pro-leave' constituencies predicted that other areas experienced a larger Brexit vote-share – in at least 12 percentage points – than participants allocated to 'pro-remain' constituencies.

Measuring implicit prejudice

Later in the survey, we conducted Implicit Association tests to measure racism. This psychological test has been used extensively to study racial prejudice and compares how easily observers can match positive or negative words (e.g. peace/anger) to stimuli that correspond to in- or outgroup categories (e.g. same/other nationality). We asked questions about participants’ views on policies towards immigration, and on their own relationship with British and Europeans.

Does believing that many others 'voted to leave' make individuals more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour towards immigrants? On the other hand, does having in mind that many preferred to ‘remain’ refrain such behaviour? These questions are relevant, and more generally, they speak on how information conveyed in election results (on the population’ preferences) can change norms in society, sometimes, empowering individuals to act in a politically incorrect manner.

We are continuing to research this topic and we hope to find some answers to these questions when we complete the final phase of this study - we will keep you updated.


Dr Fernanda Leite Lopez de Leon is a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Kent. Her research project, joint with Dr Markus Bindemann, ‘Does Brexit trigger racism? An Experiment among British and European residents in the UK’ is funded by the British Academy’s Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.

Blog • • Dr Fernanda Leite Lopez de Leon