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The Professor Will See You Now: Remainers cleverer than Leavers?

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. This week: entering the Brexit beehive

“Why don’t you write something about that study that found Leave voters were less intelligent than Remain voters?”, said someone who – up until that point – I had always considered to be a friend. 

It’s such an incendiary topic that my initial view was that it would be more pleasant to cover my genitals with honey before sticking them in a beehive. But on reflection maybe it’s a useful exercise, both because of the finding itself but also because of what it tells you about how to interpret these sorts of studies.

We know both age and education were important factors determining attitudes to Brexit, and cognitive functions decline with age while increasing with educational attainment

To summarise: the research asked people to complete five tests of cognitive ability, measuring reasoning, fluency and so on, and on average those who voted Remain scored higher than those who voted Leave. It also found that while most couples voted the same way, in the 14 per cent of cases where there was intra-couple disharmony, the higher-scoring partner was more likely to have voted Remain.

A useful first question is whether a study seems pukka. This one drew on the well-established Understanding Society survey, a nationally representative survey of approximately 40,000 households asked each year – rather than being based on six people the authors met down the pub. Plus, it appeared in a peer-reviewed outlet – that is, one in which the work was read by other experts in the field before publication. Peer review is no guarantee of quality but it’s still useful at filtering out obviously flawed studies. None of that means we treat the findings as gospel but we can give them some credibility.

Secondly, I always ask myself: is it at least plausible? Here (and at the risk of getting bombarded with hate mail), the answer is yes, not least because it’s not the only study to have claimed to have found this effect. We know both age and education were important factors determining attitudes to Brexit, and cognitive functions decline with age while increasing with educational attainment. (For the avoidance of doubt: while education and intelligence are not the same – as anyone working in a university is painfully aware – they are not entirely unrelated either.) Given all this, it would, I think, be surprising if there weren’t some differences.

This particular paper claims to have found something more than this: differences in cognitive functions above and beyond those you would expect based on other demographics – but the basic finding is perhaps not all that surprising. 

Yet the key thing with papers like this is always to consider the size of the effects and to remember that such findings are almost always probabilistic, not about absolutes. If I told you that nine-year-olds are taller on average than eight-year-olds, no one would be shocked and no one would think I was claiming that all nine-year-olds were taller than all eight-year-olds. This is obvious when dealing with something prosaic like height but always seems to get overlooked when discussing anything more controversial. 

This research isn’t claiming that all Leavers had low levels of cognitive ability and all Remainer shone. The research paper itself is upfront about the fact that there are significant overlaps between the two groups. Just over a third of Leave voters, for example, had higher cognitive ability than the average Remain voter. Or take the intra-couple differences. Where they disagreed, the highest scoring one was about 10 per cent more likely to vote Remain. That’s a non-trivial effect, but it still means there were plenty of couples where the Leaver was the bright spark, the Remainer a bit slower on the uptake.

I don’t, for the record, especially like the way the paper is framed, with this higher average level of cognitive ability enabling brighter Remainers to see through the Leave campaign – as if only one side engaged in dubious campaign claims. But the research itself looks kosher. 

Now, where’s that beehive?


Further reading: C Dawson and P Baker, Cognitive ability and voting behaviour in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership, PLoS ONE (2023)


 

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