27th Feb 2024


Why populism appeals to less brainy EU voters

  • British academic Chris Dawson called for a legal crackdown on fake news (Photo: Chris Dawson)
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People who voted for Brexit tended to be less clever, new research shows, in findings that also shed light on the appeal of EU populists, such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

Some 73 percent of people in the smartest top 10 percent of the British population voted to stay in the EU back in 2016, according to a fresh study by the University of Bath in the UK.

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Just 40 percent of those at the other end of the spectrum (the least-smart 10 percent) voted to remain.

And even in couples — where people had a similar age, education, income level, and cultural background — if one partner voted to remain and the other voted to leave, the remain-voter tended to be the cleverer of the two.

"We find that a one standard deviation increase in cognitive ability, all else being equal, increases the likelihood of a remain vote by 9.7 percent," the study said.

When the paper came out, on Wednesday (22 November), it caused a small "storm" on social media, one of its authors, Chris Dawson, told EUobserver.

"I also got a few emails from people explaining the reasons why they voted [leave] and that they didn't have low cognitive ability — a few of those, but nothing too bad," he said.

But if anybody felt offended by his research, then they shouldn't take it personally, he explained.

"Just because people at population-level who voted leave had lower cognitive ability than remain voters, it says nothing about two random [individual] leave or remain voters," he said.

"If you feel offended because you're applying it to yourself, you're making a mistake," he added.

Dawson himself voted to remain, but said his parents voted to leave.

And individuals made bad decisions for more complex reasons than just their cognitive abilities, he added.

"So many things affect decision-making and we can't control them all," he said.

"I teach a course on better decision-making, and even though I know why people make bad decisions, I keep making them myself," he added.

"Probably my worst one was buying a motorbike — that's sitting in the garage now, gathering dust," he said.

But caveats aside, the British findings also applied to the appeal of populism more broadly speaking, such as the election victory of Dutch politician Geert Wilders this week, Dawson said.

The Brexit campaign was full of fake claims and xenophobic disinformation, such as promises the UK could spend £350m (€400m) a week on its health service if it quit the EU, that Turkey was joining the EU, and that Britain was being invaded by Muslim asylum seekers.

Wilders' campaign was equally replete with magical promises and Islamophobia.

And people with lower cognitive abilities were more vulnerable to being taken in by this type of politics, Dawson noted.

Cognitive ability related to people's capacity "to process information and apply it to decision-making", he said.

It was different to raw intelligence, as measured by IQ tests.

Its measure also had nothing to do with "stupidity" — a colloquial term of abuse that had no academic meaning, Dawson added.

"But if you have higher cognitive ability, you tend to have higher basic-knowledge, which you can apply to better understand when things aren't possible, such as the £350m-a-week promise," he said.

"Cognitive ability is also related to wishful thinking — people with lower ability are far more optimistic about the future. They're more likely to believe in fanciful promises, even if there's only a tiny chance they could come true," Dawson said.

"They [less able people] don't tend to take the options of experts seriously. They're more likely to mistrust experts," he added.

And "they're also more attracted to divisive messages, such as right-wing populist views," he said.

Shock tactics

Russia has also tried to influence EU elections by stirring up sexual disgust against Muslims, for instance with fake news about Arab migrants raping white women.

But even if extreme content provoked a knee-jerk emotional reaction, those with higher cognitive skills were also less likely to take their feelings to the ballot box, Dawson said.

"In human psychology, we have a two-tier system — the emotional one, which is reactive, driven by pure emotion, instantaneous, and tier two, where we switch off the emotions and think about things in a logical way," he said.

"Those with higher intelligence are better at shutting off emotions, which often lead to bad decisions," he added.

"It's been shown in gambling, in finance, investments — you should always leave emotions at home for any important decisions," he said.

And as the European Parliament headed for elections in mid-2024 with still more far-right wins on the likely horizon, the British academic said the best way for governments to protect vulnerable voters was to crack down on public lies.

"With the advent of AI and deep fakes, we're increasingly losing our ability to decide what is or isn't true," he warned.

"There must be punishments for fake news," he said.

Looking back to Brexit campaigners eight years ago, Dawson noted: "It seems to me like there was never any accountability for people using flat-out lies".

"There has to be a clampdown, a big clampdown on misinformation — not just little online posts saying 'this content has been flagged etc.', but real-life, legal punishments, because elections and referendum outcomes have real effects on millions of people's lives," he said.


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