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Psychology meets Economic Geography for the Brexit vote

Datum:25 februari 2018
The Remain vote share and psychological Openness for 380 LADs
The Remain vote share and psychological Openness for 380 LADs

In recent years, our Center of Expertise In the LEAD has collaborated with Ron Martin and Jason Rentfrow, both from the University of Cambridge, on the relevance of personality traits for regional economic and political outcomes in the UK. Below is a shortened version of our new paper on the relevance of personality traits for the Brexit vote. This shortened version has been published as a VoxEU column and can be downloaded HERE. The full paper appears in the March 2018 issue of the Cambridge Journal of the Regions, Economy and Society (CJRES)

In this new paper, we add a psychological perspective to explain the regional Brexit vote. Based on an extensive data set with personality traits, combined with socio-economic data, our findings suggest that the regional clustering of these personality traits contribute to an understanding of the regional dispersion of the Brexit vote. We find evidence that Openness is the personality trait that matters most, and that modest changes in this trait could actually have swung the vote across UK districts.

Future research results on the relevance of personality traits for economic or political outcomes will be posted here as well in due time. To be continued…………

Brexit and the relevance of regional personality traits:

More psychological Openness could have swung the regional vote

Harry Garretsen, Janka I. Stoker, Dimitrios Soudis, Ron L. Martin, Peter J. Rentfrow

Published as a VoxEU column at on February 25th 2018



Backed by predictions as to the alleged negative consequences for the UK of leaving the EU (Dhingra et al., 2016; HM Treasury, 2016), the outcome of the Brexit referendum came as a shock to most academic and policy experts as documented in e.g. Los, McCann, Springford and Thissen (2017), Brakman, Garretsen and Kohl (2017) or Baldwin (2016). A very prominent fault line is present in a geographical sense, see Figure 1. For the 380 local authority districts (LAD), Becker, Fetzer and Novy (2017) conclude that a LAD’s Brexit vote share can be understood by a region’s profile in terms of its age, education or (former) dependence on manufacturing. In addition, regional differences in immigration and the impact of fiscal policy also appeared to play a significant role.


Remarkably, many UK districts that are strongly intertwined with the EU, voted for Leave. The outcome of this referendum seems exemplary of a more general, spatially clustered backlash against economic integration or globalization, also labelled as the ‘geography of discontent’ (Los et al., 2017). In order to explain the paradoxical result where regions seem to vote against their (own) economic ‘interests’, and while not discarding any of the above mentioned drivers of the Brexit vote, we argue that what is lacking is a psychological perspective (in line with suggestions by Kaufmann, 2016; or Krueger, 2016). Following the recent research on ‘geographical psychology’ (Rentfrow, Gosling and Potter, 2008; Rentfrow, Jokela and Lamb, 2015), where it is shown that regional personality traits are associated with a range of regional social–economic indicators, we investigate the relevance of regional personality traits for the Brexit vote (for the full paper see Garretsen, Stoker, Soudis, Martin and Rentfrow, 2018).


A regional psychological perspective

Research shows that an individual’s personality traits are a strong predictor of individual political preferences. In the psychological literature, these traits are referred to as the ‘Big Five’: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (John and Srivastava, 1999, John, Naumann and Soto, 2008). When it comes to voting outcomes, there is clear evidence indicating that individual personality traits matter for individual political attitudes and outcomes (Gerber et al., 2011). It has been found that the trait Openness is strongly positively associated with liberal attitudes and corresponding voting patterns, whereas the trait Conscientiousness is associated with conservative attitudes and voting outcomes (Gerber et al, 2012).

Crucially, personality traits not only explain individual voting behavior, but research also shows that individual personality traits tend to be regionally clustered (Rentfrow et al., 2015). This offers a potential explanation for the above mentioned regional differences in the Brexit referendum (see again Figure 1). The mechanism that is of particular relevance to understanding regional voting behavior is the role of social influence, which implies that a region’s long-standing social traditions and practices gradually shape social norms, which in turn affect people’s personality traits (Rentfrow et al., 2015). There is strong evidence that variations in these personality traits across regions are associated with a wide array of regional economic indicators (Garretsen, Stoker, Soudis, Martin and Rentfrow, 2017).

We hypothesize that, in particular, Openness will be a relevant personality trait for explaining the dispersion of the regional Brexit outcomes, as has been first suggested by Krueger (2016) after Bastian Jaeger and following Gerber et al (2011). The case of Brexit in itself is an example how the external environment (here EU integration) impacts on a region, and whether this is seen as an opportunity or a threat. This is precisely what is at the heart of the trait Openness, which measures how conventional and traditional people are in their outlook. Low scores on Openness indicate a more inward-looking attitude and a preference for familiar routines instead of new experiences, and vice versa for high scores on Openness.


The empirical analysis

For each the 380 UK Local Authority Districts (LADs), we have the data on the Big Five personality traits (Rentfrow et al., 2015). In addition, we include a number of relevant control-variables at the regional level, taken from notably Becker et al. (2017). These are: proportion of employment in manufacturing, the unemployment rate, average age of the adult population, population-size, level of higher educated people, number of educational qualifications, immigration, and a dummy for Scotland (for exact definitions see Becker et al., 2017; for data sources: and .

Our main findings are summarized via the ‘goodness of fit’ in Figure 3 below, as measured by the R2, for three models where the LAD’s Remain vote share is the dependent variable. When we only include LAD scores for Openness as a determinant of the regional Remain vote, the 1st model in Figure 3 below, the R2 =0.453 which implies that almost half of the regional variation in the Brexit vote can be explained by the regional variation in Openness. See also Figure 2 where we plot for each LAD district the Openness score against the LAD’s remain vote share. Figure 2 already illustrates that Openness is, of course, not the only determinant of the regional Brexit vote, see for instance the Scottish LAD districts (relatively low on Openness but high on the Remain vote share).


In the second model, all of the Big Five variables are included to determine the Remain vote; the R2 is now up to 0.643. For the full model (R2=0.891), and in line with Becker et al (2017), we find that the Remain vote was significantly higher in LAD districts that are Scottish, larger, younger, better educated and/or with a lower proportion of immigrants. In economic terms, we also find that districts with more manufacturing employment show a lower Remain vote. Most importantly, three of the Big Five variables, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and, clearly too, Openness continue to have a strongly significant impact on the regional Remain vote.   


Looking again at the full model, the effect size of Openness variable is such that a change of a 1 standard deviation of regional Openness would result in a 1.61% higher Remain vote share. These effects are rather relevant in understanding the regional dispersion of the Brexit vote. To see this for Openness, note that if the least ‘open’ LAD district (Maldon) where to increase its Openness to that of the most ‘open’ LAD (Hackney), it would have had almost a 12% higher Remain vote. In fact, if we look at standardized coefficients for all of the 13 independent variables at the LAD level in our full model, Openness is ranked fourth after higher education, median age and the Scotland dummy.





Our results add a psychological perspective in explaining the regional Brexit vote. In particular, we find that the trait Openness is the personality trait that matters most. Our findings are in line with Lee, Morris and Kemeny (2018) who find that more residentially mobile people tended to vote more for Remain. Moreover, the relevance of psychological openness could solve the puzzle that UK districts with a higher EU trade openness predominantly voted for Leave (Los et al., 2017) to the extent that UK districts that depend relatively more on EU trade have a lower score on psychological Openness. Clearly, regionally clustered personality factors throw additional light on the ‘geography of discontent’ (Los et al., 2017). More generally, this type of analysis may also offer an additional explanation for the rise in resistance against globalization. In this sense, our findings also contribute to a wider literature that explains how globalization may be driving regional differences in voting behavior (Colantone and Stanig, 2016; Autor et al., 2016).

When it comes to policy implications, Openness of voters (like all personality traits) is a rather stable individual trait, and generally is not malleable by election or referenda campaigns. Even though personality traits are quite stable, they are obviously not fixed (see Stuetzer et al., 2016 for the UK regions). Research shows that personality traits can change, especially in young age, and that this change is partly attributable to social demands and experiences (Almlund, Duckworth, Heckman and Kautz, 2011). More specifically, investing in the development of personality skills can even be more effective than the more often used investments in cognitive skills of human capital. A concerted policy effort to affect a region’s personality traits can thus over time also affect a region’s growth and prosperity.

In addition, regions that have fared less well economically are also likely to have inculcated and reproduced over time less open attitudes and personality traits. Such attitudes and traits may eventually – as in the case of Brexit – find expression in major political opposition or protest (see also Rodríguez-Pose, 2018). This would also seem to be a key issue for the growing debate surrounding the uneven geographical impact and polarized social responses to the benefits and costs of globalization.



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