What does our subconscious tell us about Brexit?

New research published today by Ipsos MORI provides an insight into not just what people say about the EU referendum, but also with how much conviction they hold their views.

New research published today by Ipsos MORI provides an insight into not just what people say about the European Union (EU), but also with how much conviction they hold their views. The research provides revealing findings for both sides of the debate. 

Using a technique called Implicit Reaction Time (IRT), which measures how quickly people express an opinion, the research gives an indication of the strength of people’s feelings towards leaving or staying in the European Union (EU) and areas of weak association that may indicate differences between what people say and how they will vote on 23 June. Eleven issues relating to the EU debate were tested, capturing both the explicit (stated) support for leaving or staying in the EU, and the extent to which this support is held emphatically without doubt.

Leave voters are just as convinced that leaving will be better for the economy as remain voters are that staying will be better:Whilst the referendum is framed often as a debate about economy vs immigration, leave voters are already convinced (45% emphatically agree) that Britain’s economy will be better outside of the EU – a significant blow to the remain campaign. Remain voters are equally convinced of the opposite (44%), so there is little ground for moving hearts and minds on this issue. 

Neither side is sure that leaving will reduce immigration:Voters on both sides find it more difficult to judge, and are less emphatic about, immigration, with close to twice as many voters giving a confident response when judging the impact of the vote on the economy than on immigration. The biggest gap between explicit response and implicit reaction is among leave supporters, on immigration; when judging if their preferred outcome would reduce immigration, 89% say yes but only 38% say so enthusiastically. This suggests that some Leave voters are paying lip service to one of the Leave campaign’s key messages.

Despite Leave appearing ahead on explicit support, Leave voters are no more emphatic that their preferred option will be the best: Leave voters are more likely to say explicitly that leaving the EU would be better for Britain (across all 11 measures, on average 75% agree compared to 62% of Remain voters saying the same about staying in the EU). But they are no more confident in their assertions (on average 36% are very quick to agree compared to 33% of Remain voters). A significant number are slow to agree with the benefits of leaving the EU, suggesting that they are less confident in this viewpoint.

Turnout will be key: Throughout the campaign it has been argued that turnout of different groups of people will have a big impact on the outcome, and that a higher turnout will support Remain. Today’s findings support this, showing that those who are uncertain whether they will vote have stronger positive associations with remaining in the EU (19% emphatically agree staying would be better compared to 15% who feel the same way about leaving). Additionally the proportion of those agreeing, and agreeing emphatically, that leaving the EU would be better is higher among those who say they are certain to vote (22% agree emphatically) than those who are unsure (15%).

Despite their best efforts, neither campaign is owning the debate on personal impact: Neither leave nor remain voters carry their confidence on the economic message through into their opinions on how the vote would impact on their own standard of living – with leave voters slightly less certain (28% respond emphatically that their choice would be good for them personally, compared to 33% of remain voters). Owning the personal impact narrative is a difficult task to achieve for both campaigns without being accused of negative tactics.

In the short-term uncertainty dominates: On both sides, there is much greater confidence in the long-term rather than the short-term benefits of their preferred option. However this difference is particularly apparent among leave voters who appear nervous about the short-term impact on Britain (52% agree leaving is best in the short term, but only 22% do so with confidence). This suggests that voters on both sides, but particularly those voting to leave, are voting for a bigger picture and willing to take some risk for potential short-term negative impact. 

Commenting on the findings, Bobby Duffy, MD of Social Research Institute, Ipsos MORI, said: 

“Looking at people’s subconscious responses to what are very complex and uncertain concepts gives a new dimension to our understanding of how convinced people are. The level of conviction leave voters have that Brexit would be good for the economy is surprising, given the overwhelming interventions from a range of bodies stating the opposite. Even more surprising is that they are less sure about what is supposed to be the flagship issue of the Brexit cause – reducing immigration. This combined with the fact that a significant number of leave voters are not fully convinced that a Brexit would be better for Britain overall could still come into play when they actually reach the ballot box.”

Technical notes

In partnership with NEUROHM, Ipsos MORI conducted an IRT module among 690 adults aged 18-75 online between 24th-31st May 2016, testing strength of feeling towards the EU across 11 issues. In each scenario, respondents were asked the extent to which they agree or disagree with each of the following statements about leaving / staying in the European Union:

  • Be better for Britain in the long-term
  • be better for Britain in the short-term
  • be better for Britain's control over important issues
  • be better for Britain’s influence in the world
  • be better for Britain's safety
  • be better for Britain’s trade with other countries
  • be better for my own standard of living
  • be better for public services
  • be better for the British economy
  • reduce Britain’s welfare bill
  • reduce the total amount of immigration.

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