Understanding Brexit: a Zeitgeist of collective discontent predicts support for radical societal change

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Purpose. This research examines how a Zeitgeist of collective discontent relates to voting and support for Brexit, and validates a new short version of the Zeitgeist scale.

Background. A multitude of factors have been proposed as explanations for why British people voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. We argue that a critical missing piece in the psychological puzzle of understanding the Brexit-vote is UK’s Zeitgeist of collective discontent, because this collectively shared, general discontent with the state of society motivates support for radical societal change.

Methods. In three large studies (total N = 3199), British participants completed the short Zeitgeist scale: To what extent does the average person in the UK suffer from crime; financial problems; discrimination; antisocial behaviour; injustice; corruption; and immigration (1 = not at all to 7 = a great deal). Participants’ votes during the Brexit-referendum (Studies 1-3) and current support for Brexit (Studies 2-3) were assessed.

Results. We tested and validated the short Zeitgeist scale. Across all studies, results showed that Zeitgeist was associated with Brexit voting and support: more collective discontented people were more likely to have voted Leave and to currently strongly support Brexit, even when controlling for age, gender, education level, political orientation, social- and political trust.

Conclusions. The present findings show that in addition to individual characteristics and attitudes, people’s shared notion that society is doing badly is an important factor in driving radical societal changes. Zeitgeist of collective discontent can be assessed with a short 7-item scale.
Event titleAnnual Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP)
Event typeConference
LocationLisbon, Portugal