On 23 June 2016, the UK voted by a slender majority to leave the European Union. Referendums give the public direct control over policymaking, which is undeniably democratic but requires that citizens are well informed about the decision at stake. What’s more, referendums also rely on the ability of citizens to process this information rationally and make a decision on what is almost always a technically complex issue.
The referendum on EU membership was no exception. Not only were the issues technical but they were also wide-ranging – including immigration, budgets, fiscal policies, wages, sovereignty, security and law to name but a few. While ignorance on the issues at hand is typically viewed as harmless – as individual errors tend to cancel each other out in the voter population – action based upon misinformation (wrong, an accidental falsehood) and disinformation (knowingly wrong, a deliberate falsehood) can lead to substantial decision errors. This can distort the outcomes of referendums or other electoral processes by the ‘active misinformed’.
It has been argued by academics and factcheckers that the information provided to the public in the months leading up to the referendum was contradictory, false and often fraudulent. This has been found to be especially true regarding the pro-Leave campaign. For instance, most people can remember the claims of £350 million a week for the NHS or the threat of immigration from Turkey’s apparently imminent accession to the EU. Indeed, Dominic Cummings – Vote Leave campaign director – admitted they won by lying.
Amongst academics, largely influenced by the EU referendum and to some extent the 2016 US elections, there has been a real interest in individual vulnerability to (mis/dis) information. A key finding is that those low in cognitive ability and analytical thinking find it difficult to detect and discount misinformation.
Comparing cognitive ability
This strand of research was precisely what motivated our latest paper, investigating the link between cognitive ability and voting behaviour in the EU referendum.
Using a UK national representative data source of 3,183 heterosexual couples, we found compelling evidence that cognitive ability – as measured by a broad range of cognitive skills, including memory, verbal fluency, fluid reasoning and numerical reasoning – really mattered in deciding how to vote.
For instance, only 40% of the people with the lowest cognitive ability voted Remain, compared with 73% of those with the highest cognitive ability. We even found that having a high-cognitive-ability partner and having a cognitive advantage over one’s partner both increased the likelihood of voting Remain. Therefore, our results suggest that erroneous reporting surrounding the referendum might have complicated personal decision-making, especially for those with low cognitive ability. However, as the study was observational, we cannot prove causation.
Depending on which side of the debate you fall, reading this may fill you with anger or joy. However, both these emotions are an error of judgement. It is important to understand that our findings are based on average differences: there exists a huge amount of overlap between the distributions of Remain and Leave voters’ cognitive abilities.
Indeed, we calculated that approximately 36% of Leave voters had higher cognitive ability than the average (mean) Remain voter. Therefore – and for any Remain voters who were planning on boasting and engaging in one-upmanship – our results say very little about what cognitive ability differences may or may not exist between two random Leave and Remain voters.
Misinformation on the rise
Does this sort of research really benefit society? In short, we believe it does. Whilst media outlets have always circulated some amounts of misleading information, the rise of social media and the internet has sharply increased the scale and accessibility of (mis/dis) information and increasingly divisive messages. Indeed, the UK National Cyber Security Centre recently warned of the threat to the next general election from the ever more sophisticated deepfake videos and other forms of disinformation generated by AI.
As stated at the beginning of this article, the proper functioning of referendums and other democratic processes require that citizens are both fully informed about the decision at stake and able to use this information in a rational manner.
However, political action based upon mis or disinformation and the inability of those lower in cognitive ability to detect and discount this information can lead to substantial decision errors, undermining the democratic process. It is therefore possible mis/disinformation could threaten the ‘competence principle’– the principle that categorises political decisions as unjust if they are made by a generally incompetent decision-making body – in the face of more polarised societies, AI, hostile foreign actors and other risks.