Positive contact with immigrants led to increased support for Britain remaining in the European Union (EU) ahead of last year's historic referendum, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
The Brexit debate was dominated by the topic of immigration, with the Leave campaign accused of triumphing on the back of anti-immigrant prejudice. This new study explored the role played by individuals' everyday experience of contact with immigrants in their voting decisions.
Existing research suggests that living alongside and engaging in frequent positive interactions with members of different cultural groups generally makes people more accepting towards them. The researchers in this study suggest it is likely that individuals who come into contact with immigrants more often were actually those most likely to favour Remain.
The findings, published today in the British Journal of Social Psychology, confirm that while prejudice towards EU immigrants was a powerful predictor of support for Brexit, positive contact with immigrants had prejudice-reducing effects and was associated with increased support for Britain staying in the EU.
Lead researcher Dr Rose Meleady said the findings - which come ahead of the anniversary tomorrow of the referendum - help explain the seemingly counterintuitive observation made by some commentators that areas with low numbers of immigrants were those most likely to vote Leave. Electoral Commission figures showed that some of the highest levels of Remain voters were found in districts with high net migration, while some of the strongest Leave districts were those with the fewest immigrants.
Dr Meleady, of UEA's School of Psychology, said: "It is the contact that predicts prejudice towards immigrants, and prejudice was a predictor of how people intended to vote.
"Everyday interactions with immigrants are really important. If you have more opportunities for contact, for example on public transport, at the shops, or with neighbours and colleagues, your attitude is likely to be more positive. Fear of immigration can sometimes drive prejudice rather than its reality.
"Our findings highlight the importance of social interventions and policies that encourage interaction between different groups. Of course, interactions can sometimes be unpleasant or unfriendly and this can increase negative feelings, but we find that people report more positive encounters with immigrants than negative."
These factors relating to immigration were found to be strong drivers of voting intentions, over and above demographic factors previously linked with voting intentions - such as age, education and political orientation. Replicating previous findings, older, less educated, and more politically conservative voters were found to be most inclined to vote to Leave the EU.
Dr Meleady said: "While this study considered the role of intergroup contact and prejudice as drivers of voting intentions, it will be important for future research to also consider how the outcome of the referendum may impact intergroup relations. It remains to be seen what lasting effect Brexit may have on hostilities and animosities between different cultural groups, especially when it may mean that opportunities for contact are less readily available."
Conducted over two days in the week before the referendum, the study surveyed 417 British people about how they planned to vote and their attitudes towards the EU and immigrants - classified as someone who has come to live in Britain from another country within the EU.
The amount of positive and negative contact with immigrants was measured, together with anti-immigrant prejudice, and participants provided demographic information such as age, education, political orientation and gender.
'Examining the Role of Positive and Negative Intergroup Contact and Anti-Immigrant Prejudice in Brexit', Rose Meleady, Charles R Seger and Marieke Vermue, is published in the British Journal of Social Psychology on June 22.