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Journal Article

Depression and attitudes to change in referendums: the case of Brexit


Publication date

May 2021


Depression is the most common mental illness and its profound impact on cognition and decision‐making has implications for political judgement. However, those implications are unclear in the case of referendums offering a choice between status quo and change. On one hand, one component of depression is the kind of life dissatisfaction associated with voting for change. Yet cognitive models also portray depression sufferers as biased towards the status quo: they are less inclined to research change, more pessimistic about its benefits and more likely to exaggerate its potential costs. In this paper, we use data from Understanding Society to examine the impact of those cross‐pressures on support for Brexit. Prior to the referendum, while life dissatisfaction and generally poor health predicted support for Leaving the European Union (EU), those diagnosed with depression were disproportionately likely to support Remain. Supporting our claim that the latter was a sign of status quo bias, this difference disappeared once the result was in and leaving the EU had become the widespread expectation. The study highlights the unexplored importance of mental health for political judgements, emphasises the multidimensionality of conditions like depression and illustrates the psychological role of status quo bias in referendum voting.

Published in

European Journal of Political Research

Volume and page numbers

60 , 339 -358





Politics, Public Opinion, Psychology, Elections. Electoral Behaviour, Well Being, Health, Social Attitudes, and International Economic Relations


Open Access; This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Related publications

  1. Depression, status quo bias and the Brexit referendum

    Luca Bernardi and Robert Johns

  2. Do voters need therapy? Professor James Tilley asks to what extent our politics is now steeped in cognitive distortion?

    Luca Bernardi and Robert Johns


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