What do art preferences have to do with political preferences? New research article


New paper from the Brexit project: Preference for realistic art predicts support for Brexit. Read or download here.

Following the UK’s EU referendum in June of 2016, there has been considerable interest from scholars in understanding the characteristics, identities and attitudes that differentiate those who supported Leave from those who supported Remain.  Among the strongest predictors of support for Leave were older age, white ethnicity, low education, concern about immigration and English national identity. Education appears to have played a particularly important role.

Yet it is not just basic demographic characteristics and attitudes to immigration that distinguish Leave supporters from Remain supporters.

The two groups reportedly have distinct psychometric profiles, favour different consumer brands, and hold opposing views on subjects like feminism and the Internet. Compared to Remain supporters, Leave supporters exhibit higher conscientiousness, lower openness and lower neuroticism, prefer consumer brands that are more ‘straightforward’ and less ‘innovative’, and are more likely to see feminism and the Internet as ‘forces for ill’.

Following this, we hypothesized that these seemingly far-ranging psychological differences would equate to divergent artistic preferences between the two groups. The visual arts have long been a subject of sociological interest, due to their profound significance in both history and everyday life. Research in psychology has found that conscientiousness correlates with liking of representational art, whereas neuroticism correlates with liking abstract art; openness appears to correlate with liking most types of art, but particularly with liking contemporary art. And compared to individuals who identify as liberal, those who identify as conservative seem to prefer simpler, more representational paintings. Since Leave supporters score higher on conscientiousness but lower on neuroticism and openness, and given their general proclivity toward conservatism, we hypothesized that preference for realistic art would predict support for Brexit.

Using data from the Brexit project, preferences for realistic art was measured using a four-item binary choice test. Controlling for a range of personal characteristics, we found that respondents who preferred all four realistic paintings were 15–20 percentage points more likely to support Leave than those who preferred zero or one realistic paintings. This effect was comparable to the difference in support between those with a degree and those with no education, and was robust to controlling for the respondent’s political party identity.