UCL Grand Challenges


Can Different Psychologically-framed Narratives Influence Attitudes towards Immigration?

In a novel experiment, 20 different psychologically-framed narratives around immigration in the UK were tested on 5,880 Leave and Remain supporters.

an image of a brain

7 February 2020


Grant: Grand Challenges Small Grants
Year awarded: 2017-18
Amount awarded: £3,740


This project tested 20 different psychologically-framed narratives around immigration on non-representative samples of 5,880 Leave and Remain supporters (via Prolic Academic). 

Compared to respondents exposed to no text at all (the ‘No text’ control), the experiment generated the following statistically significant results:

  • Double-digit increases in the number of participants who responded saying that they would be content for EU migrants to come to the UK either to work or study, or with complete freedom (the 'policy' question). For Leave voters, from a baseline of 70% in the control condition, this figure rose to up to 85%.
  • Double-digit increases in the numbers who said they viewed EU immigration as a “Good” or “Very Good” thing for the UK (the 'attitudes' question). For Leave voters, the figures rose from 41% to 53%. 

To see whether the initial findings would replicate, a further study was conducted. A shortlist of the 9 most important and interesting message framings were selected. These were tested on nationally representative YouGov samples of around 1,000 people each. This stage of the research was partly funded by the University of Cambridge’s Psychology Department and partly by the PhD student involved (Tessa Buchanan). This study also showed:

  • Double-digit increases on the policy question (from 71% to 81%)
  • Double-digit increases on the attitudes question (from 47% to 57%)
  • Double-digit increase in the numbers who were prepared to donate to a pro-migrant charity called ‘Here for Good’, which provides free legal advice for EU migrants who wish to stay in the UK (from 30% to 40%).

In this latter experiment, one of the samples was used to test participants’ understanding of a range of policy measures around immigration. The study found an interesting ‘hidden consensus’ around support for the modest controls on immigration allowed under EU law. The project has resulted in several media publications, follow-on funding, and a collaboration with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Outputs and Impact

Image credit: pxhere (CC0)