Evidence and perceptions in the post-Brexit immigration debate

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Summary & aims

There is consensus that anti-immigration sentiments played an important role in the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Previous research, including by NIESR, finds that there is a disconnect between evidence on the benefits of immigration, particularly to the economy, and public perceptions. In this project NIESR is partnering with academics from the fields of philosophy and psychology to understand better how people process evidence about the impact of immigration. Using focus group methods, our aim is to identify effective forms of communication that enable people to consider evidence in formulating their opinions on immigration.


We are using experimental focus groups, with control and treatment arms and use of a facts based video, to investigate a series of prominent hypotheses in the psychological literature which may explain why people do not integrate information about the economic impacts into their views of immigration. The focus groups will also gain insights into the role of immigration attitudes in the decision to vote Leave in the EU referendum.

Timescale and funder
The evaluation was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. It began in October 2017 and the report was published in October 2018. You can watch a short video on the topic here


Executive summary: Executive Summary.pdf

Journal article: Rolfe, H., Runge, J., & Hudson-Sharp, N. (2019) Immigration Policy from Post-War to Post-Brexit: How New Immigration Policy can Reconcile Public Attitudes and Employer Preferences, National Institute Economic Review, 248(1).

Runge, J. (2020) What will be the impact of Covid-19 on public attitudes to immigration? Economics Observatory.

Nuffield Election briefing: Aitken, A., Manzoni, C., Runge, J. (2019) Past, present and future of immigration, NIESR General Election Briefing, Nuffield Foundation.

Briefing: Runge, J. (2019) Overview of evidence on economic impacts of EU immigration, NIESR Briefing, ESRC. 

Briefing: Runge, J. (2019) Overview of evidence on UK public attitudes to immigration, NIESR Briefing, ESRC.

We forgot about immigration - will this turn out to be a grave mistake?, NIESR blog by Johnny Runge

EU migrants contribute to UK public finances, but the money hasn't gone where it's needed, LSE British Politics and Policy, blog by Johnny Runge

Why the government’s crackdown on low-skilled migration is at odds with the public mood, LSE British Politics and Policy, blog by Johnny Runge

Blog/opinion piece: This is what the British public really think about migrant workers - it may surprise you – opinion piece in the Independent by lead author Heather Rolfe

Blog/opinion piece: The power of negative thinking: why perceptions of immigration are resistant to facts - LSE politics & policy blog by Heather Rolfe

Blog/opinion piece: Are Britons Really Softening on Immigration – opinion piece in Project Syndicate by co-author Johnny Runge

Blog/opinion piece: People’s perceptions of EU immigration: It’s the economy, stupid! - NIESR blog by Johnny Runge

Podcast: The public’s perception of immigration – what role does the media play – Podcast with Heather Rolfe in conversation with Gary Gibbon, Political Editor of Channel 


NIESR Staff involved in this project
Dr Heather Rolfe (Principal Investigator), Nathan Hudson-Sharp, Johnny Runge. Dr Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij, Birkbeck University of London (Co-investigator)


Private: Johnny Runge
Principal Social Researcher


Private: Johnny Runge
Principal Social Researcher