What are the psychological characteristics of people holding far-right beliefs?

Milan Obaidi 

 

  • People with far right beliefs are characterized by a simplified mindset and tendency to search for order and structure.
  • They have a strong desire for group-based dominance and hierarchy, and often see social groups arranged along a superiority-inferiority dimension.
  • They perceive the wider authorities as illegitimate.
Image may contain: Property, House, Home, Building, Real estate.

Extreme beliefs and orientations

The rise of ideological polarization and political extremism has reignited important questions about what characterizes those who hold extreme beliefs and orientations. It has been suggested that political extremists (e.g., right-wing and left-wing) and religious fundamentalists (e.g., Islamists) share a range of psychological similarities.[1] However, the main focus of this entry is to examine psychological features of people holding far right beliefs and orientations. A tremendous volume of scientific work has been published on this topic. Here we focus on the most common psychological features of people who hold far right beliefs (i.e. anti-egalitarianism, anti-democracy, illiberalism and opposition to state monopoly on legitimate use of violence).[2]

Avoidance of uncertainty or ambiguity

People adopt certain mindsets, cognitive styles, and dispositions because they satisfy psychological needs and motives such as need for closure, order, structure, and avoidance of uncertainty or ambiguity.[3] Individuals who endorse far right ideology often have an increased desire for obedience to authority, order, purity, familiarity, structure, and a rigid worldview mentality.[4] Particularly, they tend to adhere to a worldview that is based on authoritarianism and hierarchy between social groups.[5] This is further reflected in their psychological profile, which is more reflective of the desire for group-based dominance and subjugation (including women’s subordination), traditionalism, and social inequality.[6] The tendency to dominate and subjugate disadvantaged and minority groups is particularly expressed in anti-immigrant and xenophobic stances, strong preference for an ethnically, culturally and/or racially homogeneous population, and prejudice against minorities.[7] Moreover, the motive to see social groups arranged along a superiority-inferiority dimension is typically more pronounced among people holding far right beliefs, and hence they are less tolerant of LGBTQ communities, ethnic and racial minorities, women, and generalized prejudice towards low-status groups (e.g., the homeless and disabled).[8]

Rigid mindset

Another key feature of far right individuals is the rigidity of their mindset—a cognitive style reflected in increased closed-mindedness, simplistic style of thinking, and black-and-white perceptions of society.[9] According to ideological extremity hypothesis (i.e. rigidity-of-the-extreme), individuals on the far left may also be characterized by psychological rigidity.[10] However, it has been argued that the rigidity of the left is less common than rigidity of the right (i.e., rigidity-of-the-right).[11] For example, individuals with far right beliefs display particularly strong dogmatic intolerance—defined as the tendency to reject opposing beliefs—and consider any ideological belief that differs from theirs as inferior.[12] This so-called rigidity-of-the-right hypothesis follows a long tradition of research suggesting that closed-mindedness and dogmatism are associated with increasingly right-wing attitudes and extreme ideologies. This is corroborated by findings demonstrating that right-wing political attitudes are correlated with psychological rigidity.[13]

Empirically, there are studies showing an association between far right political standpoints and dogmatism, as well as low openness.[14] In general, dogmatic people are characterized by increased cognitive inflexibility, inability to process opposing ideas and information, and the tendency to dehumanize those who oppose their beliefs.[15] Indeed, cognitive inflexibly is related to the realms of nationalism and authoritarianism, and extremist attitudes.[16] For instance, using two samples of predominantly white American and British respondents, scholars[17] demonstrated that mental inflexibility may facilitate a tendency towards extremist views. Respondents who were lower in cognitive inflexibly were more likely to harm others and engage in self-sacrifice in the name of an ideological group.

Role of social psychological factors

In addition to individual level variables, scholars of extremism have also emphasized the role of social psychological factors, such identity and belonging processes.[18] One theoretical framework that has explored the psychological motivations behind extremism is significance quest theory (SQT).[19] According to this theory, extreme beliefs and actions reflect means of obtaining or restoring an individual’s experience of personal significance and identity.[20] Indeed, the experience of significant loss (e.g., experiences of humiliation, rejection, perceived relative deprivation, and injustice) predicts right-wing extreme attitudes and intentions.

Recent work has demonstrated that quest for significance can indeed lead to extremism[21] and motivate people to self-sacrifice for a political cause.[22] For instance, using a sample of Dutch respondents, scholars[23] demonstrated that psychological distress (e.g., perceived deprivation) stimulates adherence to far right ideology, which in turn predicts support for right-wing extremist violence and violent intentions.[24] Moreover, a study using a sample of white Americans with Republican affiliation[25] showed that perceived psychological distress predicted stronger willingness to violently persecute political out-groups. Effects on these extremist tendencies were largely mediated by people’s increased closeness with their political leader.[26] In other words, the more psychological distress people experience, the more they identified with their political leader, which in turn made them more willing to use violence against those identified as threats by this leader.[27]

Need for cognitive closure

Furthermore, the link between psychological distress and adherence to far right beliefs and extremism is suggested to be mediated by a need for cognitive closure (NCC)—a motivational state in which individuals seek unambiguous and absolute answers.[28] In fact, research shows that a need for cognitive closure is associated with right-wing political orientation.[29] Thus, people may endorse far right beliefs and ideology because of a need for belongingness and identity. Individuals who lack a coherent sense of identity may be particularly vulnerable to such indoctrination.[30] Indeed, in the face of social exclusion, it is reasoned that expressions of ethno-centrism—defined as the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture—becomes a means by which one’s social identity is boosted.[31] In sum, holding far right beliefs increases people’s social identity and personal importance because such beliefs satisfy a need to belong to groups of like-minded people.[32

 

[1] Gambetta, D., & Hertog, S. (2017). Engineers of jihad: The curious connection between violent extremism and education. Princeton, USA: Princeton University Press; Kruglanski, A.W., Gelfand, M.J., Bélanger, J.J., Sheveland, A., Hetiarachchi, M., & Gunaratna, R. (2014). The psychology of radicalization and deradicalization: How significance quest impacts violent extremism. Political Psychology35(S1), 69-93; See also Greenberg, J., & Jonas, E. (2003). Psychological motives and political orientation—the left, the right, and the rigid: comment on Jost et al. (2003). Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 376–382; van Prooijen, J.W., & Krouwel, A.P. (2017). Extreme political beliefs predict dogmatic intolerance. Social Psychological and Personality Science8(3), 292-300; Obaidi, M., Kunst, J.R., Kteily, N., Thomsen, L., & Sidanius, J. (2018). Living under threat: Mutual threat perception drives anti-Muslim and anti-Western hostility in the age of terrorism. European Journal of Social Psychology48(5), 567-584; Obaidi, M., Thomsen, L., & Bergh, R. (2018). “They think we are a threat to their culture”: Meta-cultural threat fuels willingness and endorsement of extremist violence against the cultural outgroup. International Journal of Conflict and Violence12, 1-13.

[2] International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT). (2013, March). Radicalisation, de-radicalisation, counter-radicalisation: A conceptual discussion and literature review (A. P. Schmid, Author; ICCT Research Paper). https://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/ICCT-Schmid-Radicalisation-De-Radicalisation-Counter-Radicalisation-March-2013_2.pdf.

[3] Greenberg & Jonas (2003); Kruglanski, A.W., Webster, D.M., & Klem, A. (1993). Motivated resistance and openness to persuasion in the presence or absence of prior information. Journal of personality and social psychology65(5), 861-876.

[4] Alizadeh, M., Weber, I., Cioffi-Revilla, C., Fortunato, S., & Macy, M. (2019). Psychology and morality of political extremists: Evidence from Twitter language analysis of alt-right and antifa. EPJ Data Science8(17). https://doi.org/10.1140/epjds/s13688-019-0193-9; Altemeyer, B. (1998). The other “authoritarian personality”. Advances in experimental social psychology, 30, 47-92; Gambetta & Hertog (2017); Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological bulletin129(3), 339-375; Hibbing, J.R., Smith, K.B., & Alford, J.R. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and brain sciences, 37, 297-350.

[5] Bobbio, N. (1996). Left and right: The significance of a political distinction. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press; Forscher, P.S., & Kteily, N.S. (2020). A psychological profile of the alt-right. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1), 90-116; Meloen, J., & Middendorp, C. (1991). Authoritarianism in the Netherlands: The empirical distribution in the population and its relation to theories on authoritarianism 1970–1985. Politics & the Individual 1(2), 49-72; Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L.M., & Malle, B.F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology67(4), 741-763.

[6] Forscher & Kteily (2017); Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (2003). Social dominance theory and the dynamics of inequality: A reply to Schmitt, Branscombe, & Kappen and Wilson & Liu. The British Journal of Social Psychology42, 207-213.

[7] Sears, D.O., & Henry, P.J. (2003). The origins of symbolic racism. Journal of personality and social psychology85(2), 259-275; Bergh, R., Akrami, N., Sidanius, J., & Sibley, C.G. (2016). Is group membership necessary for understanding generalized prejudice? A re-evaluation of why prejudices are interrelated. Journal of personality and social psychology111(3), 367-395.

[8] Terrizzi Jr, J.A., Shook, N.J., & Ventis, W.L. (2010). Disgust: A predictor of social conservatism and prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals. Personality and individual differences49(6), 587-592; Van Hiel, A., Pandelaere, M., & Duriez, B. (2004). The impact of need for closure on conservative beliefs and racism: Differential mediation by authoritarian submission and authoritarian dominance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin30(7), 824-837.

[9] Gambetta & Hertog (2017); Jost et al. (2003); Zmigrod, L., Rentfrow, P.J., & Robbins, T.W. (2019, May 7). Cognitive inflexibility predicts extremist attitudes. Frontiers in psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00989; Rokeach, M. (1954). The nature and meaning of dogmatism. Psychological Review, 61(3), 194–204.

[10] Greenberg & Jonas (2003); van Prooijen, J.W., & Krouwel, A.P. (2019). Psychological features of extreme political ideologies. Current Directions in Psychological Science28(2), 159-163.

[11] Jost et al. (2003); Jost, J.T. (2017). Ideological asymmetries and the essence of political psychology. Political Psychology38(2), 167-208.

[12] van Prooijen & Krouwel (2017); Toner, K., Leary, M.R., Asher, M.W., & Jongman-Sereno, K.P. (2013). Feeling superior is a bipartisan issue: Extremity (not direction) of political views predicts perceived belief superiority. Psychological Science24(12), 2454-2462.

[13] Zmigrod, L., Rentfrow, P.J., & Robbins, T.W. (2018). Cognitive underpinnings of nationalistic ideology in the context of Brexit. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences115(19); for meta-analyses see Jost et al. (2003); Van Hiel, A., Onraet, E., Crowson, H.M., & Roets, A. (2016). The relationship between right‐wing attitudes and cognitive style: A comparison of self-report and behavioural measures of rigidity and intolerance of ambiguity. European Journal of Personality30(6), 523-531.

[14] De Regt, Mortelmans, & Smits (2011); Gøtzsche-Astrup, O. (2019). Personality moderates the relationship between uncertainty and political violence: Evidence from two large US samples. Personality and individual differences139, 102-109.

[15] De Regt, Mortelmans, & Smits (2011)

[16] Zmigrod, Rentfrow, & Robbins (2019)

[17] Zmigrod, Rentfrow, & Robbins (2018)

[18] Littman, R., & Paluck, E.L. (2015). The cycle of violence: Understanding individual participation in collective violence. Political Psychology36, 79-99; Lyons-Padilla, S., Gelfand, M.J., Mirahmadi, H., Farooq, M., & Van Egmond, M. (2015). Belonging nowhere: Marginalization & radicalization risk among Muslim immigrants. Behavioral Science & Policy1(2), 1-12; McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2008). Mechanisms of political radicalization: Pathways toward terrorism. Terrorism and political violence20(3), 415-433.

[19] Kruglanski, A.W., & Fishman, S. (2009). Psychological factors in terrorism and counterterrorism: Individual, group, and organizational levels of analysis. Social Issues and Policy Review3(1), 1-44; Kruglanski et al. (2014).

[20] Kruglanski, A., Jasko, K., Webber, D., Chernikova, M., & Molinario, E. (2018). The making of violent extremists. Review of General Psychology22(1), 107-120; Webber, D., Klein, K., Kruglanski, A., Brizi, A., & Merari, A. (2017). Divergent paths to martyrdom and significance among suicide attackers. Terrorism and political violence29(5), 852-874.

[21] Webber, D., Babush, M., Schori-Eyal, N., Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis, A., Hettiarachchi, M., Bélanger, J.J., Moyano, M., Trujillo, H.M., Gunaratna, R., Kruglanski, A.W., & Gelfand, M.J. (2018). The road to extremism: Field and experimental evidence that significance loss-induced need for closure fosters radicalization. Journal of personality and social psychology114(2), 270-285

[22] Dugas, M., Bélanger, J.J., Moyano, M., Schumpe, B.M., Kruglanski, A. W., Gelfand, M.J., Touchton-Leonard, K., & Nociti, N. (2016). The quest for significance motivates self-sacrifice. Motivation Science2(1), 15-32.

[23] Doosje, B., van den Bos, K., Loseman, A., Feddes, A.R., & Mann, L. (2012). “My in‐group is superior!”: Susceptibility for radical right‐wing attitudes and behaviors in Dutch youth. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research5(3), 253-268.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Kunst, J.R., Dovidio, J.F., & Thomsen, L. (2019). Fusion with political leaders predicts willingness to persecute immigrants and political opponents. Nature Human Behaviour3(11), 1180-1189.

[26] Swann Jr, W.B., Jetten, J., Gómez, Á., Whitehouse, H., & Bastian, B. (2012). When group membership gets personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological review119(3), 441-456.

[27] Kunst, Dovidio, & Thomsen (2019)

[28] Webber et al. (2017)

[29] Chirumbolo, A. (2002). The relationship between need for cognitive closure and political orientation: The mediating role of authoritarianism. Personality and Individual Differences32(4), 603-610.

[30] Post, J.M. (1987). Rewarding fire with fire: Effects of retaliation on terrorist group dynamics. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism10(1), 23-35.

[31] Greitemeyer, T. (2012). Boosting one's social identity: Effects of social exclusion on ethnocentrism. Basic and applied social psychology34(5), 410-416.

[32] Tajfel, H. (Ed.) (2010). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

By Milan Obaidi
Published Sep. 7, 2020 12:11 PM - Last modified Mar. 8, 2021 1:40 PM