What are the psychological characteristics of people holding far-right beliefs?
- 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.
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. 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).
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. Individuals who endorse far right ideology often have an increased desire for obedience to authority, order, purity, familiarity, structure, and a rigid worldview mentality. Particularly, they tend to adhere to a worldview that is based on authoritarianism and hierarchy between social groups. 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. 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. 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).
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. According to ideological extremity hypothesis (i.e. rigidity-of-the-extreme), individuals on the far left may also be characterized by psychological rigidity. 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). 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. 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.
Empirically, there are studies showing an association between far right political standpoints and dogmatism, as well as low openness. 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. Indeed, cognitive inflexibly is related to the realms of nationalism and authoritarianism, and extremist attitudes. For instance, using two samples of predominantly white American and British respondents, scholars 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.
In addition to individual level variables, scholars of extremism have also emphasized the role of social psychological factors, such identity and belonging processes. One theoretical framework that has explored the psychological motivations behind extremism is significance quest theory (SQT). According to this theory, extreme beliefs and actions reflect means of obtaining or restoring an individual’s experience of personal significance and identity. 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 and motivate people to self-sacrifice for a political cause. For instance, using a sample of Dutch respondents, scholars 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. Moreover, a study using a sample of white Americans with Republican affiliation 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. 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.
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. In fact, research shows that a need for cognitive closure is associated with right-wing political orientation. 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. 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. 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
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