The Benefits of Right-wing Authoritarianism
In recent years, the popularity of extreme right-wing groups has been growing in many countries. For instance, the number of attacks in the U.S. by far right-wing groups has been increasing at an alarming pace and outnumbers attacks by Islamic extremists. Right-wing authoritarianism was first studied by psychologists following WWII in an attempt to understand the rise of Hitler and the behavior of his Nazi followers, but authoritarianism is not simply a problem of the past.
In order to understand why people adopt such antisocial views, we must consider what benefits they provide and what problems they solve for people. We thought that one such benefit might be that, for some people, right-wing authoritarianism enhances the feeling that life is meaningful.
Feeling that your life has meaning – that your life is significant, purposeful, and coherent – can arise from many sources. For many people, religion gives life meaning by answering age-old questions, such as “Does my life matter in the grand scheme of things?” (significance), “What do I want to accomplish with my life?” (purpose), and, “Does the world around me make sense?” (coherence). Although people often associate meaning in life with moral virtue and prosocial behavior, research suggests that the feeling that life is meaningful might result from a variety of sources, including those that are not so virtuous, such as right-wing authoritarianism.
Today, psychologists think of right-wing authoritarianism as comprised of three psychological dimensions. First, it involves a preference for strong leaders and a tendency to show deference to authorities. Second, right-wing authoritarians show strong respect for the social conventions endorsed by such authorities. These typically include traditional norms, such as a “normal and proper” physical appearance, sticking to the straight and narrow, and the heterosexual institution of marriage. Third, authoritarianism entails prejudice and hostility toward outgroup members (such as immigrants) and toward people who are perceived to violate social conventions, such as atheists and homosexuals.
The purpose of our research was to determine whether right-wing authoritarianism relates to the experience of meaning in life. This may initially seem like a questionable idea because right-wing authoritarianism seems to be bad, whereas meaning in life seems to be good. However, there are compelling reasons for thinking that right-wing authoritarianism and meaning in life might be related. As a philosophy of life, right-wing authoritarianism helps people answer some of life’s big questions, much like religion does: What should I do with my life; what is right and what is wrong; who are the people I should associate with and who should I distance myself from; is a hierarchical society with a strong leader or an egalitarian social society with an open-minded leader better? Right-wing authoritarian beliefs provide concrete answers to these questions. Thus, we expected people who are high in authoritarianism to report having high meaning in their lives.
As we expected, our research showed that right-wing authoritarianism is related to greater meaning in life. In other words, people who said they prefer to follow strong leaders, who insist that people respect traditional values, and who are hostile to people they perceive as different from themselves also said that their lives were more meaningful. We also found that for people who strongly endorse right-wing authoritarianism, these beliefs protect their sense of life’s meaningfulness in the face of physical and psychological distress. For instance, people who experience depression tend to report that their lives are less meaningful. But we found that depression took less of a toll on people’s sense of meaning in life if they were high in authoritarianism.
Finally, our research showed that right-wing authoritarianism relates to meaning in life primarily because authoritarianism promotes the degree to which people feel like their life matters (significance) rather than because it relates to their pursuit of life goals (purpose) or their feeling that the world makes sense (coherence). In fact, when we examined the relationship between religiosity and meaning in life, we found the same pattern: Religiosity primarily relates to meaning in life because of significance rather than purpose or coherence.
Thus, whether they promote positive or negative behavior, worldview beliefs in general may boost meaning by making people feel like their life is important, that their contributions to society matter, and that other people will remember them after they die. Our research helps us understand the experience of meaning in life, showing that secular worldviews, including those held by people high in authoritarianism, relate to meaning in a similar way to religious worldviews. One reason that people may come to endorse views that are associated with antisocial outcomes such as submitting to powerful leaders and derogating people who seem different is because such views can facilitate the feeling that life is meaningful.
These results might also help to explain why people adopt other antisocial views or join extremist groups. For instance, one of the reasons people might become radicalized and join Islamic extremist groups is because these beliefs might provide a source of the feeling that life is meaningful. The question that faces psychological science now is how to protect people from finding meaning in life from negative, antisocial attitudes and instead lead them to adopt more positive worldviews.
For Further Reading
Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians. Winnepeg, Canada. http://members.shaw.ca/jeanaltemeyer/drbob/TheAuthoritarians.pdf
Womick, J., Ward, S. J., Heintzelman, S. J., Woody, B., & King, L A. (2019). The existential function of right-wing authoritarianism. Journal of Personality, 87, 1056-1073. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12457
Jake Womick is working on his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Missouri Columbia where he studies meaning in life, political ideology, and personality.