Childhood deprivation predicts preferences for authoritarian leaders in adulthood

New research has found a link between a harsh childhood and authoritarianism. People who experienced deprivation in childhood are more likely to favor authoritarian leaders in adulthood, according to the study, which was published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

“With the rise of populism around the world, studying the psychological underpinnings of authoritarianism appear as particularly important in order to understand — and predict — the evolution of western democracies,” said study author Lou Safra.

“Research in evolutionary biology and in evolutionary psychology — as well as theories in political psychology — have pointed to the importance of childhood environment for explaining adult behavior. In this study, we wanted to test whether this ecological perspective on human behaviour would provide insights into authoritarianism.”

The findings were based on three separate studies.

The researchers initially asked 41 children who lived in either a deprived neighborhood in Romania or in a working-class neighborhood to pick leaders based on facial photographs. They found that children in the deprived neighborhood were more likely to choose leaders with more dominant and less trustworthy faces.

A similar study of 818 French individuals aged 16 to 83 years old found that those who reported experiencing more deprivation in childhood were more likely to choose leaders with more dominant and less trustworthy faces.

For their final study, the researchers analyzed data from 66,281 respondents in the European Value Survey, which confirmed a link between childhood deprivation and authoritarianism. Europeans who experienced more poverty in childhood were more likely to endorse authoritarian values.

“There is a link between childhood deprivation and extreme authoritarianism in adulthood,” Safra told PsyPost.

“This link has been shown using both explicit questions (agreement with the sentence ‘I think that having a strong leader who does not have to bother with the parliament and elections is a good thing’) and using an experimental measure based on first impressions from faces, in a representative sample of the French population and in representative samples of 46 European countries.”

“Importantly, the link between childhood deprivation and the preference for more dominant and less trustworthy leaders has also been found in 7-year old children,” Safra said.

The study — like all research — has limitations.

“The major limitation of this study is its correlational nature,” Safra explained. “Indeed, it only shows an association but no causation. In addition, even if we tried to control for as many variables as possible, we cannot rule out the possibility that a third variable (such as parents’ education) may be responsible for the link between childhood poverty and authoritarianism.”

“I believe that we should continue to integrate psychological explanations to the understanding of political behavior,” he added. “In particular, adopting an ecological perspective for investigating the influence of the environment on political behavior can be particularly fruitful.”

The study, “Childhood harshness predicts long-lasting leader preferences“, was authored by Lou Safra, Yann Algan, Teodora Tecu, Julie Grèzes, Nicolas Baumard, and Coralie Chevallier.