Right-wing authoritarianism linked to an enhanced sense that one’s life matters, study finds

People who endorse right-wing authoritarianism tend to have a greater sense of meaning in life, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality. The research provides some of the first empirical evidence that right‐wing authoritarianism serves an existential function.

“In recent years, we have witnessed a proliferation of right-wing authoritarian ideology and behavior across the Western Hemisphere. We wanted to understand why people find the authoritarian worldview appealing,” said Jake Womick, a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri and corresponding author of the study.

“One potential answer we wanted to test was that it may serve an existential function, facilitating a sense that the individual’s life is meaningful. This hypothesis was first generated by psychologists attempting to understand the rise of the Nazis during WWII. Until now, it has gone empirically untested.”

A survey of 2,391 American adults found that individuals who scored higher on a measure of right-wing authoritarianism also tended to report higher levels of meaning in life. In other words, people who agreed with statements like “The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just ‘loud mouths’ showing off their ignorance” tended to also agree with statements like “I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful.”

This relationship held even after controlling for religiosity, personality traits, and other factors.

“Endorsement of right-wing authoritarianism is associated with anti-democratic dispositions, and prejudice towards outgroups. Our research shows that one reason this worldview may be appealing is because it is positively related to the sense that one’s life is meaningful,” Womick told PsyPost.

A second survey of 505 individuals found that a sense of significance, rather than purpose or coherence, explained the association between right-wing authoritarianism and meaning in life. A third survey of 971 individuals and a fourth survey of 833 individuals found evidence that right-wing authoritarianism helped people maintain a sense of meaning even in the presence of psychological distress.

“Our research suggests that right-wing authoritarianism contributes to meaning in life particularly because it enhances the sense that one’s life matters to important others and that one’s contributions matter to society,” Womick explained.

“Note, we found the same results for religiosity, so this pattern seems to be common to worldviews generally, rather than right-wing authoritarianism specifically. Right-wing authoritarianism not only predicts meaning, but we also found that it helps the individual maintain a sense of meaning in the context of psychological and physical distress.”

Like all research, the study includes some caveats. The researchers used cross-sectional surveys, allowing them to establish associations between certain factors but not determine causality.

“The studies we report are correlational. So, it is very important that people keep in mind that we make no causal claims. We are not saying authoritarianism leads to higher meaning in life. Rather, we are seeking to understand the relationship between these variables,” Womick explained.

“Because of the nature of our methodological and statistical approach, we are studying these constructs aggregated across large groups of people. Thus, while the constructs of authoritarianism and meaning are positively related, that does not mean that every individual with a strong authoritarian disposition is going to experience their life as meaningful.

“Moreover, we argue that this existential function is one reason why right-wing authoritarianism is perceived as an appealing framework of values, but there are likely many other reasons (like preference for social conformity, perception of in-group threat, and belief that the world is dangerous) that people endorse these views.”

“Certainly, we are not arguing people should endorse right-wing authoritarianism. Our results do not imply that living in an authoritarian system would enhance meaning on a societal level compared to living in an egalitarian system. We do not believe this is the case. Our results simply speak to individual differences in right-wing authoritarianism and show that people high on this construct tend to rate their lives as more meaningful, on average,” Womick said.

Additional studies could help establish a causal relationship between right-wing authoritarianism and meaning in life.

“Future research needs to address a number of issues,” Womick explained.” First, is the relationship between right-wing authoritarianism and meaning different in cultures outside of the United States? Second, although we feel it is conceptually more plausible that right-wing authoritarianism contributes to meaning, there is also some possibility that meaning leads to right-wing authoritarianism. Thus, longitudinal and experimental research designs are necessary to address these lingering questions. We are currently conducting research to test these possibilities.”

“I would like to drive home the point that the results of our research do not imply that it is good to endorse right-wing authoritarianism, either on a personal level, or a societal level. There are many other ways that people come to experience their lives as meaningful, including social relationships, daily routine, and the experience of positive mood,” Womick added.

“It may be possible to target these other constructs that facilitate meaning to reduce the negative social implications, like prejudice, that are typically associated with right-wing authoritarianism.”

The study, “The Existential Function of Right-wing Authoritarianism“, was authored by Jake Womick, Sarah J. Ward, Samantha J. Heintzelman, Brendon Woody, and Laura A. King.