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Political Psychology

Social cognitive forms of aggression linked to support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, study finds

New research published in The Journal of Psychology has found that supporters of Donald Trump in 2016 were more likely to evaluate others through a lens of weakness versus strength, while supporters of Bernie Sanders were more likely to believe that they were being exploited by the powerful.

The findings indicate that social cognitive forms of aggression are related to the endorsement of political candidates and parties — and add to a growing body of research that suggests personality differences are intertwined with political beliefs.

In the study, researchers from Auburn University used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to collect data from 1,657 American adults during November of 2014 and another 579 American adults during March of 2016.

The participants completed a measure of aggressive beliefs and attitudes, which included biases such as hostile attribution, potency, retribution, victimization by powerful others, derogation of target, and social discounting.

These aggressive biases refer to the tendency to see harmful intent in the actions of others, the tendency to reason by contrasting strength versus weakness, the tendency to confer logical priority to retaliation over reconciliation, the tendency to frame oneself as a victim, tendency to infer negative traits to some people to make them more deserving of aggression, and the tendency to use socially unorthodox and antisocial beliefs to interpret events, respectively.

The March 2016 sample allowed the researchers to examine the endorsement of specific presidential candidates. The majority of the participants supported either Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders.

Aggressive biases were unrelated to support for Clinton or Cruz, but were predictors of support for Trump and Sanders.

Compared to all others, Trump supporters were higher in potency and derogation of target. In other words, Trump supporters were the most likely to strongly agree with statements such as “Life presents challenges that separate the weak from the strong” and “Some people are just bad people.”

“Trump supporters appear to hold the belief that social interactions provide an opportunity to examine the dynamics between individuals to determine who is strong and who is weak,” the researchers explained.

Sanders supporters, on the other hand, were higher in victimization by powerful others. “These individuals are more likely than others in the sample to view themselves as victims of oppression, injustice, and inequity, and use this view as justification for acts aimed at righting these perceived wrongs,” the researchers said.

After analyzing data from the November 2014 sample, the researchers also found significant differences based on political affiliation in general.

Democrats were low in potency and high in victimization by powerful others, while Republicans were low in hostile attribution, retribution, victimization by powerful others, and social discounting, but high in potency.

“Democrats appear to have the belief that those in power are likely to take advantage of those not in power, while Republicans do not hold this view. In addition, Democrats appear to view social interactions from a more egalitarian viewpoint, while Republicans appear to be more likely to view social interactions as an opportunity to determine a hierarchy of those who are strong versus weak,” the researchers explained.

Independents, on the other hand, were found to be high in hostile attribution, potency, retribution, victimization by powerful others, and social discounting — which suggests that they “view traditional values and customs as factors that produce and maintain social ills and impede free-will,” the researchers said.

The study, “An Examination of Aggressive Beliefs and Attitudes in Relation to Political Affiliation and Candidate Endorsement in the United States“, was authored by Jesse S. Michel and Joseph R. Bardeen.