New research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that it is not necessarily the case that right-wing individuals are more sensitive to perceived threats. The study, which analyzed data from dozens of countries, found few consistent relationships between political beliefs and concerns about various threats.
“The finding that conservatives and people on the political right tend to feel more worried and threatened than liberals and people on the political left is an important finding in political psychology,” said study author Mark Brandt of Tilburg University.
“It has implications for the situations that will cause people to shift to the left or the right, the types of persuasive messages that are most likely to work for people on the left and the right, and highlights the different types of psychological functions left-wing and right-wing belief systems give.”
“At the same time, this important finding was not comprehensively evaluated across different countries, different types of threats, and different types of political beliefs. This means that the link between threat and ideology might hold, or it might be specific to a limited number of countries, types of threats, and political beliefs,” Brandt said.
For their study, the researchers examined responses from 60,378 individuals who participated in the 6th wave of the World Values Survey, which collected data from 56 countries from 2010 to 2014. Importantly, the survey included measures of threats related to violent conflict, neighborhoods/local crime, the police, economics, poverty, and government surveillance.
The survey also collected data on cultural beliefs, such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and economic beliefs, such as opposition to inequality and opposition to government ownership of business/industry.
The researchers found that different types of political beliefs were associated with different types of threats — and the links between political beliefs and threats did not always fit into neat ideological categories. The findings indicate that there is not a “simple nor straightforward association between threat and ideology,” Brandt said.
When summing up the data across all countries, right-wing cultural beliefs were associated with increased concerns about violent conflict, such as terrorism or civil war. But increased concerns about violent conflict were also associated with more left-wing views on government ownership.
Left-wing economic beliefs, on the other hand, were associated with increased concerns about economic threats, such as lack of quality education and unemployment, while experiencing greater poverty was associated with more right-wing cultural views.
Heightened fears related to the police were associated with more left-wing cultural political beliefs, but were unrelated to economic political beliefs. Heightened fears about surveillance were associated with more right-wing views on government ownership.
To complicate matters further, the link between threat and political beliefs varied across different countries.
“If you hear people say that generally speaking conservatives experience and feel more threat, this is incomplete. Instead, whether liberals or conservatives experience more threat depends on the specific type of threat (e.g., economic vs. violence), the specific type of political belief (e.g., economic attitudes or social attitudes), and the specific country. It is not a simple story,” Brandt told PsyPost.
“We point out that liberals and conservatives both find some things threatening. There is a temptation to see this as ‘liberals and conservatives are the same’. I think that this would be shortsighted. For example, although both groups find some things threatening, they find different things threatening. This is important,” he added.
“We also do not assess if the different types of threats are more or less reasonable. Feeling threatened by climate change or COVID-19 seems quite reasonable to me given the state of the world, whereas feeling threatened by immigrants does not. It remains to be seen if liberals or conservatives are better as calibrating their feelings of threat to the objective levels of threat in a situation.”
The study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“A major task for future studies is to figure out when and why threat and ideology are related,” Brandt explained.
“The study also only used cross-sectional data, which means that we cannot make any claims about causality. It could be that threats cause people’s political beliefs or that people see different things as threatening depending on their political beliefs. We don’t have the answers to those questions.”
The study, “The Association Between Threat and Politics Depends on the Type of Threat, the Political Domain, and the Country“, was authored by Mark J. Brandt, Felicity M. Turner-Zwinkels, Beste Karapirinler, Florian Van Leeuwen, Michael Bender, Yvette van Osch, and Byron Adams.