New research indicates that heightened perceptions of moral division intensify support for strong leaders. The study, published in Political Psychology, found that the perceived breakdown of society plays a key role in this relationship.
“I think increasingly we are seeing societal divisions play out on moral grounds,” said study author Charlie R. Crimston (@drCharlie_C), a research fellow at the University of Queensland. “We know that when our moral convictions clash things can become pretty toxic (e.g., we become highly emotional, intolerant, and more accepting of violence to achieve desired ends; Skitka et al., 2021). I wanted to know what some of the consequences might be when we were talking about society-wide moral divisions. What happens to societies who perceive they are in an existential fight for their moral futures?”
In a series of three studies, the researchers surveyed 486 individuals from the United Kingdom, 383 individuals from Australia, and 396 individuals from the United States. The participants were asked the extent to which they believed there was an overlap in core moral values between the two major parties in their political system. They also completed an assessment of anomie, meaning the perception that social systems have begun to fall apart.
Crimston and her colleagues found that heightened moral polarization predicted increased support for strong leaders via perceived anomie in society. In other words, those who believed the moral values of the two parties were vastly different from each other were more likely to agree with statements such as “Politicians don’t care about the problems of the average person” and “People do not know who they can trust and rely on,” which in turn was associated with support for leaders who are “willing to break the rules” and “challenge the elites and wealthy corporations.”
“The study found that if people believed there was a breakdown in societal fabric, they were more likely to elect an authoritarian figure to restore order, such as Donald Trump or Pauline Hanson,” Crimston said in a news release. “On the other hand, if there is a feeling of lack of leadership in society, voters may be drawn to a progressive leader to unify and lead the country in a new direction, such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
But the findings from the surveys only provided correlational data, leaving cause-and-effect relationships unclear. To test for causality, the researchers conducted a second study with 399 U.S. participants using an experimental design that manipulated perceived moral polarization.
Participants were asked to imagine they were a citizen of a fictional society called Orinthia, which was dominated by two political parties. They were then randomly assigned to watch one of two videos about the political situation of Orinthia. One video demonstrated substantial moral and ideological consensus between the two major political parties (the low polarization condition), while the other video demonstrated the opposite (the high polarization condition).
The researchers found that participants in the high polarization condition reported an increased need for a strong leader in Orinthia and were more likely to perceive higher levels of anomie.
“Our research is the first that provides evidence of the causal links between perceived moral division in society and the desire to elect extreme leaders as a potential solution,” Crimston told PsyPost. “Basically, when we think opposing groups in society hold incompatible moral views and that society was facing a battle of ‘good versus evil,’ we are more likely to think that society is breaking down. In turn, we are more likely to see extreme authoritarian leaders as a potential solution. So, we see an increased desire to elect these extreme leaders, who chances are, will ultimately seek to divide us even further.”
“However, broadly speaking, we actually tend to agree on more than we realize and it is the perception that our society is divided that presents more of a threat than the actual divisions that do exist,” Crimston added. “Our perceptions about society becoming increasingly divided and that the moral fabric of society is collapsing are more the realistic threats to social cohesion and political stability. As such, we need to be particularly wary of people who play into these narratives for their own gain — whether that be politicians, media commentators, or interest groups.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. Samples were drawn from countries with democratic two-party political systems. It is unclear how well the results generalize to other political contexts.
“While it is telling that we found these links not only in the United States but in Australia and the United Kingdom as well, it remains to be seen whether moral polarization will have similar impacts in non-liberal two-party democracies (i.e., in non-Western countries, or countries that lack a clear two-party political system). Personally, I think moral polarization has the power to be pretty destructive across cultures, but more research is needed before we can say this with any certainty.”
The study, “Moral Polarization Predicts Support for Authoritarian and Progressive Strong Leaders via the Perceived Breakdown of Society“, was authored by Charlie R. Crimston, Hema Preya Selvanathan, and Jolanda Jetten.