The threat of terrorism has been shown to shift societal norms toward authoritarianism. Research published in Political Psychology analyzed data from the 2017 British Election Study (BES) and found that terrorism threat shifts libertarians toward more conservative attitudes. On the other hand, normative threats (i.e., perceptions of dissatisfaction with established authority) widen the gap between authoritarian and libertarian attitudes.
“Authoritarianism was one of those topics that I found particularly interesting in a class on Political Psychology at graduate school. This was in the late 1990s – we read Altemeyer and some of the other work from the 1980s and 1990s like Doty et al,” said study author Daniel Stevens, a professor of politics at the University of Exeter.
“After graduate school, although authoritarianism was never my main area of research, I kept coming back to it in one form or another. I published an article with Ben Bishin and Rob Barr in 2005 that looked at authoritarianism among Latin American elites, and a book with Nick Vaughan-Williams on perceptions of security threats in Britain in 2012, in which authoritarianism was one of the key explanatory variables.”
“In the meantime, Karen Stenner’s book on The Authoritarian Dynamic had been published, along with Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiner’s books challenging her theory, and I began to take a greater interest because of their different findings.”
The threat of terrorism has been shown to increase hostility toward immigrants and increase favor for strict border control. Authoritarians favor conservative policies when they perceive greater normative threat, while libertarians (those low in authoritarianism) either become more tolerant or don’t change their attitudes at all in the face of normative threat.
“The gap between authoritarians and libertarians grows because threat increases the expression of conservative preferences only among individuals who score high on authoritarianism,” hypothesized Stevens and his co-author Susan Banducci. They used data collected in the 2017 BES panel on perceptions of threat before and after terrorist attacks that year in Manchester.
Data suggest that perceptions of threat substantially changed after the Manchester bombing terrorist attack on May 22, 2017. Prior to the event, only 12% of respondents reported terrorism being the most important issue facing the United Kingdom. After the bombing, this number rose to 33%, representing a 300% increase. Importantly, measures reflecting authoritarian attitudes showed that authoritarians were more likely than libertarians to identify terrorism as the main threat facing the country both before and after the bombing.
Normative threat was also influenced by the Manchester bombing. “The impact of Manchester was to raise perceptions of terrorist threat across the authoritarian continuum, which was accompanied by an increase in perceptions of normative threat among higher authoritarians,” wrote the researchers.
Data show a negative interaction between terrorist threat and authoritarianism, suggesting that libertarians adopt more conservative attitudes when threated by terrorism. However, the data also show a positive interaction between normative threat and authoritarianism, suggesting that authoritarian attitudes are activated by normative threat for those high in authoritarianism. In other words, the gap between authoritarians and libertarians widens under increased perceived normative threat.
“When bad things happen in the world, such as a terrorist attack, societies understandably tend to want things like more law and order and become more willing to compromise on freedoms. But they can also produce other attitudes and behaviors such as stereotyping and intolerance of minorities and a willingness to compromise fundamental democratic principles — often termed ‘democratic backsliding’ — such as free speech or the rule of law,” Stevens told PsyPost.
“While all of this is well established in previous research, not everybody changes in this way. Who changes, i.e., which kinds of individuals we need to worry about in this sense, is the million dollar question that has had a less clear answer.”
“Our study suggests there is good reason for that: those high and low in authoritarianism respond to different types of threat,” Stevens said. “We show how this played out following the 2017 Manchester bombing in Britain, with high authoritarians more likely to backslide to the extent that they perceived elite disagreement following the bombing (low authoritarians are less likely to backslide), while low authoritarians are more likely to backslide when they perceive heightened personal threat from terrorism (high authoritarians are unaffected by these perceptions).”
“The take-away is that the nature of threats matters a great deal in the answer to the question of who changes,” he added. “It means that how threats are talked about, from media and elites for example, are crucial, e.g., George W. Bush’s rhetoric about the Muslim faith after 9/11 compared to Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims.”
Researchers cite some limitations to their analysis. “The major caveat about this study is that we are using survey data that we did not collect ourselves,” Stevens explained. “As a result, while the dependent variables relate to what could be characterized as a ‘conservative shift,’ they do not, unfortunately, actually get at intolerance or democratic backsliding.”
There are also a number of questions that still need to be addressed, “including the relationships between different kinds of threats and how/why perceptions of threat change over time, i.e., how stable they are,” Stevens said. “The relationships we have suggested between elite rhetoric and framing also need more research. Finally, there is the perennial issue of the need for a broader understanding by having more studies outside the United States.”
The study, “What Are You Afraid of? Authoritarianism, Terrorism, and Threat“, was authored by Daniel Stevens and Susan Banducci.