Two aspects of right-wing authoritarianism are associated with a heightened desire to cut down those with a high level of achievement and/or success, according to new research published in The Journal of Social Psychology.
Right-wing authoritarianism is a well-studied psychological construct developed in the aftermath of World War II that is characterized by three tendencies: submission to authority, strong adherence to conventions, and aggression directed at those seen as violating social norms.
The new study examined how right-wing authoritarianism and other sociopolitical variables were related to attitudes towards so-called “tall poppies,” a term commonly used in Australia and New Zealand to describe a person of high status.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that individuals can hold ambivalent attitudes. My PhD research was concerned with understanding the extent to which the tall poppy syndrome — a desire to denigrate those of high status or rank — was related to individual attitudes and values relating to anti-intellectualism,” said study author Mathew Marques, a lecturer in social psychology at La Trobe University.
“In this research, I had the opportunity of collaborating with Emeritus Professor Norman T. Feather who had written the most influential work in psychology on why individuals support or denigrate tall poppies. So we set out to answer some yet unknown questions, primarily concerned with how conservative values are associated with wanting to cut a tall poppy down to size.”
The data for the new research came from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a nationally representative study of adults that started in 2009. Marques and his colleagues analyzed responses from 53,520 participants who indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “People who are ‘tall poppies’ should be cut down to size.”
The researchers found that authoritarian aggression and authoritarian submission were positively related to favoring the fall of tall poppies. In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “Our country will be destroyed some day if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs” (aggression) and “It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds” (submission) were more likely to agree that tall poppies should be “cut down to size.”
Lower levels of authoritarian conventionalism, in contrast, were associated with favoring the fall of tall poppies. Those low in conventionalism agreed with statements such as “People should pay less attention to The Bible and other old traditional forms of religious guidance, and instead develop their own personal standards of what is moral and immoral.”
“Our findings replicated existing research suggesting that individuals more likely to display anger and aggression and to be punitive when norms or rules are violated, respect and submit to authority, and low in needing to follow traditional and old-fashioned beliefs and values were more negative towards tall poppies,” Marques told PsyPost.
Favoring the fall of tall poppy was also more common among those with lower self-esteem, those who were less politically conservative, and those who held more egalitarian values.
Surprisingly, the researchers also found that those who were more supportive of group-based hierarchy tended to be more in favor of the fall of tall poppies. “This could be interpreted as high dominance individuals, who are especially sensitive to competition about status in a dog-eat-dog competitive world, acting to undermine other competitors,” Marques explained.
“Overall, these findings speak to the importance of understanding the role of ideologies relating to equality and dominance shape perceptions of high status individuals,” he added.
Men, younger people, those with less education, and with lower socioeconomic levels were more likely to favor the fall of the tall poppy as well. But the findings remained statistically significant even after accounting for these demographic variables.
However, as with any study, the new research includes some caveats. “Despite the large representative sample of New Zealanders, our study was cross-sectional and included brief measures,” Marques explained.
“The study was part of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, which is a 20-year national probability study of social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of more than 60,000 New Zealanders,” he added. “My thanks to Professor Chris Sibley who leads the study, and to all the participants who have given their time to be involved.”
The study, “Attitudes towards favoring the fall of Tall Poppies: The role of Social Dominance Orientation, Authoritarianism, Political Ideologies, and Self-Esteem“, was authored by Mathew D. Marques, N. T. Feather, Darren E. J. Austin, and Chris G. Sibley.