People with clinical symptoms of anxiety disorders tend to express higher concerns about economic inequality and the environment, according to new research published in the International Journal of Psychology. The findings indicate that anxiety symptoms are slightly more common among those with a leftist worldview in Great Britain.
The scientists behind new research were interested in learning more about how certain psychological dispositions were related to sociopolitical beliefs. Previous research had found some evidence that politically conservative individuals were more sensitive to threats compared to their left-wing counterparts.
“I think the question of why some hold very different political beliefs than us is something that speaks to a lot of people, not just researchers,” said study author Vilja Helminen (@vilja_h), a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki.
“Understanding those who are different from us is often important on a personal level: we want to understand our neighbors, family, or coworkers. But it’s also vital on a societal level as democracy works through compromises and discussions between different political factions.”
“It’s no wonder that researchers have been interested in the underpinnings of political orientation for so long,” Helminen said. “But a lot of the studies have focused on how individuals self-identify on a liberal-conservative continuum. So, we were interested in what goes on behind those labels, how threat sensitivity in the form of anxiety disorder symptoms is related to a wider range of political attitudes.”
For their study, the researchers examined data from 7,253 individuals from the National Child Development Study. The longitudinal study has tracked participants from Great Britain since their birth in 1958. Political attitudes were surveyed at ages 50, 42 and 33. Rather than asking participants whether they were left-wing or right-wing, the study asked their level of agreement with 21 political statements. When the participants were 44 years old, they completed a clinical assessment of general anxiety disorder, phobia, and panic disorder symptoms.
Contrary to the hypothesis that conservatism is associated with heightened threat sensitivity, the researchers found that higher levels of clinical symptoms were associated with some elements of liberal and left-wing political ideology. In particular, participants with greater symptoms were more likely to agree with statements such as “Ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” and “We should tackle problems in the environment even if this means slower economic growth.”
Heightened anxiety symptoms were also associated with greater distrust in politics as well as a lower work ethic, but were unrelated to racist, authoritarian, and conservative family attitudes.
“The most important takeaway is probably that political beliefs are complicated phenomena, influenced by many things, and we don’t yet have the full picture,” Helminen told PsyPost. “Although many previous studies suggest that threat sensitivity leads to more conservative political orientation, our results do not support this or at least suggest that the association might not be quite as straightforward.”
“But based on our study we can’t say what the reason for this is. Maybe threat sensitivity is more closely associated with whether one identifies as a liberal or conservative, but this doesn’t in turn translate to political attitudes. Or maybe situational factors affect the relationship and threat sensitivity is differently associated to one’s political orientation depending on the country they live in, the political culture, and the political issues that currently are topical. There are still many unanswered questions about the dynamics of political orientation.”
The new findings add to a growing body of research that casts doubt on the claim that political conservatives have a heightened sensitivity to threats in general.
Previous research that analyzed data from dozens of countries found few consistent relationships between political beliefs and concerns about various threats. Another study from 2020 failed to find evidence that conservatives had stronger physiological responses to threats compared to liberals.
“In general, I would like to see more diverse research on this topic in the future to get a clearer picture of the association between threat sensitivity and political orientation,” Helminen said. “Studies should examine the different aspects of political orientation more widely and consider the influence of the current political context and how that might influence the association between threat and political orientation.”
The study, “Clinical symptoms of anxiety disorders as predictors of political attitudes: A prospective cohort study“, was authored by Vilja Helminen, Marko Elovainio, and Markus Jokela.