New psychology research sheds light on why some people embrace authoritarian values. The findings, published in PLOS One, indicate that expressions of authoritarian ideology can enhance a person’s sense of meaning in life.
“Authoritarianism is a real-world problem,” said Jake Womick, the corresponding author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “I had grown up and proceeded through the U.S. educational system thinking authoritarianism was something of the past. Today, it is clear it is among the most pressing modern-day issues. Understanding why people are drawn to authoritarianism is personally important to me, important to society, and important to science.”
In an initial study, the researchers had 1,053 participants complete the Right-wing Authoritarianism Scale and the Tripartite Meaning Scale. Some participants completed the authoritarianism scale first, while others completed the meaning in life scale first. The researchers found that meaning in life was higher on average for those who completed the authoritarianism scale before completing the meaning in life scale.
Next, the researchers collected excerpts from authoritarian leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong Un, and George Patton and egalitarian leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They also crafted an authoritarian passage, an egalitarian passage, and a control passage, the latter of which “merely described the importance of having a philosophy of life.”
A sample of 1,904 participants were then randomly assigned to read one of the passages before completing a variety of psychological assessments. The participants were led to believe that the study was about examining “the ways people perceive and remember information.” They were unaware of the author of the passage and were encouraged “to focus on the ideas conveyed without immediately judging the author” while reading the excerpt.
Womick and his colleagues found that those who read passages from real-world authoritarian leaders tended to report worse mood but higher meaning in life compared to those who read control passages.
Three subsequent experiments, which included 3,085 Americans and 148 Canadians, confirmed that reading authoritarian passages was associated with higher meaning in life. People tended to negatively evaluate authoritarian passages, but the researchers found that heightened meaning in life following exposure to the authoritarian passage predicted more positive evaluations of the message. “The pattern of results suggests that this unlikeable worldview may become (even slightly) more likeable as a function of its effects on meaning in life,” they explained.
“One of the reasons authoritarian values may be appealing to people is because exposure to them enhances the feeling that life is meaningful,” Womick told PsyPost. “Authoritarian messages are everywhere in the modern information environment. It is possible that the meaning boosting capacity of expressions of authoritarian values is one of the factors (among many others) that might drive people to eventually viewing these as a compelling belief system.”
The researchers consistently found that reading authoritarian passages was associated with worsened mood compared to reading the other passages. “Exposure to authoritarian values also puts people in a foul mood, and these may to some extent mask their impact on meaning in life,” Womick said.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“We conducted these studies online, and using non-representative U.S. samples, so it is unclear whether these results would generalize to other mediums of presentation (e.g., authoritarian rallies), the national U.S. population, or other cultures,” Womick explained.
But the findings are in line with other research. Womick’s previous work has found that people who score higher on a measure of right-wing authoritarianism tend to report higher levels of meaning in life, even after controlling for religiosity, personality traits, and other factors.
“Many questions still need to be addressed,” Womick added. “Most importantly, we don’t know exactly why exposure to authoritarian values enhance meaning in life. It could be about belongingness, the reduction of uncertainty, or a host of other factors we have yet to test.”
The study, “Exposure to authoritarian values leads to lower positive affect, higher negative affect, and higher meaning in life“, was authored by Jake Womick, John Eckelkamp, Sam Luzzo, Sarah J. Ward, S. Glenn Baker, Alison Salamun, and Laura A. King.