A recent French study in the journal Emotion has drawn a new link between right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), social dominance orientation (SDO) and heart rate variability (HRV).
RWA is measured by submissive, uncritical attitudes towards authorities; tendencies to condemn, reject or punish individuals that break social conventions; and adherence to traditional (moral and religious) values. SDO, on the other hand, refers to one’s preference for hierarchical social relations and a need to dominate outgroups “at all costs.” It is linked to antisocial personality traits like psychopathy and exploitativeness.
Both RWA and SDO are correlated with generally high levels of prejudice, discrimination, dehumanization, oppression, and right-wing political affiliation. While past studies have demonstrated this correlation, few or none so far have tested for biological factors that might mediate this relationship.
To remedy this, the present study examines the relationship between RWA, SDO and HRV—a measure of the differential duration between heartbeats, which serves as a reliable indicator of threat perception and stress. Greater HRV adaptability has been shown to predict better emotional regulation and prosocial tendencies.
In the authors’ first study, 119 healthy adults were tested for resting HRV, while RWA and SDO were assessed with questionnaires. In a second study, a further 119 individuals were given a forced-failure stress test (e.g., count backward from 2083 in increments of 13 within 5 minutes, without mistakes). In both studies, RWA and SDO were shown to correlate with lower resting HRV and less adaptive reactive and recovery HRV components.
The results of the study are interesting because they provide a possible explanation of how biological factors impact authoritarian attitudes. Understanding why it is that individuals lean towards prejudice, outgroup rejection, and oppression is key to understanding how antisocial behaviors can be successfully addressed in society. The study also provides key insight into how threat perception drives political tendencies and authoritarianism in general.
Building on this work will require larger and more diverse sample sizes. For instance, it would be interesting to compare how individuals living under authoritarian-leaning governments compare to those in more liberal societies, or to what extent endorsement of one’s government affects the relationship between RWA, SDO and HRV.
The study, “Authoritarian attitudes are associated with higher autonomic reactivity to stress and lower recovery”, was authored by Johan Lepage, Laurent Bègue, Oulmann Zerhouni, Michael Dambrun, Kevin Vezirian, Théo Besson, Solenne Bonneterre, and Martial Mermillod.