New research suggests that existential threat brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic can spur the expression of anti-immigrant and nationalist beliefs among authoritarians. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The authoritarian personality is a well-studied psychological construct. In addition to a firm obedience to authority and a desire for social order, the personality type is marked by a disdain for low-status groups. Research has suggested that these prejudicial attitudes can be strengthened by situational threats, such as threats to the economy or social order. Some researchers suggest that existential threats to humanity like terrorism might also interact with authoritarian beliefs.
Study authors Todd K. Hartman and his colleagues recognized an opportune moment to study how the perception of existential threat might influence expressions of authoritarianism. Specifically, the researchers were motivated to explore how existential threat stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic might intensify the link between authoritarianism and negative attitudes toward outgroups.
The researchers conducted their study using data from two nationally representative surveys that included over 2,000 adults from the United Kingdom and over 1,000 adults from the Republic of Ireland. The data was collected in March and April 2020, when both countries were experiencing their first severe lockdowns. The surveys measured various attitudes, including nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), political orientation, and COVID-19 anxiety.
Using regression analyses, the researchers determined that — among both countries — as anxiety about COVID-19 grew, so did the effect of authoritarianism on ethnocentric beliefs. Among both samples, pandemic-related anxiety strengthened the effect of RWA on nationalism and on the belief that immigrants pose a threat to the economy. Among the Irish sample, anxiety about the virus additionally intensified the effect of RWA on the belief that immigrants pose a threat to culture.
In other words, as existential threat related to COVID-19 went up, so did the effect of RWA on anti-immigrant and nationalist beliefs. Moreover, when COVID-19 anxiety was low, the effect of RWA on ethnocentric beliefs was negligible. It was only when the existential threat of COVID-19 was high that the effects of RWA became meaningful.
The authors note that their findings are insightful because they suggest that threats can strengthen authoritarians’ negative attitudes toward outgroups, even when these threats have nothing to do with the outgroup (e.g., the threat of a coronavirus).
Like all studies, this one came with some limitations. The data that was analyzed was cross-sectional and therefore could not demonstrate causation. Hartman and his team note that the relationships between COVID-19 anxiety, RWA, and anti-immigrant sentiment are likely more intricate than the data is able to illustrate.
“Future research should build upon our work by investigating the nature and consequences of existential threat on RWA and SDO, as well as its interactive effect on political attitudes and behavior toward in- and out-groups,” Hartman and his team say. “One way to gain traction on this problem would be to design longitudinal studies to examine how threats at one time period affect subsequent political attitudes.” As the pandemic persists, the authors note that such effects could have strong consequences on democratic governments in regions like Europe and Northern America.
The study, “The Authoritarian Dynamic During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects on Nationalism and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment”, was authored by Todd K. Hartman, Thomas V. A. Stocks, Ryan McKay, Jilly Gibson-Miller, Liat Levita, Anton P. Martinez, Liam Mason, Orla McBride, Jamie Murphy, Mark Shevlin, Kate M. Bennett, Philip Hyland, Thanos Karatzias, Frédérique Vallières, and Richard P. Bentall.