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The Psychology of Left-Wing Authoritarianism

Insights from recent psychological research.

Key points

  • We know much more about right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) than about left-wing authoritarianism (LWA).
  • Research shows that LWA includes a desire to overturn systems and intolerance of other views.
  • Research shows LWA to be characterized by mental inflexibility, prejudiced beliefs, and holding grievances.
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

"Authoritarian" is a word used casually and commonly in today’s media, politics, and law. Yet, the concept is not well understood by the public.

At its core, authoritarianism is a characteristic of both a person and a regime. As a psychologist, I am much better positioned to comment on authoritarianism as a description of a person; however, many of the qualities of authoritarian persons are shared by governments or regimes as well.

Historically, authoritarianism is thought of as an extreme on the continuum from conservative to liberal. More recent thought argues that right and left have their own distinct versions of the characteristic. A recent survey of university faculty shows some of the negative impacts of both ends of the authoritarian spectrum, ranging from support for censorship by administration to self-censorship due to fear of extremist (mis)use of one’s work.

Decades of psychological science have been devoted to right-wing authoritarian (RWA) beliefs. RWA has many elements: Folks high in the attitudes tend to embrace “traditional” family values, hierarchy, and the status quo, among other social values. They also tend to be supportive of aggression and prejudice in many forms. We know a great deal about its relevance in the legal, political, and healthcare arenas, among others.

We know far less about its counterpart: Left-wing authoritarianism (LWA).

Left-Wing Attitudes: What Are We Really Talking About?

LWA attitudes are characterized by favoring punishment of those who dissent from group opinion, desiring to overturn existing hierarchies, expecting everyone to hold the same left-wing views, believing there is only one correct moral perspective, focusing solely on one’s own norms and boundaries, and needing rigid certainty. In other words, people high in LWA may struggle with skills like perspective taking, flexible thinking, and engaging with others of varying moral or personal beliefs systems.

Using this broad LWA description as a backdrop, one team of researchers developed a measure of LWA. They found that LWA comprises three types of beliefs:

  1. Antihierarchical Aggression: Desiring forceful overturning of existing systems.
  2. Anti-conventionalism: Belief in moral absolutes and intolerance of other viewpoints.
  3. Top-Down Censorship: Using group power to suppress conservative or dissenting ideas.

Who Tends to Fall Into the LWA Camp?

The science is emerging well to answer this question. For example, compared to people higher in RWA, evidence exists that individuals high in LWA are more emotionally reactive.

A team of American and Dutch researchers carried out 12 studies across 74,000 people worldwide. They concluded that high LWA persons tended to:

  • See threats in multiple aspects of everyday life.
  • Believe the world is a just and fair place.
  • Demand others be politically correct.
  • Hold prejudiced views of African American and Jewish persons.
  • Show mental inflexibility.

Personality findings are also intriguing. One study showed that the anti-hierarchical aggression aspect of LWA is positively related to narcissism and psychopathy. The attitude was also unrelated to altruism and social justice motivations.

Also, a pair of researchers used machine learning to study LWA. A focus of this study was to assess a variety of associated characteristics. Multiple aspects of LWA were linked with:

  • Finding joy in the suffering of political partisans.
  • Positive feelings about autocracy.
  • Dehumanizing political partisans.
  • A need for chaos.
  • Belief that leadership is broken down.
  • Low institutional trust.
  • Support of violent protests.

Is Left-Wing Authoritarianism Harmful?

Extremism of any flavor can do harm. But the truth is the science on this question is fairly limited. One recent study reviewed current LWA literature. Rather than overt interpersonal violence, this review highlights more subtle forms of harm and social control among LWA movements. For example, studies highlight strategies such as bullying or shunning those of differing viewpoints, as well as pushing LWA attitudes through censorship of others. These interpersonal rebuffs may be rooted in seeing threats everywhere and dogmatic adherence to one's ideology.

Interestingly, the same study showed that LWA may be driven by being emotionally reactive and holding grievances against others. LWA is also linked with signs of mental distress, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another European study of social media users addressed how LWA may be specifically linked with perceived grievance and prejudice. LWA relates to the tendency to see sexism and White privilege in everyday life, as well as holding negative views of men. These patterns are nearly the exact opposite of existing evidence on RWA.

Finally, in the context of politics, high LWA individuals are likely to endorse violent protest beliefs and behaviors.

George Orwell
Source: GDJ/Pixabay

Where Do We Go From Here?

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.” —George Orwell

The limited existing science aligns with Orwell’s pessimism: LWA shows possible links with dark personality traits, poorer mental health, subtle interpersonal discrimination and violence, and social-emotional reactivity.

One thing we can do is draw lessons from addressing hate-motivated behavior. As we treat insidious RWA-related behavior, we can apply psychology, education, policy and other solutions to mitigate potential damage inflicted by LWA. This certainly seems a fruitful next step in LWA science.

More from Robert J. Cramer, Ph.D.
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