Over the last few years we have witnessed the alarming growth of both left-wing and right-wing populist movements in both the developed world and countries with fragile democratic traditions. Although pundits and political scientists continue to debate the precise definition of “populism,” it is accepted that the term can be broadly applied to any movement that pits “the people” against “the elites.” In dividing society up into groups, and in dismissing the sovereignty of the individual, populism is an atavistic re-emergence of the age-old psychology of tribalism. As such, it presents just one of the many historical challenges to the values of the Enlightenment.
As an erstwhile refugee myself from communist tyranny, I probably have a more deep-seated personal interest in these developments than many of my academic colleagues. I was 22 when I left Hungary, and remember vividly the oppressive atmosphere of authoritarianism, suspicion, self-censorship, lies, and fear that was an inescapable part of living in a monolithic political culture.
The “party” controlled everything, and as an individual, one had absolutely nowhere to turn for support. If you got in trouble because of your views, you could lose your job, be prohibited from studying, be blacklisted. You wouldn’t be allowed to travel, and even your family members would suffer. People were afraid to speak in public places, Marxism and Russian were compulsory subjects, and open discussion was unimaginable. Throughout my subsequent academic career in Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US, I never ceased to be amazed by the varieties of Marxists I came across who persevered with their utopistic ideology despite all the evidence that these visions were utterly fanciful.
As a social psychologist, I continue to be fascinated by how easily people can persuade themselves to follow close-minded and authoritarian political movements. What are the psychological mechanisms that promote such unquestioning tribal loyalty? The recent rise of both left-wing (BLM, cancel culture) and right-wing (Trump, Orbán, Proud Boys) populist movements served as a timely reminder that human thinking has been shaped by the tribal imperatives of our paleolithic heritage.
In understanding populism, it helps to look at such variables as economic inequality, threatened group identities, and out-of-touch elites. All of these factors can and do contribute to populist resentment, but ultimately, any explanation of the phenomenon also requires a psychological understanding of how people mentally represent their political realities.
The idea that human psychology shapes political systems is not new, it is an idea that originated with Plato, and has been elaborated upon by philosophers for centuries. Applying psychology to politics is important because economic, social, or racial deprivation are not in themselves sufficient for populism to flourish. Humans mostly lived in abysmal conditions throughout history, yet populist revolts were relatively rare. It is also essential to understand how psychological narratives can turn dissatisfaction and resentment into potent political forces.
Democracy and populism make very different assumptions about human nature. Whereas democracy is a fundamentally individualist credo and implies a human ability for rational decision-making, populism is collectivist ideology that subordinates the individual to the group. Populist narratives call for a struggle between the favoured “ingroup” and its enemies, and although the people who fill the “oppressed” and “oppressor” groups change, the underlying superstructure tends to stay the same.
Both left-wing and right-wing populist movements share similar psychological strategies, display the same tyrannical tendencies, although differing in the content of their narratives. Right-wing populism typically invokes nativist narratives, emphasizing the importance of order, structure, predictability, and conservatism. Left-wing populists focus on economic, ethnic and racial inequality. Liberal democracy has so far withstood the collectivist challenges posed by romanticism, fascism, and communism—but its current fragility gives cause for concern.
Why populism is attractive
In essence, populism appeals to the tribal mentality of the paleolithic, when maintaining group cohesion was the key requirement for survival. In our ancestral environments, individuals who did not cooperate with others, or who were ostracised from their tribe would typically fail to reproduce and fail to survive. Such pressures ensured that effective group cooperation shaped the human brain over many thousands of generations, in contrast to individualist Enlightenment values, which have only emerged in the last few hundred years. It may be that our brief epoch of liberal democracy will turn out to be a temporary aberration from millennia of tribalism. Populist movements are psychologically attractive because—unlike the complexities and uncertainties of liberal democracy—they offer a heady mixture of simplicity, moral absolutes, and positive identity in the face of anxiety-inducing uncertainty.
Simplicity and certainty
Facing complex and often unmanageable cognitive demands, humans often prefer simple but incorrect explanations to complex but accurate ones, especially if they are also shared by others. Simplifying cognitive habits such as categorization promote cognitive efficiency, and populist narratives naturally cater to our appetites for simplification, dividing the world into simple categories of “us and them,” “good and bad.”
Populist propaganda also exploits cognitive fluency effects and the availability heuristic—the human tendency to overestimate the reliability, importance, and truthfulness of information that happens to be simple, and easy to process and remember. People readily overestimate the truth of statements that happen to be easy to read and simple to understand—a common feature of populist communication.
Populist conspiracy theories thrive because they offer simplicity and a sense of privileged knowledge. Paradoxically, the less a person knows about a topic, the more confident they tend to be in maintaining their erroneous beliefs (the Dunning-Krueger effect). Poorly informed people are ignorant of the extent of their lack of expertise, holding on to erroneous beliefs with excessive confidence. Examples abound—many Trump followers still believe that their champion won the 2020 election, while some left-wing populists argue that any disparity between demographic groups is ipso facto evidence of systemic racism.
Populist narratives offer epistemic certainty by exploiting common failures of inductive reasoning such as confirmation bias. This refers to the human tendency to prefer information that supports our pre-existing beliefs, promoted by people’s limited cognitive capacity, and the need to sustain a coherent belief system. Maintaining a consensual view of reality, rather than seeking truth, was probably adaptive in our ancestral environment, but now makes us vulnerable to populist disinformation.
Sometimes, the more implausible a claim the more people are likely to believe it (AKA the “big lie” effect), because it is challenging to consider that the claim could have been invented in the first place. History is replete with absurd beliefs enduring for decades, sometimes even centuries. In the past we witnessed witch hunts and blood libels, in more contemporary times people believe in the existence of Satanic cults who abuse children.
Some time-worn populist ideologies, such as Marxism, promise bogus epistemic certainty by offering unfalsifiable economic and historical narratives. Postmodernist ideologies go further by undermining the notion of objective truth altogether. By repudiating the value of empiricism, unfalsifiable and anecdotal claims of “lived experience” are used to bolster unscientific concepts such as “white privilege,” “toxic masculinity,” and “white fragility.” Such concepts simplify complicated social phenomena to simple-minded, one-dimensional explanations that have no obvious explanatory or discriminatory utility, and serve only as simplistic tribal rallying cries.
Populism is dangerous precisely because it appeals to those who wish for certainty over truth. Epistemic certainty makes rational discourse superfluous, and at a collective level, widely held delusions can come to displace reality. Some Marxists remain convinced that the long-delayed proletarian revolution will still yet occur. Others find refuge in postmodernism or “critical theory” as a safe havens from falsification. And some believe that the results of the 2020 US election will still be overturned.
Populism exploits our evolutionary propensity for tribalism by offering belonging, status, and significance to followers, creating cohesive groups that are often defined by shared belief systems and fictional narratives. It is remarkably easy to get humans to identify even with meaningless groups, as shown by the minimal group experiments of Henri Tajfel, himself a Holocaust survivor. In these studies participants were randomly assigned to arbitrary “groups,” for example, by flipping a coin. When they were next asked to distribute rewards (money, etc.) between two anonymous strangers known only as ingroup or outgroup members, this vacuous group membership instantly produced a strong ingroup bias and discrimination against outgroup members.
Hatred of the “elites” is often mobilized to foster tribal resentment. As Roger Scruton and Douglas Murray have argued, some Western “elites” have indeed become captive to the ideological Left, triggering right-wing populist reactions in Germany, Austria, France, Britain, and Italy. However, anti-elitism fades once populists themselves acquire power and become the new “elite.” The movement then survives on the tribal allegiances and moral fervour of its followers alone.
Successful populist leaders typically become the symbolic embodiment of their cause. Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin demonstrated that personality cults are central to populist regimes, mobilizing the common human tendency to personalize complex issues and ideas. Populist leaders need to be strong, consistent, and uncompromising, to satisfy the craving for simplicity and certainty from their followers.
Tribalism can be especially attractive when lack of personal achievement or traumatic group experiences require narrative explanation. Narcissistic themes of injustice, betrayal, powerlessness, and victim mentality abound in populist thinking. Rectifying grievances and nostalgia for an idealized past are recurring narrative features to bolster followers’ compromised group identity. Research, including our studies, has confirmed that collective narcissism is a significant predictor of populist political preferences in countries such as the US, Britain, Poland, and Hungary.
Seductive claims about moral superiority are common in both left-wing and right-wing populist movements—what could be more virtuous than representing “the people” and “justice”? Woke activists see virtue in attacking those who disagree, just as fascists and communists committed innumerable atrocities for what they believed was their "noble" cause. Moral certitude denies the legitimacy of any opposition, making any discussion superfluous. Indeed, followers of populist movements often try to outdo each other in righteous displays of moral fervour.
On the political Right, moral claims are often based on defending national, religious, or ethnic identity. After losing an election, Hungary’s Orbán claimed that the motherland “cannot be in opposition.” Similar moral posturing was on display when Hilary Clinton called Trump’s voters “deplorables,” or Trump declared the critical press to be “enemies of the people.” On the Left, social justice movements also claim moral absolutism, and activists see special virtue in attacking those with whom they disagree.
Currently, moral absolutism is used to justify coercive authoritarian practices in many universities, organisations and institutions. As Niall Ferguson noted, tyrannical behaviour can now flourish even in the absence of a one-party dictatorship. Consider the absurd slogan “silence is violence” seen at BLM rallies—even withholding opinion can be seen as deplorable by true believers. Strangely, while fascism now has few credible adherents, critical theory and postmodernism still retain a puzzling attraction for many intellectuals.
Moral absolutism is often linked to utopistic and millennial narratives, envisioning a perfect future that justifies every sacrifice. The dramatic promise of a “thousand-year empire” (Nazism) or a perfect communist utopia (Marxism) has a powerful emotional appeal that liberal incrementalist ideologies have difficulty matching. Populism can tap into the all-too-human millennial quest for a perfect utopia, rather than following established rules and processes to achieve gradual progress.
Affective states influence all human social behaviour, and feelings like anger, fear, disgust, or envy also play a crucial role in populist appeals. Fear is often employed in populist narratives, triggering an evolutionary tendency to seek safety in stricter norms, tighter control, and stronger sanctions for deviants. “Tight” societies dominated by populist ideologies (fascism, communism) have repressive norms and strict punishments for noncompliance, while “loose” societies (liberal democracies) have flexible norms and greater individual freedom. Cross-cultural research shows that fear and perceived threats trigger “tightness” and support for autocratic norms, just as fear triggered by disease produces demands for tight rules and sanctions, as the recent COVID pandemic illustrates.
Anger is also an important feature of both left-wing and right-wing populist movements. Unlike fear, anger produces narrowed cognitive focus and tunnel vision and often stimulates aggression. Populist narratives emphasizing past grievances typically produce anger and demand for retribution.
Fear, grievance, and anger in turn can eventually lead to disgust — a powerful emotion that in our evolutionary past signalled the presence of contamination and the need for cleansing and elimination. Disgust is a powerful emotion often exploited in populist aggression, legitimising ethnic violence and genocide by depicting opponents as subhuman contaminants to be cleansed.
Populism represents a danger for liberal democracy because it has a deep affinity with the archaic stone-age characteristics of the human mind, evolved to serve the demands of group cooperation rather than the rational discovery of truth. Political movements succeed or fail depending on their ability to mobilise basic psychological needs, and both left-wing and right-wing populism exploit the human need for positive identity, epistemic certainty, simplicity, moral virtue, belonging, and significance. Both ascendant and in-power populist movements from fascism, Marxism, cancel culture, the Proud Boys, Antifa, and woke-ism, all benefit from manipulating these evolutionary vulnerabilities.
The possibility that “human nature” as shaped by evolution is ill-suited to the psychological requirements of liberal democracy echoes Plato’s age-old concerns. However, it may be encouraging that liberal democracies have survived for some hundreds of years now despite our underlying paleolithic inclinations.
It is also possible that the strident individualism and secularism of our age, and the disappearance of genuine primary group experiences from our lives have left people particularly vulnerable to the siren calls of tribal ideologies. The growth of the Internet and social media also contribute to undermining the once dominant public voice of enlightened liberalism. People may now find their own “tribe” in metaverse, promoting consensual delusions, fake news, conspiracy theories and sectional group ideologies.
How can we best respond to the populist challenge? Rational argument has limited utility in convincing “true believers” who reject the value of discussion. A minority of totalitarian ideologues are acquiring undue influence over once-liberal institutions from universities, media, the law, education, and corporations. This is only possible as long as the silent majority remains silent. Understanding how populism operates should be the first step towards standing up to populist tyranny. We should keep in mind that liberal democracies successfully rose to the challenge against both fascism and communism, and new external threats like Chinese authoritarianism may yet produce a re-affirmation of our foundational values. But in combating the dangers of populism, we certainly need a more thorough understanding of the psychological processes that underlie populist support.
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