Populist psychology: How class division empowers autocratic leaders

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MICHELE GELFAND: You know, I think often we think about social class as just being about our bank accounts. We don’t think about how is class cultural, truly cultural in terms of differences in values and norms that are socialized in different groups for good reasons. And tightness-looseness, it just doesn’t differentiate nations and states, it also differentiates social class with the same exact logic. We went out and we’ve been surveying people from the working class and people from the middle and upper classes, and what’s fascinating is when we ask people about rules, ‘just tell us five words that you think of for rules’, we see that the working class sees rules very positively. Rules in the working class are important. They’re important for helping people to slide into hard living, as sociologists would call it—to poverty, to the dregs of poverty. Rules are helpful if you’re going to be going into occupations where there’s a lot of danger, where there’s less discretion. The middle class and upper class they saw rules more negatively. They saw it as goody two shoes when you’re following the rules. For the working class, rules are important for survival. For the middle class, there’s a safety net so you can actually afford to be rule-breaking in this context.

And what’s fascinating is, we measure the ZIP codes of people coming into our lab and then we track the neighborhoods they live in. And, for sure, the working class live in much more threatening environments when it comes to crime, unemployment. They report being subject to many more threats. What’s remarkable is that this starts very early. We wanted to see how early can we see these differences developing? And we started to see this even as early as three years old. What we did was we brought three-year-olds into the lab, working-class and middle-class kids. And you can’t exactly ask them about rules, right. But what we did was we borrowed a technique from the Max Planck Institute where we had them interacting with a puppet. His name was Max the Puppet. And they got to know him and they enjoyed playing with him. And Max the Puppet suddenly after a little while became Max the Norm Violator. He started violating all the rules of the game and announcing that he’s actually playing the game correctly. And we simply wanted to know: how did the kids react? Is there a different reaction by age three? And there sure was.

The middle class, in general, were much more likely to laugh and kind of let it go, and the working-class kids wanted Max the Puppet to stop. They told him to stop. They told him it was wrong. And parents are already socializing their kids, by the age of three, to help them fit into the kind of threatening or non-threatening environments they’re going to be working in. So it’s really important to see that these differences arise for a reason and they arise early.

So the rise of Donald Trump has been such an enigma to so many people. Is it an ideology? Is it a personality? In fact, Donald Trump is semi—he’s a very good cross-cultural psychologist. He understands the role of fear and threat in mobilizing people to want more tightness and to want autocratic leaders. And we’ve seen this in our data. The people that were interested in voting for Trump felt very threatened and they felt the country was too loose. And this is not just a Trump phenomenon. It’s all over the world. When we measure support for Le Pen in France we had the same exact data that showed that people who feel threatened want stronger rules and leaders to help them to coordinate to survive. These leaders tap into a very important evolutionary type of instinct: when there’s threat and when there’s disorder, we want strong rulers to help us in those contexts.

And one thing that really predicts whether groups are tight or loose is the amount of threat that they face. And threat can be from a variety of sources; it could be from mother nature, could be natural disasters or famine, or it could be population density. It could also be man-made; it could be the number of invasions you’ve had over the last couple of centuries. And so when there’s threat, there’s the need for strong rules to coordinate to survive. And so actually tightness-looseness has a really important logic, a hidden logic, that helps us understand why certain groups become tight or loose. Loose groups, whether they’re nations or states or organizations, they face less threat so they can afford to be more permissive. Groups tend to evolve to be calibrated to the degree of threat that they have. When you have exaggerated threats, it means that we’re sacrificing liberty for security in contexts when we don’t really need to do that.

The problem here is that we have to separate objective from subjective threat. It’s true that a lot of the working class does objectively feel very threatened in this country and we need, as a loose culture, to reach out and work to help them deal with the threats that are happening from globalization. But it’s also the case that leaders like Trump and others use threat and target people who are threatened in order to gain popularity.

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