To many, the rise of Donald Trump in the US and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union have come as a shock. It is feared that right-wing movements may now rise across Europe, including Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. Why is the face of global politics changing so quickly, and could we have predicted this rightwards shift?
Some studies suggest so. Over a period of nearly 150 years, we have seen that every financial crisis was followed by a 10-year surge in support for far right populist parties, as shown by a recent analysis of more than 800 elections by German economists. Interestingly, they did not see the same right-shift reaction in response to recessions or macroeconomic shocks that formed part of the normal cycle of economic rises and falls and weren’t explicitly sparked by a financial crash. The UK is now eight years on since its last financial crisis – although it should be returning to pre-2008 levels of far-right support around about now.
Public-health researcher Christopher Simms of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, argued last month that when people are anxious, not only do they fail to make good decisions, but they also seem to make particularly bad ones. He cited recent research showing that anxiety suppresses neurons in the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, which is involved in decision-making.
This may help to explain a lot of what is happening in the world right now. The Global Risks Report 2016 details a worldwide rise in catastrophic events, ranging from involuntary migration to natural disasters. When such crises occur, people look for someone to blame, and often immigration and minorities become an easy scapegoat for a problem that is far less visible in origin – as is the case with financial crises.
Immigration itself has been shown to have an effect on right-wing views – but not in the direction you might expect. The two show a negative correlation: in the places where immigration is the highest, support for right-wing parties is lowest. For example, it has been shown that it is the perception of immigration levels in a local area, rather than theactual change in numbers, that is linked to votes for UKIP.
This effect may be explained by the contact hypothesis – the theory that, in the words of psychologist Thomas Pettigrew at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “all that’s needed for greater understanding between groups is contact”. Pettigrew has authored a meta-analysis of more than 500 studies on this subject.
Emotion and autonomy
“Never before in history has so much deception been unmasked so quickly and with so little shame,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a researcher on misinformation at Bristol University in the UK, in regards to the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU.
Campaigns to leave the EU ultimately depended on stoking fears of migrants, echoing Donald Trump’s campaign in the US. What has made these fear campaigns so effective?
According to the influential behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, the leave campaigns used arguments that were based on emotion rather than rational analysis – a triumph of System 1 over System 2 thinking, as described in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Another psychological explanation is that the leave campaigns capitalised on a person’s fundamental need for autonomy, says psychologist Paul Redford of the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. Leave voters typically have less wealth and power, so their vote to leave the EU may have been an attempt to increase their scope for self-determination.
Since the referendum result, the National Police Chief’s Council has reported a rise in reports of hate crime in the UK. In the week following the vote, an online reporting site received 331 reports of hate crime, a fivefold increase from the weekly average of 63.
A wealth of psychological research into conformity has shown that this could be a dangerous situation. A widely replicated study in 1955 by Solomon Asch showed that when people were asked to judge whether lines of the same size were really the same length, most people could be led to profess the belief that the lines were actually different lengths. All it took to persuade people was having a group of actors all say that the lines were of different lengths. The study shows how easily people can be pushed to change their views to match those of the people around them.
In the wake of the rise in hate-crime reporting, a viral campaign has sprung up to express opposition to racism. By wearing a safety pin attached to their lapels, some people are hoping to express their support for the people in the UK who are now feeling victimised or under threat. Clinical psychologist Miriam Silver says that showing solidarity in such a way, and connecting with those who are experiencing hostility, are small steps that people can take to support those under threat.
As for media reports of “Bregret” – leave voters who now regret their choice – Kahneman has argued that most won’t regret their decision, because regret is rare. Instead, people find ways to explain what is happening around them that lay the blame with someone else.