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Right-wingers find more meaning in life, say researchers

A new study of thousands links right-wing authoritarian attitudes and feeling one’s life is more meaningful.

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' clash with police at the 'Unite the Right' rally.

August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • A team of psychologists looked at the link between right-wing attitudes and having meaning in life.
  • They found that supporters of authoritarian ideologies felt their lives had more significance.
  • Future studies are necessary to see if this holds true outside of the U.S.

Do right-wingers feel more significance in life? Such is the implication of a new study that found an existential connection in right-wing authoritarian attitudes.

The spread of right-wing ideologies around the Western hemisphere in recent years was the inspiration for the study by a team comprised of scientists from the University of Missouri, Columbia University, Central Michigan University, and Rutgers University.

Jake Womick, a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri and corresponding author of the study, said the researchers wanted to understand what made authoritarian thinking so appealing to some.

“One potential answer we wanted to test was that it may serve an existential function, facilitating a sense that the individual’s life is meaningful,” explained Womick. “This hypothesis was first generated by psychologists attempting to understand the rise of the Nazis during WWII. Until now, it has gone empirically untested.”

The study was comprised of four surveys, with one questioning 2,391 American adults. It found that people scoring high on a measurement of right-wing authoritarianism also reported having higher levels of meaning in life. They agreed with such ideas as “The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just ‘loud mouths’ showing off their ignorance” as well as sentences like this one – “I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful.”

Even after controlling for such factors as personality differences and religiosity, the same connection held.

In an interview with Psypost, Womick expounded that people who support right-wing authoritarianism also tend to hold anti-democratic positions. They also generally have prejudices towards minorities and anyone who is not part of their group. “Our research shows that one reason this worldview may be appealing is because it is positively related to the sense that one’s life is meaningful,” said Womick.

The second survey of 505 people looked deeper at the issue and discovered that the feeling of having more meaning in life, experienced by right-wing thinkers, was linked to a sense of significance as opposed to purpose or coherence.

The third and fourth surveys, involving 971 and 833 subjects respectively, showed that the sense of meaning stayed strong for right-wing authoritarians even during times of psychological duress.

Womick explained that a specific way in which right-wing attitudes add to having more meaning is that they make people feel that their lives and contributions to society matter. This same pattern was actually found in studies of religiosity.

The scientist pointed out that their study does not claim that being more authoritarian in outlook will lead to more meaning in life.

“We are not saying authoritarianism leads to higher meaning in life. Rather, we are seeking to understand the relationship between these variables,” Womick said.

Other reasons exist as well that contribute to people’s choice of right-wing thinking, namely preference for social conformity, seeing the world as dangerous or believing there are threats within your group or society.

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Womick also cautions that neither does their study mean that a right-wing society would have more meaning for its members, adding “our results simply speak to individual differences in right-wing authoritarianism and show that people high on this construct tend to rate their lives as more meaningful, on average.”

More studies are necessary to find whether these correlations persist in countries other than the United States. There is also a possibility, according to the scientists, that meaning leads to right-wing authoritarianism and not the other way around.

Of course, it is also worth mentioning that meaning can be derived in many ways other than political opinions – think family life, daily routine, work, all types of activities that put us in a good mood.

You can check out the study “The Existential Function of Right-wing Authoritarianism” authored by Jake Womick, Sarah J. Ward, Samantha J. Heintzelman, Brendon Woody, and Laura A. King in the Journal of Personality.


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