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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-Seeking and Extreme Political Discontent

Petersen, M., Osmundsen, M., & Bor, A. 
(2020, July 8).


Modern democracies are currently experiencing destabilizing events including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media. Some of the forms of discontent are commonly argued to be related to populism. In this chapter, however, we argue that the evolved psychology of status-seeking lies at the core of this syndrome of extreme political discontent. Thus, social status constitutes one of the key adaptive resources for any human, as it induces deference from others in conflicts of interest. Prior research has identified two routes to status: Privilege acquired through service and dominance acquired through coercion. We argue that extreme political discontent involves behaviors aimed at dominance through engagement in either individual aggression or in mobilization processes that facilitate coalitional aggression. Consistent with this, we empirically demonstrate that measures of status-seeking via dominance correlate with indices of a large number of extreme forms of political discontent and do so more strongly than a measure of populism. Finally, we argue that the reason why dominance strategies become activated in the context of modern democratic politics is that increased inequality activates heightened needs for status and, under such conditions, dominance for some groups constitutes a more attainable route to status than prestige.

Towards depolarized societies 

Understanding the psychological and structural roots of extreme discontent is key if we are to move  towards more peaceful societies.  An exclusive focus on populism might lead to the expectation that the  roots of discontent are value-based. For example, the rise of right-wing populism may suggest that  frustrations are rooted in a decreasing respect for authorities and traditional forms of life. If that was indeed the case, a depolarized society might be reached only if non-populists were willing to compromise on important political values and to a larger extent embrace tradition and authority.

In contrast, the present arguments and results suggest that the true roots of the most extreme forms of discontent are less based on a conflict of abstract political values and more on a lack of social status and recognition. If so, the path towards depolarization lies in more inclusion and more equality, for example, based on an affirmation of the classical liberal doctrine of the importance of  open,  non-dominant  exchange  of  arguments  (Popper,  1945).  Unfortunately,  this  is  not something  that can be fixed quickly, as would be  the case  if discontent was rooted  in transient factors such as the behavior of social media algorithms.  Rather, depolarization requires difficult structural changes that alleviates the onset of dominance motivations.