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New research shows personal adversity can lead people to adopt more extreme political views

New research by U of T Scarborough postdoc Daniel Randles looks at how unexpected negative life events like suffering through illness or loss of a job can lead people to adopt more extreme political views. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Whether it’s losing a job or suffering through illness, negative life events can lead people to adopt more extreme political views, according to a new U of T Scarborough study.

“If people experience unexpected adversity in their lives they tend to adopt more rigid styles of thinking,” says lead author Daniel Randles, a post-doc in the Department of Psychology at U of T Scarborough.

The study, which is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, drew on an existing survey of about 1,600 Americans who were repeatedly polled between 2006 and 2008. Participants were asked about their political attitudes as well as negative events they faced in their personal lives to see if their attitudes changed following adversity. The unexpected negative life events ranged from divorce, illness, injury and assault to even loss of a job that was an important source of family income.

The study found that regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum — left or right —the adverse life events hardened those leanings either way.

“After facing adversity, these respondents weren’t saying about an issue maybe this is OK – they were either saying this is definitely OK or this is definitely not OK,” says Randles.

Randles, whose past lab research has looked at the behavioural consequences of uncertainty, says those who have very black and white views to begin with are probably more vulnerable to moving towards the extreme. 

“It’s not an on/off switch; it’s a slow movement towards either end of the spectrum based on negative experiences,” he says, adding there’s no exact number of events that can cause the effect.

As for why this effect happens, Randles points to other lab research that shows people tend to have expectations about how those around them will behave and how the natural world should work as a possible explanation.

“If people believe that something about their world has suddenly changed, they will look for things in the world that are still intact or make sense to them,” he says.

So do the findings offer any insight into recent political events around the world, notably growing support for populism?

Randles stresses that while he’s not a political scientist, it’s an open question as to whether people are simply gravitating towards a particular type of leadership, or if it’s a symptom of greater stress that people are experiencing in their personal lives. 

“Over the last few years there’s a general feeling that a more rigid form of politics is emerging. It’s possible that more extreme candidates are becoming popular because the people who support them have a growing number of challenges in their lives that they weren’t expecting.”

He adds while it’s also possible that people who hold extreme views are more likely to have bad things happen to them, he’s satisfied with the findings given the robust sample they were able to draw from. 

“There’s always a risk of misinterpreting the findings in a natural study like this, but it seems in this case that the negative events caused the effect of polarization, not the other way around.”  


© University of Toronto Scarborough