A new study reveals that political extremism isn’t always a matter of ideology—it may also be a reaction to events that have nothing to do with politics. Using data from a sample of about 1,600 Americans surveyed three times over the course of three years, the researchers tracked how political attitudes changed in conjunction with life experiences. What they found is that personal hardship can push people toward taking a harder line politically. We talked to associate professor of psychology and study co-author Michael Poulin about these surprising results.
It’s related to a broader theory known as the meaning maintenance model, which suggests that all the different ways that people perceive meaning in life boil down to essentially the same thing: a need to find order in the world. When something happens that they didn’t want or expect to happen, people sense a threat to that order, and they can respond by bolstering their beliefs, even unrelated beliefs.
We looked at negative or stressful events that were significantly disruptive to people’s lives—a major illness or injury, the death of someone close to them, job loss, assault. It wasn’t just the regular daily hassles that everyone experiences.
We found that people became more polarized in their beliefs in both directions, though there was a small but significant trend toward conservatism.
We saw that the effect lasted at least several months, but with the data we used, we can’t say how long it lasted after that. My hunch is that it’s a relatively temporary shift. If the effects were additive, you would expect to see individuals becoming more polarized across the life span, when, in fact, research shows that younger people tend to be more polarized than older people.
We didn’t look at the effect this has on interpersonal relationships or societal well-being overall. But given that political polarization is thought to be unhealthy for society, we are interested in knowing more about why it exists. It may be that despite being corrosive to society as a whole, it helps individuals to cope.