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How distrust harms society: Examining the common core of populist and conspiracy mindsets


And supporters of the conspiracy demonstrated in Berlin in the spring of 2021 with a sign that read, “When the government fears the people, freedom prevails.” Several small demonstrations like this are directed against Corona measures. What they all have in common is distrust of government and public institutions, which coincides with the basic position of the populists. Researchers have now documented these consistent characteristics in a study. Credit: Shutterstock

Populists and conspiracy theorists have something in common: According to a new post by Isabel Thielmann and Benjamin Helbig, they both tend to be deeply distrustful. To come to this conclusion, Isabel Thielmann (researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law and doctor of psychology) and Benjamin Helbig (professor of psychology at the Rhineland-Walzische-Techne University of Kaiserslautern-Landau) conducted three studies in Germany and the United Kingdom.

According to the definitions used by scholars, populists believe in a set of ideas that structure society as divided between “pure people” and corrupt, self-interested elites, while conspiracy theorists tend to harbor suspicions that a group of (powerful) actors often band together in secret. to achieve malicious goals.

Both groups share a worldview rooted in simplistic “us versus them” and “good versus evil” narratives that often directly affect their lives. They isolate themselves, reject science, believe in unreasonable theses, and fuel societal division—a phenomenon that has become especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Against this background, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law in Freiburg (Germany) and Rhineland-Palatinate-Technech-Universität Kaiserslautern Landau (Germany) examined a potential common psychological basis shared by both. Populism and conspiracy mentalities.

Their research is based on the thesis that populism and conspiracy mentality have the basis of tendencies in people’s patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior, that is, they are rooted in their personalities. In other words: populists and conspiracy theorists share the same orientation.

Researchers conducted three studies of about 1,900 people in Germany and the United Kingdom to explore this common core of populist and conspiracy mindset. The results were recently published in Political psychology. In the first step, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they agreed with specific statements in a standardized questionnaire (on scales ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) to define their assumptions and beliefs.

This included statements such as “Politicians don’t really care what people like me think,” “In the end, politicians will agree to anything that will ensure they keep their privilege,” and “Many important things happen in the world in which the public is kept in the dark.”

The studies set out to ask participants 60 questions to be able to identify personality traits in a structured way. These questions aimed to identify what is known as the dark factor (D-factor) of personality, which defines the basic principles underlying any “dark” (aversive) personality trait as “the general tendency to maximize one’s own good—ignoring and accepting or wreaking havoc on others through malevolence.” “.

Individuals with high D factor scores ruthlessly pursue their own interests, even when doing so harms others – or even in order to harm others. This concept of a dark factor in personality was created and first published by Professor Benjamin Helbig in collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Ulm and Copenhagen.

influenced, controlled and exploited by other groups

The three studies by Isabel Thielmann and Benjamin Helbig were able to establish a common core between people who tend to be populists and those who tend to accept conspiracy theories: they are characterized by distrust – in others, in society, and in particular in the “elites”.

“People who tend to be distrustful lack confidence in others and in society. They are convinced that others only have their own interests and will not hesitate to take advantage of others,” explains Isabelle Thielmann, a Max Planck researcher. These individuals generally view others as unreliable, exploitative, and self-serving.

Adds Benjamin Helbig: “Generalized mistrust is not limited to mistrust on a purely personal level, but breeds trust in society and the world in general. Such disposition can be detrimental to community cohesion and the functioning of society.”

The researchers see their findings as an indication of the relevance of trust to the functioning of society. In contrast, increased trust has the potential to reduce populism and beliefs in conspiracy theories. According to Tillman and Helbig, “Enhancing public trust can be an effective step to combat populism and conspiracy mentalities”.

The researchers see transparent communication as key to building trust and hope their findings serve as a baseline for finding ways to boost public trust and counter populism and conspiracy mentalities in a sustainable way.

more information:
Isabel Thielmann et al., Generalized Distrust of Action as the Common Core of Populist and Conspiracy Mindset, Political psychology (2023). DOI: 10.1111/POPS.12886

Provided by the Max Planck Society

the quote: How Distrust Hurts Society: Examining the Common Core of Populist and Conspiracy Mindsets (2023, April 5) Retrieved April 5, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-distrust-society-common-core-populist. programming language

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