Radical Political Ideologies and Belief Confidence

Various theoretical perspectives highlight feelings of distress as a root cause of radical ideological beliefs (see also Ditto & Rodriguez, this volume). One important framework to explain radicalization is significance quest theory (Kruglanski et al., 2014; this volume). This theory has emphasized that radical ideologies are grounded in a quest for significance—a desire to matter and be respected, in the eyes of oneself or important others. While in everyday life people may acquire a sense of significance through a multitude of sources (including, but not limited to, family, friends, work, and meaningful goals), sometimes people may experience grievances such as humiliation, fear, or insecurities that cause feelings of significance loss. If this happens, people can become focally committed to a range of specific ideological goals, which they pursue with high levels of confidence. As such, radical ideologies help people regain a sense of significance through the feeling that they matter by passionately pursuing a range of meaningful ideological goals.

While significant quest theory was primarily designed to understand violent extremism (Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, & Orehek, 2009), its underlying processes also appear to be relevant for understanding regular citizens’ adherence to radical political movements (Webber et al., 2018; see also Van Prooijen & Kuijper, 2020). Meanwhile, other theoretical frameworks also highlight feelings of distress as a root cause of radical political beliefs. For instance, it has been argued that feelings of anxiety and uncertainty stimulate compensatory conviction, meaning that distressed feelings in one life domain increase people’s conviction in other (usually ideological) judgment domains (McGregor et al., 2013; see also Hogg & Goetsche-Astrup, this volume). Furthermore, other perspectives have focused on feelings of unfairness as a driver of ideological radi- calization. One key moderator of this relationship, however, is uncertainty. Specifically, unfairness increases radicalization particularly in anxious or uncertain circumstances, suggesting that radical ideological beliefs help people cope with such aversive feelings, presumably by offering a sense of certainty (Van den Bos, 2018).

Various lines of research support a link between radical political beliefs and distress. A meta-analysis of mortality salience effects on political ideology reveals that reminding people of their own mortality may yield shifts to the political right, as well as shifts to both the left and right extremes (Burke, Kosloff, & Landau, 2013). Many of the right-wing shifts in this research domain are susceptible to alternative explanations, however, notably increased nationalism: Most mortality salience studies revealing exclusively right-wing shifts were conducted in the US during the aftermath of 9/11, increasing citizens’ tendency to “rally around the flag” and support their conservative president (Crawford, 2017; see also Huddy & Del Ponte, this volume). Furthermore, feelings of distress increase people’s preference for radical leaders (Hogg, Meehan, & Farqueharson, 2010), and the fear that own or collective well-being is compromised by social or economic developments is higher at both the left- and right-extremes than in the political center (Van Prooijen, Kromvel, Boiten, & Eendebak, 2015). Finally, both the left- and right- extremes experience increased threat by political opponents, leading them to use more emotional and angry language (Frimer, Brandt, Melton, & Motyl, 2019). In sum, empirical research supports the notion that radical political ideologies are associated with feelings of distress (Kruglanski et al., 2014; McGregor et al., 2013; Van den Bos, 2018; Marcus, this volume).

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