Negative emotions are better predictors of populist attitudes

The rise of populism has been accompanied by explanations as to why people feel drawn to it. An international study across 15 European countries, carried out by researchers at the University of Amsterdam and funded by the European Union’s H2020, now sheds light on the role of negative emotions. The conclusion is that ’anger, contempt and anxiety are much better predictors of populist attitudes than socio-economic and socio-cultural factors.’

Populism has been on the rise in Europe for some time. Numerous studies are seeking to explain this trend, and the role of emotion has received more attention, only recently. Researchers from the University of Amsterdam have for the first time identified the relative importance of socio-economic, socio-cultural and emotional factors in a single comprehensive study among a total of 8,059 respondents from 15 European countries. They conclude that negative emotions are the best predictors of populist attitudes.

The relative importance of different factors

In their study, the researchers looked at three types of explanatory factors that are usually associated with populist preferences, the first of these being socio-economic factors. Earlier studies suggested that economic insecurity or adversity (e.g., due to unemployment or low income) is strongly associated with distrust of government and elites as well as support for right-wing populist parties.

Another type of explanation for developing populist mindsets that was examined in the study revolves around people’s social identity and the attachment they feel to a particular group or country. Once people feel that their cultural identity and values are being threatened by alien values, belief systems or ideologies, this could increase their support for populist parties and policies.

Finally, the study looked at negative emotions - anger, contempt and anxiety - as explanations for support for populism: anger about not achieving goals or about certain behaviour or events caused by others, contempt for others who are seen as guilty and inferior and anxiety due to feelings of threat.

Negative emotions appear to be the best predictors

After thorough analysis of these various factors that could potentially explain populist preferences, the researchers concluded that negative emotions are better predictors than socio-economic and socio-cultural factors. In general, they find no significant correlation between socio-economic factors and populist attitudes, apart from a very negligible relationship with education. They also found no significant connection between socio-cultural factors and populist views. However, the link between populist attitudes and anger, contempt and anxiety appears to be relatively strong.

The research design was based on a structural equation model (SEM), while a novel machine learning algorithm, Random Forest (RF), reaffirmed the importance of emotions across the collected international survey dataset.

’We provide empirical evidence that all three negative emotions play an important role in explaining populist attitudes. These emotions likely reflect people’s negative feelings about their current socio-economic or socio-cultural status,’ according to the researchers.

Publication details

David Abadi , Pere-Lluis Huguet Cabot , Jan Willem Duyvendak & Agneta Fischer (2021), ’Socio-Economic or Emotional Predictors of Populist Attitudes across Europe’. The results of this study are currently available on PsyArXiv Preprints.