Terrorism Temporarily Turns Leftists Rightward

British researchers report that, immediately after a terrorist attack, liberals tend to think more like conservatives.
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British researchers report that, immediately after a terrorist attack, liberals tend to think more like conservatives.
The London Underground train that was involved in the bomb attack at Aldgate tube station. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The London Underground train that was involved in the bomb attack at Aldgate tube station. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Presidential preference polls provide a clear indication of how American conservatives are reacting to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. They've basically doubled down on their America-first mindset, with large numbers endorsing candidates who express hostility toward outsiders such as immigrants and Muslims.

OK, but what about liberals? Have they clung tighter to their basic beliefs, as one school of thought would suggest, or shifted to the right, as another predicts?

New British research suggests the latter is far more likely. At least, that's what happened in the United Kingdom following a similarly tragic terrorist attack.

A research team led by University of Kent psychologists Julie Van de Vyver and Diana Houston report that, following the July 7, 2005, bombing of the London Underground, the British public expressed higher levels of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice.

If terrorists perceive a hostile Western world, a successful attack can make reality fit their perception.

More surprisingly, this shift was "larger among people with a liberal orientation than among those with a conservative orientation." Those on the right solidified their suspicion of outsiders, while those on the left moved much closer to that understandable but problematic point of view.

In the journal Psychological Science, the researchers report on two large, nationally representative surveys featuring a total of 2,031 British citizens. The first took place six weeks before the al-Qaeda-organized July 7, 2005, attack on London's public transportation system that killed 52 people and injured 770 more. The second was conducted one month after those bombings.

Prejudice toward outsiders was gauged by participants' level of support for four statements, including "British Muslims are more loyal to other Muslims around the world than they are to other people in Britain," and "Immigrants increase crime rates."

In addition, the surveys used Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory to assess underlying attitudes. Participants were asked their level of agreement with two facets of morality associated with conservatism: in-group loyalty ("I feel loyal to Britain despite any faults it may have") and authority-respect ("People should follow rules at all times"); as well as two associated with liberalism: harm-care ("I want everyone to be treated justly.... It is important to me to protect the weak in society") and fairness-reciprocity ("There should be equality for all groups in Britain").

The results: Negative attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants were higher after the bombings, but this was almost entirely due to a shift among politically liberal participants. Conservatives held onto their suspicions about these outside groups, while liberals moved in their direction.

In addition, those polled after the attack endorsed the importance of in-group loyalty more strongly than their predecessors, and were less likely to support the concept of fairness for all. Again, these shifts were driven by liberal participants.

In essence, terrorism-induced fears led liberals to think more like conservatives. This effect was temporary—the researchers report that the gap between liberals and conservatives on these questions was already re-opening later that year.

But these findings suggest conservative politicians have a window immediately after a terrorist attack when they can pass new laws, or embark on retaliatory attacks, with the widespread support of the public.

So if terrorists perceive a hostile Western world, a successful attack can make reality fit their perception.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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