Research published exploring the “psychological dynamics of individuals against the political system in four different societies”
Led by Dr Chanki Moon (Leeds Beckett University) and Dr Giovanni Travaglino (Royal Holloway, University of London), the study finds individuals who endorse social and political arrangements “might turn violent against the system when they feel distant from authorities.”
Surprisingly, given its apparent increase, few studies have investigated the psychological drivers of radical intentions against political institutions. One of the most recent notable attacks was on Capital Hill on 6 January 2021 when rioters vandalised and attacked the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.
In the study, Dr Moon and Dr Travaglino examine the predictors of radicalisation against the relevant political system in samples from four democratic societies, characterised by different political, social and cultural profiles in Italy, South Korea, the United States and the United Kingdom.
One motivation behind the research was to look at how people’s endorsement of the system, specifically their tendency to justify political and social arrangements, may have been linked to the intentions of engaging in radical political action. Dr Moon and Dr Travaglino expected that people who endorsed the system would also be less likely to attack it violently. However, system endorsement is often grounded in feelings of dependency. People often endorse the system more strongly when they depend on it for various outcomes and benefits.
Work carried out in clinical psychology suggests that feelings of dependency may sometimes trigger the violent rejection of the object on which people depend. This phenomenon is known as counterdependency. The study asks if a similar dynamic can occur in people’s relationship with political institutions and what may trigger a shift from dependency to counterdependency in a political setting.
The results of the study clarify some of the drivers of radicalisation against the political system across societies. The results highlight the importance of tackling people’s orientation towards hierarchies, more specifically their feelings of distant from authorities. The research suggests that political leaders should strive to reduce this distance and ensure people are aware of the channels they can use to pursue change.
Dr Chanki Moon said: “Even in democratic societies, we can observe an increase in radical and violent forms of political participation targeting the political system. In this study, we focused on understanding the intentions of people participating in these forms of actions. According to existing research, the more psychological justification we make about the political system, the less likely to engage in radical forms of political participation. However, we found that people’s justification of the system may sometimes backfire and be linked to even stronger radical intentions. The factor responsible for this seems to be individuals’ feelings of distance from authority. When individuals feel very distant from authorities and, at the same time, justify the system they see no other opportunities for change than radical action. We will continue to conduct research on radical violence across cultures.”