Threat, fear, and the evolutionary appeal of autocrats

Threat, fear, and the evolutionary appeal of autocrats
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These days, it seems like the best path to political success is to become an autocrat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, thuggish abuser of human rights, stands accused of brazenly jailing his political opponents and killing journalists, yet he remains immensely popular.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte – who once bragged about personally gunning down drug dealers from his motorcycle – is admired by many Filipino citizens.

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Victor Orban in Hungary, Milos Zeman in the Czech Republic, and Matteo Salvini of Italy are the latest in a bumper crop of autocrats.

Meanwhile, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE, a fawning admirer of Putin and Duterte maintains “more party support than any president since World War II except George W. Bush after 9/11,” according to Axios’s Mike Allen.

Why the sudden global appetite for power-hungry leaders with a penchant for breaking laws and ethical codes? Actually, the question itself betrays a massive modern blind spot about the role culture plays in political fortune. All of these autocrats are popular not in spite of their authoritarian tendencies but because of them. A better question is this: If people around the world see these leaders as the solution, what do they regard as the problem?

Traditional explanations are trotted out: Red versus blue. Urban versus rural. Religious versus secular. Populist versus elite. Those divisions exist, but none capture the depth of what’s happening.

We are witnessing the reemergence of a broader, ancient fault line that has separated people for centuries. This fault line is what we call tightness versus looseness. Tight cultures are defined by strict rules and social order, tradition, and predictability. Loose groups eschew rules, welcome new ideas, and embrace tolerance. It’s a primal template that has differentiated groups for millennia.

But until we recognize this deep cultural template and understand where it comes from, explanations for the rise of autocracy will continue to elude us.

How threat tightens cultures

My research conducted over the last two decades shows that threat lies at the heart of tightness-looseness differences.

Our team found that across 33 nations, the countries with the strongest norms and strictest punishments were those with a history of famine, warfare, and natural disasters. Countries like Japan, which faces the threat of over 1,000 earthquakes per year, and Germany, the center of two world wars in the last century, are tight. Countries with a history of relative stability, like New Zealand and Brazil, are loose. 

Our response to threat is adaptive: by imposing social order in the form of strict norms and sanctions, we mobilize communities to respond efficiently. Meanwhile, cultures that face few threats have the luxury of remaining loose and open. We’ve found these same patterns in ancient history, across the U.S. 50 states, and among the working class.  Our computer models show a similar effect: Threat leads to the evolution of tightness. 

But tightness-looseness is far more than just a way of understanding cultural differences. It is also the key to unlocking the mystery of why autocrats are so appealing.

Stoking Fear

Autocrats around the world have expertly capitalized on the primal tight-loose fault line: When we perceive threats (whether real, imagined, or manipulated), we crave social order – and the strongmen who can enforce it. 

Threats don’t even need to be real to trigger a desire for tightness. In our lab, we exposed study participants to false information about terrorist incidents, overpopulation, and pathogen outbreaks. Within minutes, their minds tightened: they wanted stronger rules, favored their own tribe, and became intolerant of outsiders.

Would-be autocrats around the world are conducting these “threat experiments” on their nations’ citizens. Trump has effectively used threatening language to encourage people to fear people from other cultures.

Matteo Salvani, as if reading from a tight-loose text book declared that "We are under attack. Our culture, society, traditions and way of life are at risk.” Viktor Orban claimed that Hungarians have to get rid of “Muslim invaders.” Le Pen’s rhetoric is equally alarming: Globalization and Islam will “Bring France to its knees.”

Analyze any speech of autocrats around the world, and you’ll see the same pattern. Threat constitutes the foundation of their narrative. The goal: To inspire fear, tighten groups, and be perceived as the only person who can deliver safety. “I alone can fix it” claims Trump.

The strategy is enormously successful because it taps into a deep evolutionary principle that helped us survive for millennia. Their supporters feel like their nations are “on the brink of disaster” and they need tight rules and strong-arm rules to survive.  Our research confirms that the strongest Trump supporters believe their country is under grave threat and desire tighter laws and punishments.

The problem is that in the past, many threats were real; it was adaptive to tighten up in such conditions for survival. But in the 21st century, many threats have actually declined precipitously. As for those that persist, like cultural disruptions caused by migration, peoples’ characterizations of them are grossly exaggerated. Trump himself constantly provides false information on threat, arguing—against all available evidence—that immigrants are disproportionately committing crimes in the United States.

These leaders will come and go, but as long as people feel afraid— whether of immigrants, natural disasters, civil war, or some other threat – they will vote for the tightness that autocrats promise to deliver. It’s part of our evolutionary programming. To deal with the rise of autocrats, we need to stop focusing on weeding out these particular personalities and address the deeper cultural roots of the desire for tightness. To get rid of autocrats, we need to deal with the real problem: fake news of rising threat.

Michele J. Gelfand is Distinguished University Professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World.