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Vanessa Hirneis

May 3rd, 2022

The psychology of populism: why are Europe and the West moving to the right?

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Vanessa Hirneis

May 3rd, 2022

The psychology of populism: why are Europe and the West moving to the right?

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Neoliberalism divides us: economically, politically, and socially.

Populism is on the rise in many contemporary societies, disrupting the public discourse and putting the democratic model to the test. While populist movements span across the left-right political spectrum, Europe and the West, in particular, are witnessing a growing electoral success of anti-pluralist, anti-democratic parties on the far-right. What is fuelling this demand? In an attempt to answer this question, the present article will explore reasons for the gradual erosion of social cohesion in Western societies, its structural and psychological underpinnings as well as its political consequences. Understanding intergroup relations as products of the current socio-political and economic systems and people’s inherent psychological need for status and belonging is key in understanding the appeal of populist movements.

You Are In, You Are Out: The Divisiveness of the Neoliberal Model

Although rarely mentioned by name, neoliberalism has been the dominant form of organising life in Europe and the West for decades. Much more than an economic theory, neoliberalism can be best described as a policy model and ideological conviction which prioritises the pursuit of economic growth, encourages the transnational movement of people, capital, goods and services by means of globalisation and opposes state intervention and market regulation (Navarro, 2007). In lay terms it means “bigger, better, faster, stronger” and it is how we have come to understand ourselves and the world.

The neoliberal agenda continues to promise prosperity for all. However, although unprecedented levels of prosperity have been achieved, the distribution of this wealth has been inherently uneven within and between nations (Chancel et al., 2021). In regard to the growing inequalities within industrialised nations, scholars often cite characteristically neoliberal public policies such as the deregulation of the labour and financial markets, the reduction of social public expenditures and privatisation as they have systematically benefitted the wealthy at the expense of the working class (Navarro, 2007).

The resulting unequal distribution of wealth, opportunity, rewards, and other resources between groups has significantly contributed to the manifestation of robust status hierarchies and varying levels of agency and political power (Baron et al., 2018). Moreover, the globalisation of markets has had a sizeable impact on local labour markets while allocating its associated costs and gains unevenly (Autor et al., 2016). Specifically, trade shocks induced by major shifts in the global market paired with skill-biased technological change have caused low- skilled wages and the overall demand for low-skilled labour to decline in import- sensitive industries and regions (Milner, 2021). Within neoliberal societies in which a person’s value and level of integration is dictated by their purchasing power and human relations are governed by norms of individualism and competition, the described are not simply “economic issues”. Rather, neoliberal policies, mechanisms and norms create an environment in which those at the bottom of the income distribution are commonly stigmatised and blamed for their own deprivation (Littler, 2013). Neoliberalism divides us: economically, politically, and socially.

The Psychology of Populism: A Thwarted Need to Belong

In societies that so clearly distinguish between winners and losers within the economic, political, and social spheres, there is little trust and cohesion between social groups. Psychologically, this provides a breeding ground for populist, anti-establishment sentiment, rooted in an unsatiated need for status and belonging – particularly within the “losing” demographic.

Humans have an inherent need to belong and to maintain positive and meaningful interactions with others. To fulfil this need, individuals tend to organise in groups that are bound together by a sense of interdependence and cooperation, shared loyalties, and solidarity between its members. Conflicts between social groups arise particularly in unequal societies because they have to compete for access to different kinds of resources (Jay et al., 2019; Sidanius & Pratto, 2001). The greater the actual or perceived inequality, the bigger status concerns and group-based stigma will grow (Paskov et al., 2013). Low-income groups are disproportionately affected by economic grievances, are socially and politically ostracized from mainstream society and are thereby less able to fulfil their need to belong. And when people feel rejected and socially excluded from wider society, they will likely try to compensate:  In an experimental setting, Bäck et al. (2018) were able to demonstrate that socially excluded individuals were more prone to adopting the radical, anti-establishment ideologies of another group in order to be accepted. Similarly, socially excluded individuals’ that were part of an ethnic majority have been found to express higher levels of ethnocentrism as a means to boost their own identity and buffer the adverse effects of their unsatiated need to belong (Greitemeyer, 2012).

If we take a look at the votership of right-wing populist parties in Europe and the West, young and old, low-income individuals are often overrepresented – i.e. those with weaker integration into the job market and weaker social ties (Rama & Cordero, 2018). Research has shown that perceptions of relative deprivation and societal decline are associated with extreme political discontent and an increased likelihood of supporting anti-establishment movements (Elchardus & Spruyt, 2016). But specifically within regions that have been adversely affected by trade shocks, levels of extreme political discontent and political cynicism are disproportionately high (Fieschi & Heywood, 2004; Milner, 2021). Higher levels of xenophobia, less overall political participation but the higher chance of supporting parties on the far right observed in those at the bottom of the distribution pyramid, have been discussed to stem from lower levels of social integration, higher reliance on welfare services as well as the belief that resources have to be competed for with outgroups (Arzheimer & Carter, 2006).

The relative deprivation of one’s group compared to others and the zero-sum notion that other groups profit from its detriment binds group members closer together and causes individuals’ ideological beliefs or group-enforced values to become more pronounced. This alleviates the strain of perceived status and identity threats (Schmid & Muldoon, 2015). Populist leaders tend to capitalize off of the marginalization and social exclusion of the poor by framing economic grievances as severe injustices towards them (i.e. the “pure” people), thereby offering these underprivileged groups a positive social identity (Spruyt et al., 2016). Moreover, populist leaders will often promote the application of violent, dominance-based strategies for status-acquisition, which their subjects are more prone to adopt when prestige-based pathways to status are unlikely to be successful (Petersen et al., 2020). Think, for instance, of the 2021 storm on Capitol Hill. While society does not have to condone such demonstrations of intimidation and force, understanding the psychological underpinnings of populist recruitment in these terms may allow policy makers and civil society to respond differently – by addressing the problem at the root and tackling the systemic, relative deprivation in their respective countries.

Addressing the Problem at the Root

There certainly are individual differences that may help explain and predict whether a person’s relatively low societal status may elicit populist sentiment and translate into the support of parties on either side of the two political extremes. Low levels of the Big-Five personality trait “agreeableness“ (i.e. higher distrust, cynicism and tough-mindedness) and high social dominance orientation (i.e. high support for group-based hierarchies) for instance are important predictors for an individual’s response to perceived status threats in terms of outgroup hostility and domination (Womick et al., 2019). While it is not exclusively young and old, low-income individuals who support right-wing leaders, it is evident that the current societal model fails a comparatively large proportion of its citizens. Understanding why this makes this demographic more and more vulnerable to different forms of political radicalisation – whether at the polls or on the street – is crucial in addressing the growing popularity of right-wing parties in Europe and the West.

Fighting populism must start with the underlying issue of the systemic nature of economic grievances and social exclusion within neoliberal societies. True democracy is only feasible and sustainable when all citizens are able and feel compelled to participate in society’s mainstream institutions. When society is not divided in winners and losers. When all people feel like they belong instead of being merely tolerated based on the economic value that is ascribed to them.


  • The views expressed in this post are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, nor the LSE.
  • Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash


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About the author

Vanessa Hirneis

Vanessa is an alumna of the M.Sc. Psychology of Economic Life. She is a social psychologist, writer and youth activist passionate about diversity, equity and collective impact. As part of the 2021/22 cohort of the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs, Vanessa is currently investigating evidence-based and human-centred approaches to reduce social and economic inequalities. In doing so, she has been partnering with organizations such as the Behavioural Insights Team and Innovations for Poverty Action and applying rigorous research to a variety of policy issues. In her work, Vanessa is particularly interested in exploring the ways in which insights about human perception and behaviour can contribute to the creation of a more inclusive societal model.

Posted In: Political Psychology

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