The white supremacists marching at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were not ashamed when they shouted, “Jews will not replace us.” They were not ashamed to wear Nazi symbols, to carry torches, to harass and beat counterprotesters. They wanted their beliefs on display.
It’s easy to treat people like them as straw men: one-dimensional, backward beings fueled by hatred and ignorance. But if we want to prevent the spread of extremist, supremacist views, we need to understand how these views form and why they stick in the minds of some people.
It’s important because they’re not going away. This weekend in Washington, DC, a second Unite the Right rally will convene. No one is really sure how many white nationalists will attend, or if the counterprotesters will greatly outnumber them. But they plan to meet in front of the White House to once again put their beliefs on proud display.
Last year, psychologists Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily recruited members of the alt-right (a.k.a. the “alternative right,” the catchall political identity of white nationalists) to participate in a study to build the first psychological profile of their movement. The results, which were released in August 2017, are just in working paper form and have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal.
That said, the study uses well-established psychological measures and is clear about its limitations. All the researchers’ raw data and materials have been posted online for others to review. Meanwhile, Forscher and Kteily are working on an extended, more rigorous version of the survey, which will pull from a nationally representative sample of Trump voters. (Read more about their plans here.)
So while last year’s survey is a preliminary assessment, it validates some common perceptions of the alt-right with data. It helps us understand this group not just as straw men but as people with knowable motivations.
A lot of the findings align with what we intuit about the alt-right: This group is supportive of social hierarchies that favor whites at the top. It’s distrustful of mainstream media and strongly opposed to Black Lives Matter. Respondents were highly supportive of statements like, “There are good reasons to have organizations that look out for the interests of white people.” And when they look at other groups — like black Americans, Muslims, feminists, and journalists — they’re willing to admit they see these people as “less evolved.”
But it’s the degree to which the alt-righters differed from the comparison sample that’s most striking — especially when it came to measures of dehumanization, support for collective white action, and admitting to harassing others online. That surprised even Forscher, the lead author and a professor at the University of Arkansas, who typically doesn’t find such large group difference in his work.
There was a time when psychologists feared that “social desirability bias” — people unwilling to admit they’re prejudiced, for fear of being shamed — would prevent people from answering such questions about prejudice truthfully. But this survey shows people will readily admit to believing all sorts of vile things. And researchers don’t need to use implicit or subliminal measures to suss it all out.
How Forscher and Kteily surveyed the alt-right
In April 2017, Forscher and Kteily got a sample of 447 self-identified alt-righters in an online survey on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (an online marketplace for gathering study participants and people for quick paid tasks) and led them through a barrage of psychological survey questions. They then compared the alt-righters to an online sample of 382 non-alt-righters. (See the demographic breakdown of the samples here.)
A note on some limitations: This survey was not designed to be representative of the entire “alt-right” movement or to generalize to other right-wing-leaning groups. It’s a convenience sample of alt-righters on the internet who were willing to take a survey for a small cash reward.
Even so, it’s instructive. The people who answered this survey are people who stood up and identified as alt-right, similar to the marchers in Charlottesville, and similar to those who are expected attend the August 11 rally in DC. Even if this survey only represents a small portion of the people who adhere to this ideology, it’s useful for understanding exactly how they are distinct as a group and what’s behind their divisive views.
Here are some of the biggest differences between the alt-right and control group the researchers found.
The alt-right scores high on dehumanization measures
One of the starkest, darkest findings in the survey comes from a simple question: How evolved do you think other people are?
Kteily, the co-author on this paper, pioneered this new and disturbing way to measure dehumanization — the tendency to see others as being less than human. He simply shows study participants the following (scientifically inaccurate) image of a human ancestor slowly learning how to stand on two legs and become fully human.
Participants are asked to rate where certain groups fall on this scale from 0 to 100. Zero is not human at all; 100 is fully human.
On average, alt-righters saw other groups as hunched-over proto-humans.
On average, they rated Muslims at a 55.4 (again, out of 100), Democrats at 60.4, black people at 64.7, Mexicans at 67.7, journalists at 58.6, Jews at 73, and feminists at 57. These groups appear as subhumans to those taking the survey. And what about white people? They were scored at a noble 91.8. (You can look through all the data here.)
The comparison group, on the other hand, scored all these groups in the 80s or 90s on average. (In science terms, the alt-righters were nearly a full standard deviation more extreme …read more