Stress can push one’s political beliefs to extremes, study finds

IRVINE, Calif. — Difficult life events may affect more than just a person’s mental or physical health — it turns out they can push one’s political positions to an extreme.

In a new study, researchers show how challenges and stressors a person faces in life significantly impact one’s political polarization, whether the person was liberal or conservative.

“We found that adults who experience a range of adverse events over their lifetimes, such as serious illness or a community disaster, are more likely to express extreme or polarized views on a variety of topics. This appears to be the case even when those topics, such as political opinions, have little or nothing to do with the adverse events they encountered,” says co-author Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychology & social behavior at the University of California, Irvine,  in a university news release.

Politics: Capitol building
The personal challenges someone faces in life tend to have a significant impact on his or her political leanings, a new study finds.

“Our study suggests that traumatic experiences may lead to long-lasting changes in a person’s tendency to become more polarized in his or her political attitudes,” she adds.

The team of researchers surveyed about 1,600 participants, taking place near the end of 2006, 2007, and 2008. The participants were asked about political preferences, as well as personal life adversity experiences.

Each participant received the same questions, which reviewed personally-experienced life adversities. The questionnaire regarded 37 negative or inconvenient instances such as illness, injury, financial hardship, death of a loved one, or relationship issues.


“Our results suggest increased polarization towards both the left and the right, with a slightly greater tilt toward conservative attitudes,” says co-author  Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, in a news release. “Our surveys were done toward the end of the second George W. Bush administration, so supporting the War on Terror was considered a conservative policy, but I’m not sure in a vacuum that’s the right label.

“The polarization piece was much stronger,” he says.

Co-author Daniel Randles, of the University of Toronto, explains that it wasn’t necessarily the degree of adversity, but an accumulation of challenging events that can trigger these extreme opinions.

“What we found isn’t like a light switch. Most people experience occasional adversity and it doesn’t drive them to extreme positions,” he says. “But repeated events seem to add up, nudging someone closer to their preferred view.”

Participants were also tasked with measuring their level of agreement or disagreement with politically-charged statements such as, “The U.S. was justified in invading Iraq in 2003.”

“Our results suggest that truly disrupting personal life experiences can lead to changes in liberal and conservative political attitudes, possibly permanently,” says Cohen Silver. “This study used a national sample of adults to support research that had previously only been conducted using undergraduate students in the laboratory. We found that uncertainty and trauma can lead to a chronic tendency to affirm importantly held beliefs.”

The study was published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.


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