News Release

Is right-wing authoritarianism a cognitive conservatism?

Peer-Reviewed Publication

The Polish Association of Social Psychology

Greeble paired with a positive image

image: A Greeble (an invented object used in psychological studies) paired with a positive image as part of the surveys. The same Greeble will be then used in a pair with a negative image, in order to test whether a person’s attitude to it will change. view more 

Credit: Michael J. Tarr (Greeble) and IAPS (valenced image)

Prejudice and conservatism, including those targeted at various social groups, such as immigrants, homosexuals and women, and commonly linked to right-wing authoritarian ideologies, may not simply have their roots in cognitive rigidity (where people have difficulty to change their opinion once formed).

Contrary to previous assumptions, a new study, published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Social Bulletin of Psychology provides evidence that right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is more likely to be concerned with how these people acquire their attitudes than how they (do not) change them later on. In their work, the researchers suggest that it is rather that RWA is linked to easier acquisition of positive attitudes for abstract and unknown objects.

In order to help better understand the cognitive correlates of right wing authoritarianism (RWA), a team of French and Belgian researchers conducted an integrative data analysis using responses from different studies, looking into attitude change as a function of RWA.

A part of the scientific literature suggests that right wing authoritarianism is associated with a lack of cognitive flexibility. The findings reported in the present study do not corroborate this conclusion.

While several interpretations can be made based on other parts of the scientific literature, caution is required when discussing the potential mechanisms at play in this context. One possible explanation of these findings is that when there is a tendency to be more sensitive to negative information (which is the case in RWA), there is also a tendency to try to stop negative experiences from arising. For that reason, it might explain why people tend to stick to positive information the more they support RWA.

Based on their findings, the research team, led by Dr Amelie Bret (University of Nantes, France), suggest that one way to counter prejudice could be to promote less biased exposure to social information at the time of social attitudes formation. However, it is still too early to propose credible recommendations, they point out. Before that, further studies should try, for example, to replicate these results in different applied contexts.

The present study used data from a total of 1,037 participants, who were first presented with a set of Greebles paired with either negative or positive images. Then, the researchers changed the positive images with negative ones and vice versa, in order to see whether the participants would change their opinion about the individual Greebles.


Research article:

Bret, A., Beffara, B., Mierop, A., & Mermillod, M. (2021). Differentiated Evaluation of Counter-Conditioned Stimuli as a Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Social Psychological Bulletin, 16(2), 1-26.

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