As Europe wakens to a wave of newly elected right-wing Members of the European Parliament, our multi-racial continent needs to understand what are the psychological roots of this movement.
We have some comprehension of the economic and social origins – including a devastated economy with crippling levels of unemployment, and new waves of immigration into and within the continent.
Taken together, these make a heady mix, so does psychology add anything to the analysis? – Yes, it does.
Common to many of the right wing parties is prejudice against immigrants and certain racial groups. For instance, Italian Senator Roberto Calderoli, a prominent member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, in 2013 described black Italian government minister Cecile Kyenge as an “orangutan”.
The London gap
In the UK, the remarkable rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was made even more notable by the huge gap between its success in London (7%) versus the rest of England (20%). Suzanne Evans, a former UKIP councillor who lost her London seat, explained that the “educated, cultured and young” of the capital was less likely to support UKIP.
And indeed, psychological research does support this view: lower educational attainment is strongly associated with prejudice. In London, with its higher than average level of education, prejudice is therefore less likely and so the attraction of anti-immigration parties like UKIP is diminished.
But why should lower intelligence make you more likely to sign up to extreme right ideologies? One answer, first proposed in the early 1950s by social psychologist Gordon Allport, was that prejudice reflects a style of thinking about anything.
This style of thinking has been described as “Need for Closure” (NFC) which has been defined as a desire to have a clear answer to any problem or topic, spurred by a real discomfort with any confusion or ambiguity.
Two aspects of need for closure are urgency and permanence. Urgency means that people want quick and definite answers to problems and permanence means that once given, the answer should be fixed and unchangeable – and hence not open to change in the light of new information or ideas.
People who have a high need for closure prefer order and structure in their lives, as well as predictability. They tend to want clear and quick answers to problems and feel intense discomfort with ambiguity or situations where there is no clear answer, or where there are different interpretations. They also tend to be close-minded and don’t like to have their knowledge and beliefs challenged.
Need for closure tends to produce what is known as “essentialist thinking” – which means creating simple categories – for example “blacks” – members of whom automatically have characteristics associated with the category. This easy and quick thinking habit avoids the need for any more complex analysis of individuals: if high NFC people are faced with contrary evidence to their quick categorization – eg a member of the out-group who is better educated than they are - they experience this as very uncomfortable and tend to shy away from it.
High NFC individuals are also very attracted to authoritarian ideologies because such ideologies satisfy their deepest psychological needs for certainty, quick solutions and unchanging, permanent answers.
Mix and learn
With one quarter of French voters voting for a far-right party, for instance, it is clear that Europe is facing a crisis of massive proportions. Are there any solutions? One is to ensure meaningful day-to-day contact between different racial groups – easy racial stereotypes tend to be weakened when prejudiced people are faced with the stereotype-busting individuality of neighbours and workmates. And the second is education.
Education builds IQ and IQ reduces prejudice – though obviously not on the part of some bright but ruthless far right party leaders. Educational also helps people think more abstractly, and if you get someone to think about a problem in more abstract terms, their prejudice towards the out-group is temporarily diminished.
If Europe is going to survive against this massive anti-Europe and anti-immigrant surge, then it has to invest in good education. This is a long-term solution, clearly, but the current devastation of education provision in countries such as Greece means that Europe is going to have a hard time facing up to this challenge. The “need for closure” and its easy, scapegoating, solutions could drive Europe to a very unfortunate place unless the continent invests in education and its economy.