Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists march through the University of Virginia Campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.
The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend 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.
Recently, 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 on August 9, are just in working paper form, and have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal.
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That said, the study uses well-established psychological measures and is clear about its limitations. (And all the researchers’ raw data and materials have been posted online for others to review.)
So while it 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 organization 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.