Dr Francesco Rigoli speaks to Psychology Today on his research suggesting that political extremists hold on rigidly to particular values, whereas political moderates embrace a wider field of values more loosely.

By Mr Shamim Quadir(Senior Communications Officer), Published

Psychological research comparing those who hold politically extreme ideologies (left or right) with those endorsing moderate ideologies is growing fast, and this is perhaps due to the recent surge of political polarisation in countries such as the USA and the UK.

However, a new study from Dr Francesco Rigoli, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychology at City, University of London, suggests that research into the influence of people’s values has, surprisingly, remained unexplored in this area. This is despite values being at the heart of the notion of ideology, and so much so that scholars often define ideologies primarily in terms of underlying values.

Published in the journal Political Psychology, Dr Rigoli’s research asked whether there was any common aspect, in terms of values, that is shared by both left and right wing extremists and distinguishes them from political moderates.

To do this he surveyed 750 American and British citizens on the matter, and reviewed responses to value based questions from previous surveys (by people across political the political spectrum, from left to right), including the European Social Survey (ESS. based at City, University of London).

Across all these sources, he found a positive association between respondents reporting how far left or right they were on scales of political orientation with how variable their responses were across scales of basic human values (e.g. security, wealth, equality); meaning to what degree, overall, they accepted some values, whilst rejecting others.

Commenting this week in Psychology Today, he interpreted the findings as:

While some people tend to commit towards some specific values (e.g., security) and disregard other values (e.g., wealth), another group of people invest in a multiplicity of values, with no one in particular. Note that this consideration applies to general values, besides those dealing with political issues. My study shows that the first group of people is predisposed to embrace extremist political ideologies, either on the right or on the left; while the second group of people will tend to support moderate ideologies.

Whilst the study suggests this effect is widespread in European countries and the USA, it did not investigate whether the same would hold true outside of Western society, nor did the research account for those people whose political orientation may not adhere to a typically left-right axis of political viewpoints.

Nevertheless, to the author’s knowledge, this is the first empirical evidence of an aspect of an individual’s values being able to distinguish political extremist from moderate, and which could offer valuable insight into how political landscapes in the West can evolve toward polarisation, and how they might be brought back toward consensus.

Find out more

Read the Psychology Today article, ‘What Can Studying Values Tell Us About Political Extremism?’

Read the research study, ‘Political Extremism and a Generalized Propensity to Discriminate Among Values’ in the journal, Political Psychology.