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Right-wing flames that have licked Europe fanned by lack of education

May 26, 2014

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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.

Order, structure

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 the French population 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.

This article was first published in The Conversation

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2014 4:23 pm

    Far-leftist rubbish. Cultural Marxism. The Right as a “mental disorder”. Rightists as “primitive uneducated morons”.

    The same old, same old… The old communist trick of pathologizing the Right.

    We’ve seen the same tactics used again and again for almost one whole century. Do you really believe, sir, that this is going to work forever? Really?

    Good luck with that, In the meantime, we will keep working to free ourselves, our Culture, our Academy, our Civilization from tyrants like those you support, and fanatic ideologies like those you defend.

    Good luck with that old tired marxist crap.

  2. May 26, 2014 4:38 pm

    Thanks for that. I’m certainly not a Marxist, and I remember psychologist Hans Eysenck showing that the personality characteristics of the far right and the far left were much closer to each other than to less extreme groups.

  3. Jake permalink
    May 27, 2014 2:51 am

    re UKIP and London…it should be noted that the English are now in a minority in London for the first time, so it’s hardly surprising that a city of immigration and mobile transnational professionals would overlook a party that aims to return power and influence to the indigenous population. While the psychological analysis is interesting, Ian, it also has to be acknowledged that those who vote for parties like UKIP and Front National are the ones likely to have their jobs taken by new arrivals willing to work for lesser wages, and also see their areas turned into immigrant ghettoes. They are also at a loss to know when their consent for these policies was ascertained as even in a country like Ireland where EU treaties get debated for referenda reasons, these momentous changes tend to be buried in the detail and are maybe even never referred to, as the parties focus on the more self-serving aspects in the treaties…

    • May 27, 2014 10:19 pm

      I take your point, Jake. It’s just that Europe, with its declining indigenous, ageing populations, badly needs immigration to keep its economy going. This is indeed toughest for those who have to compete with the highly motivated incomers, so I do take your point. It’s easy for me in my comfortable position to speak ex cathedra on this. But without immigration, bye-bye German culture, Italian culture, Scottish culture … I think Ireland is the only European population which is replacing itself, and Ireland has happily embraced many tens of thousands of East Europeans and others, in spite of the most severe recession and drop in living standards in Europe.

      • Jake permalink
        May 28, 2014 1:21 am

        Ian, I would agree entirely with your point about immigration replacing declining indigenous populations, and, in fact, that’s exactly what the free movement of peoples within the EU is all about. (Or as some would have it, Europe is contracepting and aborting itself out of existence). However, the difficulty that many electorates have in Europe is that they never gave their consent or had this explained to or requested of them.

        It’s hard to extrapolate anything from Irish attitudes as this is a nation of people that emigrated in huge numbers in the 1850s from ports where other ships next to theirs exported the very grain that could have sustained them and their families at home – while they looked on passively. And for the last 6 years emigrates again while the money that could circulate and employ them is being exported to outside financial interests to pay off speculative bank debt. Meanwhile, in the capital city, it’s impossible to get more than a few hundred people to march or protest against it, at any time. So I would respectfully suggest that Ireland passively accepts immigration and ‘happily embraces’ is a slight overstatement.

        By the way – and before I get carried away with my rhetoric! – I think Poland is also replacing itself…thanks again for the article!

  4. Margaret Ryan permalink
    May 27, 2014 2:09 pm

    Ian,
    I find many of your arguments compelling. However, you base the claims that you made in relation to UKIP on the premise that people in London are better educated (on average) than people in the rest of the UK. Does empirical evidence support this assumption?

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