Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-seeking and Extreme Political Discontent

Petersen, Michael Bang; Osmundsen, Mathias; Bor, Alexander

Modern democracies are currently experiencing destabilizing events including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media. Some of the forms of discontent are commonly argued to be related to populism. In this chapter, however, wearguethat the evolved psychology of status-seeking lies at the core of this syndrome of extreme political discontent. Thus, social status constitutes one of the key adaptive resources for any human, as it induces deference from others in conflicts of interest. Prior research has identified two routes to status: Privilege acquired through service and dominance acquired through coercion. We argue that extreme political discontent involves behaviors aimed at dominance through engagement in either individual aggression or in mobilization processes that facilitate coalitional aggression. Consistent with this, we empirically demonstrate that measuresof status-seeking via dominance correlate with indices of a large number of extreme forms of political discontent and do so more strongly than a measure of populism. Finally, we argue that the reason why dominance strategies become activated in the context of modern democratic politics is that increased inequality activates heightened needs for status and, under such conditions, dominance for some groups constitutes a more attainable route to status than prestige.