Ambivalent attitudes drive support for extreme political actions, new study reveals

The study, spanning six comprehensive studies with a total sample size of over 13,000 participants, uncovers a complex relationship between ambivalence and political extremism.
The cover of Science Advances Vol.  10, Issue 24. (Photo: Science Advances - redesigned by Kurdistan24)
The cover of Science Advances Vol. 10, Issue 24. (Photo: Science Advances - redesigned by Kurdistan24)

ERBIL (Kurdistan24) - In a groundbreaking study published in Science Advances on June 12, 2024, researchers Joseph J. Siev and Richard E. Petty explore how ambivalent attitudes toward political issues can lead to increased support for extreme political actions.

The study, spanning six comprehensive studies with a total sample size of over 13,000 participants, uncovers a complex relationship between ambivalence and political extremism.

This article delves into the findings and implications of this significant research.

The Nature of Political Ambivalence

Political ambivalence refers to the state of having conflicting feelings or attitudes about political issues.

This ambivalence can reduce participation in conventional political activities such as voting but paradoxically increases support for extreme actions.

The study by Siev and Petty systematically investigates this phenomenon through a series of methodologically rigorous experiments and surveys.

Key Findings

  1. Ambivalence and Political Behavior: Contrary to the traditional view that ambivalence weakens political engagement, the study reveals that ambivalence can amplify support for extreme political actions. This support is particularly strong when individuals perceive their ambivalence as justified.
  2. Psychological Discomfort: The discomfort associated with holding ambivalent attitudes makes extreme actions more appealing. These actions serve as a way to resolve the psychological tension and signal strong commitment to one's beliefs.
  3. Influence of Polarization: The effect of ambivalence on extreme behavior is magnified in contexts where individuals hold polarized attitudes. This suggests that as people's positions become more extreme, their ambivalence drives them toward more radical actions.

Methodology

The research was conducted in six studies using a variety of measures and methodological approaches:

  1. National Surveys: Initial evidence was gathered from two national survey datasets, examining the relationship between partisan ambivalence and support for partisan violence.
  2. Meta-Analysis: A meta-analysis of data collected over three years further supported the findings, demonstrating consistent patterns across different sociopolitical topics and behaviors.
  3. Experimental Studies: Subsequent studies investigated the specificity of ambivalence's effects on political versus nonpolitical behaviors, the mediating role of attitudinal discomfort, and the real-world implications of supporting extreme political groups.

Detailed Results

The study's comprehensive results are detailed in several key areas:

Study 1: Analysis of national survey data from the VOTER and CES studies showed that partisan ambivalence significantly predicted support for partisan violence while negatively predicting voting intentions.

Study 2: A meta-analysis of 19 studies confirmed that ambivalence positively predicted extreme behaviors and negatively predicted moderate behaviors. This effect was robust to various statistical controls and was enhanced by greater attitude polarization.

Study 3: Investigating within-domain effects, the study found that ambivalence predicted extreme political behaviors but not extreme behaviors in unrelated domains, reinforcing the specificity of the effect.

Study 4: Mediation analysis demonstrated that the discomfort associated with ambivalence mediated the relationship between ambivalence and support for partisan violence.

Study 5: In a real-world context, ambivalence predicted donations to extreme environmental organizations, particularly among individuals with highly polarized attitudes.

Study 6: Experimental manipulation of perceptions of ambivalence's justification showed that believing ambivalence is justified reduced its effect on extreme behaviors, highlighting the psychological mechanisms at play.

Implications for Political Extremism

The findings of Siev and Petty's research have profound implications for understanding political extremism. They suggest that ambivalence, a common psychological state, can be a significant driver of extreme political actions. This has important ramifications for policymakers, educators, and mental health professionals working to address political violence and radicalization.

Recommendations

To mitigate the risks associated with ambivalence-driven extremism, the study suggests several strategies:

  1. Promote Deliberation: Encouraging more thoughtful and deliberative political engagement can help reduce the discomfort associated with ambivalence.
  2. Address Polarization: Efforts to decrease political polarization may also reduce the likelihood of ambivalence leading to extreme actions.
  3. Educational Interventions: Educating individuals about the nature of ambivalence and its potential effects can help them manage their psychological discomfort in healthier ways.

Conclusion

Siev and Petty's research provides a nuanced understanding of the relationship between political ambivalence and extremism. It highlights the importance of addressing psychological factors in efforts to combat political violence and promote more constructive forms of political engagement. As political landscapes around the world become increasingly polarized, these insights are more relevant than ever.