New study indicates the COVID-19 outbreak has boosted support for right-wing authoritarianism

New research from Poland provides evidence that the outbreak of COVID-19 is linked to an increased acceptance of authoritarianism. The study indicates that this rise in authoritarian attitudes, in turn, is associated with increased prejudice towards those who deviate from traditional sexual norms.

The study appears in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and shortly afterward Poland imposed lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus.

“We were conducting a large opinion survey initially to test a different hypothesis, which started before the pandemic,” explained study author Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, the head of PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London and a professor at SWPS University.

“When the pandemic broke out in Poland, we hypothesized it may result in a so-called ‘conservative shift’ that often takes place in face of threat and uncertainty. We also predicted that the shift towards authoritarian attitudes and increased emphasis on national cohesiveness and conformity may decrease support for diversity.”

The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of Polish participants three times between February 28th and April 1, 2020. The study, based on 889 individuals who completed all three waves of surveys, found that right-wing authoritarianism, desire for national cohesion, and rejection of sexual dissenters all increased following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Poland.

In other words, following the outbreak, Poles became more likely to agree with statements such as “What our country needs most is discipline, with everyone following our leaders in unity”, “For the sake of the nation, men should control women”, and “Homosexuality is a threat to Poland.”

“We observed that submissive authoritarianism increased in response to the outbreak of the pandemic and resulted in rejection of non-traditional women and sexual minorities as threats to national cohesion. We collected the first wave of measurements before the outbreak of the pandemic and two subsequent waves after the outbreak,” Golec de Zavala told PsyPost.

“Thus, we can, with some confidence, attribute the increase in authoritarianism, sexism and sexual prejudice to the threat of the pandemic. This suggests that threat increases national cohesion which may result in greater solidarity but this solidarity seems to be limited to those who follow the rules of the majority. The minorities are rejected and lower status groups further oppressed when groups face emergencies.”

In order to truly determine causality, however, the researchers would need to conduct a controlled experiment that artificially manipulated the threat of the pandemic — an impossible task.

“We did the second best thing — we leveraged out a naturally occuring threat. This ‘natural’ experiment is not as controlled as lab studies, thus there is a possibility that some uncontrolled variables caused the change we observed. However, we had theoretical reasons to predict the change we observed and we could demonstrate that it occurred precisely just after the media coverage on COVID-19 in Poland increased after the first restrictions were introduced,” Golec de Zavala explained.

“The changes we observed further demonstrate the existing divisions and prejudice in the Polish society. The increased hostility towards non-traditional women and sexual minorities was escalated by the populist ruling party in the presidential campaign that took place during the pandemic and secured the second term for the populist ultraconservative president.”

The study, “The COVID-19 Pandemic, Authoritarianism, and Rejection of Sexual Dissenters in Poland“, was authored by Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Kinga Bierwiaczonek, Tomasz Baran, Oliver Keenan, and Adrian Hase.

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