Evolutionary flaws and right-wing populism

Right-wing populism is undeniably on the rise in Europe. Parties such as the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) are on all time highs in the polls, while their counterparts, most notably the German chancellor Angela Merkel, are increasingly pushed in the defensive. Surely, the refugee crisis fuels fears and fear is the wind in the sails of the right-wing populist parties that thrive on xenophobic rhetoric. But how does this tie in with the idea of Europe as an enlightened continent, with the (arguably) highest average degree of education, the healthiest and happiest people on earth? Wasn’t xenophobia (or even racism) supposed to be a passed station in the postmodern enlightened world?
You might be forgiven for looking to specific and topical events, such as the refugee crisis, for the steady rise of xenophobia, but there are more reasons. The first and foremost reason is that our perception is not optimized to see the world as it is, but to see it as best serves our own interests. Our perception is an outcome of our evolutionary history and has been optimized for our survival, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be accurate. The result is a long list of perception biases, i.e. perceptional errors we are unaware of, but that defines the way we see the world. And in that evolutionary history it was beneficial to see the world as hostile, and as a consequence to be cautious and to see ‘strangers’ as a threat.
Especially relevant in the context of right-wing populism is what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. This perceptional bias explains how we attribute our own positive behaviours and successes to intrinsic factors, such as our intelligence, personality or (arguably) culture, and our negative behaviours and failings to extrinsic factors, such as bad luck. We extend this ‘self serving bias’ to members of our ingroups, i.e. essentially the groups we consider ourselves members of. This bias becomes problematic when we direct our perspective at outgroup members and the mechanism turns around: outgroup members’ positive behaviours are attributed to extrinsic factors, such as luck or positive discrimination, and conversely their negative behaviours to the aforementioned intrinsic factors. So, when your countryman fails or does something unwanted you don’t ascribe that behaviour to their -and incidentally your- culture, and are more willing to look at the (possibly extenuating) context and circumstances. However when a migrant does the same thing, you are more inclined to ascribe that behaviour to their culture and to disregard the circumstances. And what’s more, we see this specific bias especially prominent in individidualistic cultures, such as those in Europe.
So, we are basically pre-wired to be xenophobic to some extent. But that is not the only bias in play here (far from it): we are also pre-wired to avoid and diminish the stress that is caused by information that is contrary to our beliefs and prejudices. In plain text: we like to hear and read what we already believe and (think we) know. Social Psychologists have known this for a while now.
But marketeers know this too. And they apply it: advertising is more effective when it doesn’t contradict our preconceptions. Therefore in marketing our beliefs and values, but also our prejudices are confirmed. Sadly, one might say, this also applies for how we consume our news: people prefer news outlets that confirm their (ideological) beliefs, including their prejudices. So, if you want to attract as many viewers for your tv channel (or readers for your newspaper for that matter), and you have to if you are a commercial station and your goal is to make advertising money, you are best advised to tell those viewers what they want to hear, and not necessarily what they would need to hear in order to know and understand what is actually going on. This is even more the case in a diverse media landscape, where outlets have to focus on specific audiences. In this context ratings and good journalism definitely aren’t compatible.
Adding political advertising using the same mechanisms, provides all ingredients of a very toxic cocktail: (commercial) media outlets for whom confirming prejudices, or at the very least not contradicting them, is an inextricable part of their business strategy, combined with political movements for whom exploiting such prejudices provides an opportunity to appeal to a substantial part of the electorate.
The toxicity of this mix becomes apparent when we look at the xenophobic rhetoric: in order to make sure the audience identifies the targeted ‘others’ are members of the outgroup, they are generally referred to in dehumanizing terms. For instance, groups of refugees are very frequently pictured as swarms, waves, tsunamis (water metaphores are especially prominent). The results are beginning to show in The Netherlands, where right-wing populism has become an integral part of the political and media landscape, and the rhetoric with regard to the recent influx of refugees has reached new heights, or some might say new lows, and violence against refugees is a common occurrence nowadays.
Overcoming our pre-wiring for xenophobia takes an effort, but is in no way impossible. It is even very much necessary: our perceptional biases were useful in a world where our natural environment was much more demanding. Also, our world has only recently become as diverse and as populated as it is now, and evolution won’t catch up with our current living circumstances any time soon. But not overcoming our xenophobic reflexes would be much more costly, maybe even to the extent that evolution won’t have the time to catch up at all. Xenophobia in an overpopulated and diverse world could have truly horrific consequences, and it would be good, even for right-wing populist politicians, to not only focus on short-term gains, and to start thinking about the long-term consequences of stoking up prejudice.

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