Science

Why are there still Nazis? These eight questions can help explain.

patterns of thought

Social dominance theory postulates that societies maintain their hierarchies by creating and promoting social beliefs that keep dominant groups on top.

Supporters of Greece's extreme right Golden Dawn party raise torches during a rally commemorating a 1996 military incident which cost the lives of three Greek navy officers and brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war, in Athens, in January. Golden Dawn was founded as a neo-Nazi group during the early 1980s and is currently the third-largest party in Greece's Parliament.
Yorgos Karahalis/AP
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It's 2017. Why are there still Nazis?

It's a question many observers are asking after hundreds of white supremacists, many displaying swastikas and Confederate battle flags and shouting racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist slogans, took to the streets of Charlottesville, Va., this weekend, provoking violence that claimed the life of one counter-protester and resulted in multiple injuries. 

The continued existence of people who hold openly white supremacist ideologies more than seven decades after the fall of the Third Reich can be explained, in part, through a social theory developed in the early 1990s. Social dominance theory seeks to explain how hierarchy-enhancing ideologies do not just drive social inequality, but are also a result of it. It suggests that a single personality trait, called social dominance orientation (SDO), strongly predicts a person’s political and social views, from foreign policy and criminal justice to civil rights and the environment. What's more, it offers insight into how ideologies such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia tend to arise from the unequal distribution of a society's resources.

“Social dominance theory provides a yardstick for measuring social and political ideologies,” says Felicia Pratto, who developed the theory with fellow psychologist Jim Sidanius. “SDO is one way – not the only one – to try to figure out what those ideologies are ‘about.’”

A person’s SDO can be measured with as few as eight survey items that gauge how strongly a person believes in hierarchical social relations. Respondents are asked to say how much they agree or disagree with statements. At one end of the spectrum are statements suggesting that “An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be on the bottom,” and “It is unjust to try to make groups equal.” Statements at the other end suggest that “Groups at the bottom are just as deserving as groups at the top,” and “No one group should dominate in society.”

In psychology lingo, the SDO scale has both predictive validity, because it strongly correlates with other social attitudes, and discriminant validity, in that it isn’t simply a measure of something else by another name. While people who score highly on the SDO scale do not necessarily subscribe to the same beliefs, they do tend to fall into similar ideological camps as others with high SDO scores.

People with high SDO scores are more likely to believe that women and men are naturally different and should have different workplace roles. They are more likely to accept theories of racial superiority and to believe that their country is inherently better than other countries. They tend to oppose lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; affirmative action; interracial marriage; and social welfare programs. They tend not to call themselves environmentalists. They tend to support military action overseas and the death penalty at home. They tend to believe in capitalism and that the world is basically just. And they are more likely to choose “hierarchy enhancing” careers such as law enforcement, military, business, and politics.

People with low SDO scores, by contrast, tend to hold social attitudes associated with egalitarianism. They tend to work in “hierarchy attenuating” careers such as social work and counseling, special education, or journalism.

“One thing that I think most people find surprising about the theory is its argument that many phenomena that we think of as different or unique – say, racism, sexism, and homophobia – may have a common root,” says Christopher Federico, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s psychology and political science departments. “That is, all of them may be similarly rooted in a desire for intergroup hierarchy, despite having different targets and being enforced in somewhat different ways.”

Men, on average, tend to have higher SDO scores than women, an observation that has led researchers to suggest that SDO may be partly rooted in biology, although research indicates that SDO is not a genetically heritable trait.

“There is a strong tendency for countries that have more equality for women, such as higher education levels, less unequal pay between men and women, and more women in political office, to have lower SDO scores,” says Professor Pratto, who now teaches psychology at the University of Connecticut. 

Pratto notes in an email interview that SDO is not a binary phenomenon, but a gradient. “Most people are a bit to the low side of the middle in egalitarian countries, and the mean tends to be higher in more hierarchical countries,” she says. 

Social dominance theory starts with the observation that in every society that has moved past the hunter-gatherer stage and produces economic surpluses, social hierarchies emerge. Those at the top of the pecking order develop and promote social beliefs – for example, the idea that poor people remain so because they are lazy – that legitimize the hierarchy.

“We know that people high in SDO are more likely to support conservative social policies,” Professor Federico says in an email to the Monitor. “However, this relationship is more pronounced among those in high-status groups. Among members of low-status groups, individuals low and high in SDO do not differ as much in their political attitudes.”

Federico says that SDO is thought to be a highly stable trait, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for an individual to change his or her social attitudes.

“There are people who mentally practice being egalitarian, so that what they do habitually when confronted with a stimulus that they know might provoke prejudice is to associate a good feeling with it, or bring to bear their egalitarian values,” says Pratto. “People can do this so much that they eventually become automatic at doing it.”