Leftists more likely than rightists to migrate when they perceive political threat

Lay Summary by Britta Brugman


In the face of social and political threat, people instinctively react to feelings of fear in one of two ways: fight or flight. This study shows that political ideology influences the safety protection intentions of individuals in conflict. When afraid, the tendency of people to flee their country depends on political conditions.

Previous research has demonstrated that rightists are more sensitive to negativity, and therefore seek to avoid fear more than leftists. However, at the heart of right-wing beliefs are the notions of patriotism, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Accordingly rightist ideology may provide people with clearer guidelines on how to cope with conflict than leftist ideology. So when predicting the interactive effects of political ideology and fear on considering migration, these observations lead to contradictory conclusions.

For this reason the aim of this study was to show that this contradiction can be resolved by taking the relevance of the threatening situation to the political ideology of people into account.

In an experiment the researchers asked Jewish Israelis to either read a news report about an approaching epidemic or an approaching Palestinian revolt. In addition, both news reports were either written in reassuring or threatening language. As expected, the researchers found no difference in flight intention between the political groups when the situation seemed secure. However, when a threatening situation was irrelevant to the political ideology of people (such as the rapid spread of an infectious disease), rightists were more willing to flee than leftists. In contrast, when people were afraid of a situation that was relevant to their political ideology (like an uprising of an opposing social group), leftists were more likely to think about fleeing their country than rightists.

These findings help us understand the complex role of fear in the context of migration. More specifically, the results demonstrate that the function of emotion can be dependent on political ideology and circumstances.

For further information

Read the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology original research article which this summary is based on ‘Running for your life, in context: Are rightists always less likely to consider fleeing their country when fearing future events?’ (July 2015).

Visit the profile of the research ambassador, Britta Brugman, who wrote this summary.

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