People with key ‘antisocial’ traits respond differently to group violence, study reveals

An investigation in Poland has found people who show certain antisocial personality traits are more likely to support radical group actions and violence.

Among 877 students, psychologists found those who ranked highly for ‘disinhibition’ or ‘meanness’ also displayed greater political radicalisation in a survey. 

Meanness, which refers to cold-heartedness or callousness, was found to be a strong predictor of support for radical group action, whether it be for the right-wing or the left-wing of the political aisle.

Meanwhile, disinhibition, which reflects a lack of impulse control, was linked to support for violent national changes, but only on behalf of right-wing groups. 

In fact, even when the researchers took into account the extent to which individuals identified with any particular group, links between forceful action and asocial personality traits remained.

Group identification is clearly an important factor in a person’s willingness to take part in collective action, but this study suggests individual differences could also shape our support of such action. 

Both disinhibition and meanness are considered non-clinical psychopathic personality traits.

“I would like to stress that our results do not mean that people who choose violent action on behalf of one group are always antisocial or display traits like disinhibition,” explains social psychologist Tomasz Besta from the University of Gdansk. 

“All we can say is that people who display traits like disinhibition or low level of empathy tend to be stronger supporters of violent group actions on behalf of political groups than those who have better impulse control, are less prone to Machiavellian behavior, and are more other-oriented.”

To figure this out, researchers in Poland examined how three psychopathic personality traits – boldness, meanness and disinhibition – affected a person’s political support.

In the survey, student participants from Polish universities were asked about their willingness to act on behalf of a randomised group: either the country of Poland, a right wing-group in Poland, or a left-wing group in Poland.

Students were then asked to what end they would go to support that group’s beliefs. For example, their willingness to fight and die, or their support for violent social change.

Even when adjusting for a person’s identity with a group and their perceptions of injustice, researchers found those who scored higher for meanness and disinhibition tended to support more radical changes.

At the same time, this group was no more likely to support moderate non-violent collective action, like a peaceful protest. 

In particular, meanness was linked to a person’s acceptance of violence, and this relationship showed up in all three randomised groups in the study – left-wing, right-wing, and nationalistic groups.

“With such disdain for close attachments with others and engagement in active exploitativeness and confrontation, the positive attitudes towards violence could be strengthened by the lack of considerations about the possible human cost of this violence and defiance of authority,” the authors suggest

In other words, people who are more cold-hearted or callous might not consider violent action all that extreme because they don’t consider how it will hurt others.

Radical group action might also be a way for these people to express themselves, allowing their lack of restraint or disregard for others loose, the researchers suggest.

Of course, these are just hypotheses for now. And the study is based only in one country among a niche cohort of people, so it can only tell us so much. 

After all, violent collective actions can be spurred on by other factors too, including structural discrimination, a perceived lack of insignificance, a violation of values, and many other instigators.

But, historically, personality traits have been overlooked in this field of research. Psychologists have long wondered what it is that drives certain individuals to violence, terrorism, and radical group action. 

In 2019, another psychology study found low imagination, low extraversion and high agreeableness were three personality traits that appeared to influence beliefs in extreme ideology. 

If we can better understand how personality can lead someone to radicalisation, then experts hope we might be able to counter violent extremism before it grows and spreads. 

“Previous studies pointed to group norms and values as factors linked to the decision to use radical means,” says Besta.

“Therefore, the interplay between group norms and individual differences should be explored in future research.” 

The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

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