Does cognitive dissonance account for rising xenophobia?

Sven (not his real name) poses with a snapshot of himself as a 16-year-old skinhead brandishing a gun on November 21, 2008 at an undisclosed location in the state of Saxony, Germany. Sven spent his teen years as what he calls a "white power skinhead" violently active in the regional neo-Nazi scene. Thanks to the support of his girlfriend's family, as well as the threat of a mounting juvenile criminal record, Sven broke away from right-wing extremism. He has since read the Bible and hopes to create a new life for himself. (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Proximity to Nazi concentration camps plays a counterintuitive role in the xenophobia, political intolerance, and radical political parties spreading through Germany and the rest of Europe, research finds.

Lead author Jonathan Homola, an assistant professor at Rice University, and fellow authors Miguel Pereira and Margit Tavits of Washington University were interested in understanding why some Europeans are more xenophobic, less accepting of “outgroups,” and more supportive of radical right-wing political parties. Their work appears in the journal American Political Science Review.

Cognitive dissonance: the process of justifying new information and beliefs that don’t necessarily align with one’s values in order to eliminate guilt or psychological discomfort.

The researchers focused closely on Germany but also examined other parts of Europe. They looked at survey responses from the European Values Study and the German General Social Survey as well as recent electoral results. They were especially interested in explaining intolerance toward Jews, Muslims, and foreigners and support for radical right-wing parties. The researchers also used census data, information on the location of Third Reich concentration camps and historical election results.

The researchers found consistent evidence that present-day Germans who live closer to concentration camp sites are more xenophobic; less tolerant of Jews, Muslims, and immigrants; and more likely to support extreme right-wing political parties. They also found preliminary evidence of this behavior in other parts of Europe.

“We believe that individuals living near concentration camps during World War II were more likely to conform to the beliefs system of the regime,” Homola says. “And we think this was because of cognitive dissonance.”

Cognitive dissonance is the process of people justifying new information and beliefs that don’t necessarily align with their values in order to eliminate feelings of guilt or psychological discomfort. In the case of the Holocaust, these beliefs were passed down from generation to generation, Homola and his fellow authors say.

“While the causes of the Holocaust have attracted ample scholarly attention, its long-term sociopolitical consequences are less understood,” Homola says. “Our evidence proves that when it comes to political attitudes, these consequences are real and measurable even today. The prejudice that this racist and inhumane institution instilled in the local population is hard to erase even after the institution itself is long gone.”

Homola says prior research in the US has established a similar link between extreme political beliefs or racism and proximity to areas that once were home to a large number of slaves. These historical explanations for present-day prejudice are especially timely, he says, as political developments in the US and Europe have brought intolerance toward marginalized groups back into the limelight.

“It is important to understand both contemporary factors and historical legacies that make exclusionary political appeals attractive,” he says.

Funding for the work came from Washington University’s Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy.

Source: Rice University