Fear and the global rise of populism may have led to the unexpected election of US President Donald Trump and the UK Brexit results, say scientists who analysed data from millions of UK and US citizens.
The study shows that psychological hardships, which did not shape earlier election results, is now a major factor determining election outcomes associated with a rise in populism.
"Both campaigns traded on themes of fear, lost pride and loss aversion which tap into fear-prone personalities; a construct not previous associated with the behaviour of voters," said Martin Obschonka, from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia.
"Typically experts agree that is was economic hardship and some form of 'protest' that lead many people to vote for Trump and Brexit," said Obschonka.
"However, our study adds a new perspective in showing the link to regional fear-based personalities which also fits with recent observations about the global rise of populism," he said.
"If this is true then one would expect populist campaigns and themes, playing with, and evoking, fears of regional populations, to be particularly successful in regions higher in a fear-prone personality. This is exactly what we found in both the UK and the United States," he said.
"Our study reveals how psychological hardship is now shaping the global political landscape. One could also call this an 'irrational' voting behaviour as it was not predictable by means of rational models," he added.
Neurotic personality traits included anxiety and depression and these traits are playing a greater role in voting than more positive personality attributes such as openness and conscientiousness.
"So the campaigns of fear worked. Our analysis provides support for the widespread account of the appeal of the populist messages promoted by the Brexit and Trump camps," Obschonka said.
The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, indicated clear support for Brexit and Trump in old industrial centres showing ongoing economic decline.
"The role of regional fear, depression, and neuroticism in predicting which way voters will swing has not been identified before and may well have been a latent factor lying dormant until the right conditions prevailed," Obschonka said.
"In summary, fear, depression, and neuroticism appear to exert a 'sleeper effect' with the potential to have a profound impact on the global political landscape, especially in an era in which we are seeing a rise in nationalism and fear of others worldwide," he said.
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