When Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered troops to march into Ukraine, he kicked off an invasion that has since claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced at least 4 million refugees to flee the country. Putin’s war lays bare the damage that can be done by a despotic leader with authoritarian followers — people who prize conformity, clear hierarchies, and absolute authority. Several independent polls have recently pegged Putin’s approval rating among Russians well above 50 percent.
Propaganda and repression explain those numbers to some extent. But authoritarians don’t just follow a leader out of fear. There’s also a lot in it for them, psychologically speaking. Not only are authoritarians generally happier than the rest of us but they find life more meaningful and they’re less prone to some poor mental health outcomes, such as the loss of purpose that often accompanies depression. As a result, countering the appeal of rising authoritarianism — in the United States as well as Russia — will require offering people other means to the same psychological ends.
Researchers who study authoritarianism have found that about a third of people, across a range of cultures, embrace authoritarian ideas. Political scientist and “On Fascism” author Matthew MacWilliams reports that in the United States, about 18 percent of people are highly authoritarian, while another 23 percent score just a hair below them on authoritarianism scales.
Though post-World War II social scientists like Theodor Adorno suspected authoritarians’ views made them feel secure, only in recent years have experts more precisely spelled out the mental benefits.
In a survey of about 250 Canadian college students, Acadia University psychologist Cara MacInnis found that those who scored higher on measures of authoritarianism also enjoyed better subjective well-being, which reflects daily happiness and overall life satisfaction. Likewise, when University of North Carolina psychologist Jake Womick surveyed over 2,000 people about their beliefs and outlook, more-authoritarian respondents reported feeling that their lives were more meaningful — a finding that holds up independent of their religious beliefs. And though some authoritarians in Womick’s studies were depressed, they retained a stronger sense of life’s meaning than non-authoritarians with similar symptoms.
In part, people who follow strongman leaders in the Putin or Trump mold are likelier to be cheerful because they believe they’ve found a foolproof way to navigate life. Authoritarianism gives people “a sense of certainty about who they are and where they belong,” Womick says. It also tends to rush in when existing sources of meaning vaporize: Before Hitler’s rise, German churches were declining as centers of authority, much as religious communities and stable career paths are vanishing today in much of the West.
In the face of such upheaval, it’s soothing to latch onto leaders and philosophies that tell you exactly what your mission is, what really matters — and, just as important, what (and who) doesn’t. Authoritarianism, Womick writes, “helps people answer some of life’s big questions, much like religion does: What should I do with my life? What is right and what is wrong? Who are the people I should associate with and who should I distance myself from?”
This, MacInnis notes, is where authoritarians have a psychological advantage: They don’t traffic as much in the confusion of lived reality. “Everybody has examples of bad things happening to good people and the world being unpredictable,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable to think about that. And that can weigh on a person.” But when you believe the world is predictable if you follow the right rules or belong to the right group, “you don’t have the burden of the world’s problems on your shoulders as much,” MacInnis says, adding that this can make you happier.
In her book “Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self,” onetime Nazi Melita Maschmann described her mindset during the 1930s, a period when she recited near-daily declarations of loyalty to Hitler’s regime. “I can only recall this feeling of happiness — to be allowed to belong to a community which embraced the whole youth of the nation,” she wrote. “Amidst our own jubilation, we did not hear the muffled cries of fear and distress from those people who lived in our country and were persecuted as enemies.”
Savvy strongmen, grasping their followers’ aversion to doubt and nuance, tailor their rhetoric accordingly. “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors,” Putin said in a March speech broadcast on Russian airwaves. “Such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.” This stamp-out-the-rot message mirrored Trump’s infamous call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Statements like these are catnip to authoritarians, for whom morality feels black and white. You’re either with us, the thinking goes, or you’re banished. You’re either a patriot or a traitor.
When you’re confident you’re on the right side of such an existential struggle, you tend to feel pretty good about yourself. But as the Ukraine war and the Capitol invasion illustrate — not to mention crimes against humanity like the Holocaust and Uighur internment camps — what’s good for authoritarians’ well-being is terrible for the rest of us. In study after study, authoritarians show higher levels of prejudice than others — the ugly fruit of an I’m-in, you’re-out approach to life.
Given the destructiveness of authoritarianism, the question becomes how to offset its emotional appeal. Can the uncertain rewards of humility, of allegiance to the messy truth, ever compete with the allure of absolute rules and hierarchies?
It’s a fair question, researchers say, but not one that’s easy to answer. A mental vaccine against authoritarianism — a sure-fire intervention that would prevent its emergence — probably isn’t realistic. Some anti-groupthink skills, like how to debunk fake news, can be taught. But authoritarianism is “this more ingrained worldview that a person has,” MacInnis says, and education alone may not be enough to head it off. Some aspects of follow-the-leader behavior may even be genetic, meaning people can inherit a tendency to authoritarianism.
Even so, there could be ways to keep people on the edge of authoritarianism — those going through hard times, for instance — from stumbling all the way in. If people’s lives are already brimming with significance, there will be less of a vacuum for authoritarian ideas to whoosh into. “Part of the appeal of authoritarian values is that they hold the capacity to make life feel more meaningful,” Womick says. “If a person already feels like their life is super meaningful, they’re sort of going to be inoculated against that aspect of [authoritarian] appeal.” Activities proven to boost meaning in life, such as volunteering or nurturing close relationships, are viable alternate routes to the fulfillment authoritarianism brings.
Redefining a good life as one that includes more than meaning and day-to-day happiness may also help dull authoritarianism’s shine. Authoritarians are often quite happy because their simplified worldview makes sense to them and their devotion to supreme leaders and ideologies imbues their lives with meaning. But as psychologists like Shigehiro Oishi point out, people with an artificially flattened outlook miss out on the full spectrum of life experience — the dizzying highs, the crushing lows, and much of the variety and uncertainty in between.
This kind of life, which researchers call “psychologically rich,” is distinct from a meaningful or happy one. It requires letting in messiness and contradictions that are anathema to people like Putin and his followers, and it offers a deeper kind of contentment than lockstep devotion. “A life of total dedication to the truth,” writes psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, “also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged.” The dangers of widespread denial of reality make that kind of challenge — involving the occasional dark night of the soul — something all of us need to embrace, even if we think we’d never applaud a strongman or assault the Capitol.
Elizabeth Svoboda, a writer in San Jose, Calif., is the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.” Follow her on Twitter @Svobodster.