Psychology of Hate: What Motivates White Supremacists?

White supremacists and neo-Nazis attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White supremacists and neo-Nazis attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The sight of torch-wielding, chanting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, jarred the country over the weekend, a national distress that only deepened when a counter-protester died and 19 others were wounded in a car attack there on Saturday. An alleged white supremacist, James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged in that attack.

White supremacy — the view that white people are racially superior — and neo-Nazism are nothing new, of course. But recent research suggests the ideologies are becoming louder. A 2016 report from George Washington University's Program on Extremism, for example, found that white nationalist organizations have seen their follower numbers on Twitter grow by more than 600 percent since 2012. These groups had 3,542 followers collectively in 2012. That number had risen to 25,406 by 2016.

What drives these hateful ideologies? New research suggests that tendencies toward aggression and "dark triad" personality traits (Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism) are more prominent among supremacists who identify with the political movement known as the alt-right than in the general public. (Machiavellianism is a tendency to manipulate other people for one's own gain.) But ultimately, racial extremism may be about belonging, other research shows. The community aspect of white supremacy is so strong that even a person who finds they have nonwhite ancestry can be embraced, another new study reveals. [7 Reasons America Still Needs Civil Rights Movements]

"Racism and racial beliefs generally aren't based on logic, at least not in the sense of an objective scientific logic," John Cheng, a professor of Asian and Asian-American studies at Binghamton University in New York, told Live Science in an email. "As beliefs, they are the products of individual and collective psychology. In other words, people have a way of believing what they want to believe."

The process of radicalization

The recent prominence of white supremacists as a political force seems inextricably tied to the rise of Donald Trump: On white supremacist networks on Twitter, users focused on retweeting content about two primary topics: "white genocide" and Donald Trump, the George Washington University's report found. In the wake of the Charlottesville events, movement leaders like David Duke praised Trump's statements that decried violence on "both sides."

"Thank you, President Trump, for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa," Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, tweeted, referring to Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters.

There are political grievances driving the modern white supremacy movement, said Sammy Rangel, a social worker and co-founder of "Life After Hate," a group that seeks to help people shed white supremacist ideologies. When talking with "formers," or people who have left white supremacist groups, Rangel and his colleagues hear two familiar reasons for joining those groups, he told Live Science.

The first is anger over affirmative action policies, which these groups view as oppressive and unfair to white people. The second is resentment over concepts like "white privilege," which makes people feel as though they have to own the shame and guilt of their ancestors' actions.

Arguments over affirmative action and white privilege are fairly standard political debates, but for those who cross the line into visiting Stormfront (a neo-Nazi internet forum) or tweeting Nazi memes, such grievances are a first step toward looking for scapegoats, Rangel said. Politicians stoke the flames by grandstanding about immigrants or "making America great again," he said. [11 Immigrant Scientists Who Made Great Contributions to America]

"That's all stuff that is selling these ideas as valid," he said. "You hear it from somebody very influential, so it must be true," he said, describing the thoughts such people may have.

And then there is personal vulnerability, Rangel said. Nascent supremacists are like atoms missing a proton, he said. They're lacking something socially or emotionally, and white supremacist organizations step in to fill the void.

These people "are vulnerable to receive the message of these ideological projects, these narratives," Rangel said. "It's an easy fit into that need-structure they have. Through getting that need met, they start to feel empowered. Their sense of adventure is activated. They're becoming part of something bigger and more meaningful than themselves."

This isn't a one-step process, Rangel said. Usually, there's a phase of grooming, followed by increasing pressure to take action.

"You need to be an activist, but they have equated activism with violence, so if you're not being violent, you're not really being an activist," Rangel said. [10 Historically Significant Political Protests]

The power of racial division

Race is a deep-seated and powerful concept in American history, said Rangel, who survived a race riot while imprisoned in the early 1990s. As such, race is an easy crystallization point for hate and violence. And dehumanization of other races seems to be an attitude that's important in differentiating white supremacists from other Americans, and even from other members of the alt-right. [What Is the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?]

University of Arkansas psychology professor Patrick Forscher and professor of management and organization Nour Kteily from Northwestern University in Illinois surveyed self-proclaimed members of the alt-right and compared their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and personality traits with people who did not identify as alt-right. The alt-right is a loosely defined movement of people who generally support white nationalism, protectionist policies and right-wing populism. Because there is no one definition of alt-right, Forscher and Kteily asked people if they personally considered themselves part of that group. They also asked people to define "alt-right," and threw out the surveys of those who gave nonsensical answers or definitions copy-pasted from Google results.

Overall, the researchers found that alt-right members are more likely to self-report aggression (committed both in person and online) and that they are higher in negative personality traits, especially psychopathy, a trait defined by antisocial disorder and lack of empathy.

Alt-righters were also more Machiavellian, or willing to manipulate others for their own gain, and more narcissistic than the non-alt-righters. In addition, alt-righter were more likely to dehumanize minority groups as well as political groups like government workers or journalists, Forscher told Live Science.

The research was preliminary and could not fully represent the entire alt-right movement. Survey respondents consisted of 447 alt-right adherents and 382 non-adherents, all recruited online. Nevertheless, the researchers found an intriguing schism among the alt-righters. Most of them clustered into two groups: Two hundred and twenty-six endorsed a set of attitudes and beliefs that the researchers dubbed "populist." These people were more concerned about government corruption than the rest of the alt-righters were. Another 217 skewed more "supremacist," the researchers found. This group was simply more extreme in many ways, Forscher said.

"They are higher in the motivation to express prejudice; they dehumanize other groups to a greater extent; they are higher on the dark triad traits, and they report behaving aggressively toward others to a greater extent," Forscher said.

It's not clear to what extent these people represent those who marched in Charlottesville, or whether "populist" alt-righters transition into "supremacist" alt-righters with greater involvement in the movement, Forscher said. The new study has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal but has not been published. A preprint is available online, however. Forscher said he hopes that continuing research will help uncover new ways to lead people out of the white supremacist mindset.

"The people in the alt-right sample in general — and in particular, it seems, in the supremacist cluster — reported doing things that are bad," Forscher said. "They are reporting harassing others. They're reporting doxxing others [revealing personal information about people online], and they have a bunch of characteristics that are associated with aggressive behavior. … I think we need to think pretty seriously about how to prevent things like what we are seeing in Charlottesville."

The challenge of changing attitudes

Moving people out of the white supremacist mindset is not easy. Another study that has not yet been published but that was presented on Monday (Aug. 14) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal shows just how hard it can be: Even when racists find out that they are not entirely white, that study found, they maintain their racism, the study found. [How to Talk About Race to Kids: Experts' Advice for Parents]

The research focused on the white supremacist site Stormfront, which requires its users to be entirely European and without Jewish ancestry. (Of note, a study published in 2013 revealed that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically European.) The site started in 1996 and includes user forums, making it a long-term peephole into the minds of avowed white supremacists.

Aaron Panofsky, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles' Institute for Society and Genetics, was studying online participation in science along with his colleagues when he got a tip that white supremacists on Stormfront were posting and discussing results of genetic ancestry tests, some of which showed that the users were not quite as "white" as they'd hoped. Panofsky and his team combed through the site to analyze more than 3,000 individual posts that were responding to 153 different individuals writing about their genetic tests.

About a third of these posts were users celebrating that their tests had showed them to be, indeed, of European ancestry. Those posts usually got a few congratulatory responses. Another third were people posting their results without comment, which could get congratulatory responses or could fall into the third category, depending on what the results were. The third category consisted of people posting "disappointing" results that showed them to have non-European ancestry in their genetic backgrounds.

Surprisingly, for a group of people who value racial purity, the Stormfront users almost never sought to drum these posters out of town. Overwhelmingly, they came up with ways to reject the tests rather than the person who took them.

"My advice is to trust your own family tree genealogy research and what your grandparents have told you, before trusting a DNA test," one user reassured a disappointed poster.

Sometimes, users rejected genetic ancestry tests wholesale, calling them a Jewish conspiracy to make white people doubt their genetic heritage. Other users promoted the "mirror test." Do you see a white person when you look in the mirror? Great, you're white.

In other cases, users supported the concept of genetic testing as a whole, but used sophisticated scientific arguments to reject specific results. For example, they might argue that a test showed a person as having Native American ancestry not because they really did have that ancestry, but because the Native Americans used as the reference point for the test had picked up some European DNA along the line. That's a real scientific challenge to genetic ancestry testing, but exaggerated for white supremacist purposes, Panofsky and his colleagues wrote in a draft of their paper submitted for peer review.

"These criticisms are very sophisticated," Panofsky told Live Science. "They are technically based … but they are often a slightly off-kilter interpretation, an off-label interpretation."

It's similar to the way that deniers of evolution have built an entirely parallel, pseudoscientific system to bolster the concept of intelligent design, Panofsky added.

The point, Panofsky said, is that white supremacists aren't ignorant or dumb; they're capable of grasping quite complex arguments in order to support their pre-existing worldview. They're also capable of putting the community and closeness of Stormfront ahead of genetic information they'd rather ignore, he said.

"What Stormfront is giving a lot of people is a place to meet people and have friends," Panofsky said. "A lot of the stuff on there is dating advice and 'how do I deal with my family' and all this stuff. Someone might not meet the ideological criteria, but they're meeting the community criteria."

There was not a single case in which a user posted that genetic testing had made them see the error of their white supremacist ways, Panofsky said.

In fact, pulling people away from white supremacy doesn't start with arguing, challenging or presenting them with inconvenient facts about their own ancestry, Life After Hate's Rangel said. The first step toward rehabilitation, he said, is a genuine desire to understand what got that person to the point of believing in the ideology.

"I'm not there to challenge you. I'm there to listen. I'm there to share space with you," Rangel said of his work with people struggling with how and if to leave the movement. Eventually, Rangel will challenge the beliefs, he said — but only in an atmosphere of genuineness and compassion. The other key, he said, is re-creating an environment of social support and meaning.

"I have to help them fulfill their needs, the same needs they went to that group for," he said. "We have to help replace some of what is going to be taken away." 

Original article on Live Science

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.