Identity ‘fusion’ with political leader gives rise to extremism

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People whose identity is “fused” with that of a political leader are more likely to take extreme positions or commit violence on behalf of the leader, new studies by researchers at Yale and University of Oslo have found.

Followers of Donald Trump who have fused — or experience a deep sense of oneness — with the president are more likely to support use of violence to challenge an election result, persecute Iranians or other immigrants, and support a ban on Muslims, according to a compilation of seven studies published Sept. 2 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

While the seven studies focused on those who identify as Republicans, the results apply to anyone who becomes fused with a leader, the authors say. “This is not about Democrats or Republicans,” said John (“Jack”) Dovidio, professor of psychology at Yale and co-author of the paper. “When you fuse with a leader you are prone to abandon the values you had in a past life and engage in extreme actions in support of the leader.”

The concept of fusion is a relatively new one in psychology. It refers to people who have an almost visceral feeling of oneness with another person. On the positive side, fusion has been linked to romantic love and a willingness to sacrifice for others. On more negative note, the concept of fusion has challenged past theories that people commit atrocities out of blind obedience to an authority figure.

Instead, “they are actively engaged’’ in extreme behavior, Dovidio said.

Dovidio, author Jonas Kunst and co-author Lotte Thomsen both of the University of Oslo surveyed self-identified Republicans who had signed up to be paid subjects of research on the platform Amazon Mechanical Turk, as well as a representative panel of Republicans. Although a minority of Republicans were fully fused with Trump, those who scored highest on measures of fusion were more likely to take extreme positions than those who had fused with the Republican party or identified as Republicans. 

I identify with Yale and the leaders of Yale, but when Yale does something wrong, I can oppose that action,” Dovidio said. “You lose that broader perspective when there is fusion with a leader.”

The experiments which took place before and after the 2016 elections showed that people who feel insecure, alienated, threatened, or powerless are more likely to fuse with Trump, and that fusion with Trump was more likely to intensify pre-existing distaste of immigrants or Muslims, for instance. And this process of fusion reinforces itself over time, leading to yet more extreme positions.

One of implications is that people have already internalized this feeling not only have fusion with Trump but with other Trump followers, which creates a momentum that still exists even if Trump is no longer a leader,” Dovidio said.

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322