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What Can Studying Values Tell Us About Political Extremism?

New research suggests that extremists hold more fixed values than moderates.

Key points

  • Western democracies are becoming increasingly polarized.
  • The effects of values on polarization are underexplored in social scientific research.
  • New data suggests that political extremism may be rooted in more fixed value systems, while moderates are more flexible in the values they hold.

Political extremism appears to be on the rise in many established democracies, and our societies are becoming increasingly polarized. And as those on the far left and right of the traditional political spectrum are getting further apart in their beliefs, preferences, and senses of shared identities, social scientists are continuing to study this phenomenon to understand how we got here, and how we can begin to come back together.

Heather Mount // Unsplash
Our values guide how we see the world, but can variations in value endorsement explain political polarization?
Source: Heather Mount // Unsplash

Political Extremism and Values

Despite a surge in research into political attitudes and polarization, there has largely been silence from within the research community on the importance of values in these phenomena. This is interesting, as an adherence to a particular value system (e.g., to security or equity) appears to be at the heart of many ideological positions. This dearth of research motivated the development of a new study, which sought to explore the extent to which values were held among political extremists and moderates.

The study's author, Dr. Francesco Rigoli—a senior lecturer at City, University of London (UK)—believes that researchers' neglect of the role of values is significant. "I was interested in the topic because all prior literature comparing extremists versus moderates focuses on cognitive aspects, and it neglects the role of values," he said. "This appeared to me as an important limitation, insofar as values are known to be at the core of people’s political ideas. Thus, I started thinking about what value-related aspects might distinguish extremists compared to moderates."

Dr. Rigoli's work involved the recruitment of 750 British and American citizens for survey work, a re-analysis of an existing dataset of more than 1,000 Italians, and a further analysis of internationally-representative data from almost 50,000 participants who took part in the ninth round of the European Social Survey. In each of these studies, he was interested in testing the variability in scores on various values surveys among both political extremists (those expressing an ideological position at the extremes of a left-right scale) and moderates (those scoring in the center).

One example of a values measure used by Dr. Rigoli is the Schwarz Value Survey, which is an established self-report measure that looks at respondents' endorsement levels in relation to ten different social and cultural values. These are:

  1. Power (seeking status or authority)
  2. Achievement (achieving success and reaching ambitions)
  3. Hedonism (gratification of personal desires)
  4. Stimulation (seeking a varied and exciting life)
  5. Self-direction (living independently and having freedom)
  6. Universalism (broad-mindedness and seeking equality)
  7. Benevolence (living with honesty and kindness)
  8. Tradition (acting with modesty and respecting social and cultural tradition)
  9. Conformity (living obediently to elders and having self-discipline)
  10. Security (desiring safety and social order)

Dr. Rigoli's data told a consistent story. Political extremists discriminated more across value categories than political moderates. Interpreting this finding, he said:

"While some people tend to commit towards some specific values (e.g., security) and disregard other values (e.g., wealth), another group of people invest in a multiplicity of values, with no one in particular. Note that this consideration applies to general values, besides those dealing with political issues. My study shows that the first group of people is predisposed to embrace extremist political ideologies, either on the right or on the left; while the second group of people will tend to support moderate ideologies."

Value Discrimination as the Root of Polarization

These data are particularly interesting as they provide the basis of what could be a compelling explanation for the growing levels of political polarization in many Western democracies. That is, if people are guided by fixed mindsets about the way society should operate, and what values should be privileged over others, then it becomes more difficult to see those who have different value orientations as honest actors, and easier to see them as enemies.

However, there are some caveats to this work, which Dr. Rigoli acknowledges:

"The study demonstrates that the effect (showing that extremists discriminate among values more than moderates) emerges in the large majority of European countries and in the USA. However, it remains unknown whether a similar effect can also be observed in countries outside the West. Moreover, the study measures political ideology by relying on a left-right axis. This approach might fail to capture phenomena that go beyond this classic political dichotomy—for instance, it might struggle to characterise support for some populist parties that combine ideas from the left and from the right."

This proposition of exploring the value orientations of political populists is intriguing, and could add further insights into how to mend some of the fracturing of modern Western democracies. Until then, Dr. Rigoli's most recent work is published in the journal Political Psychology.


Rigoli, F. (2022). Political extremism and a generalized propensity to discriminate among values. Political Psychology.

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