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Political views change our perception of the past and future

A recent study conducted across six countries reveals that your political views makes a big difference in our perception of the world.

History – it’s not just a dusty textbook crammed with dates and names. It’s a mirror of our values, hopes, and fears. But, your political stance might change the colors and shapes you see in this mirror.

Right-wing political views

The study spanning six countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, Mexico, and Poland – reveals a consistent quirk of perception. People who identify with right-wing political beliefs tend to view the past far more favorably than those who lean left.

Picture this: two groups look back at the same decade and one sees progress lost while the other sees a simpler, better time. Why such different takes on the same events?

“My observations indicate that a better appraisal of the past distinguishes the right from the left, an effect evident in all nations and thus reflecting a general phenomenon,” said Dr. Francesco Rigoli of City University of London.

“Moreover, the data suggest that this does not arise because people with a better opinion about the past are attracted towards the right, but rather because the right-wing ideology provides a framework to interpret the past as being a better age.”

“This suggests that nostalgia for tradition might mediate this effect, at least partially: people on the right report a longing for tradition, for hierarchical order, and for family connections, which they attribute to the recent past.”

In other words, if you lean right, you’re more likely to view history through a rose-tinted lens, seeing past eras as a time when values were clearer and life had a comfortable orderliness.

Historical perception and political views

Don’t think this is a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of organized societies, politicians have understood the power of shaping our view of the past.

  • Marxism: This economic and political philosophy paints history as a never-ending cycle of class struggle. Through this lens, the past was unjust, and the only hope lies in a future where communism vanquishes social divisions.
  • Liberalism: This view emphasizes individual liberty. It often idealizes a distant past “state of nature” before societies and institutions, painting history as a journey of progress from that wild state to our current, more organized one.
  • Fascism: This extreme and dangerous ideology taps into a potent cocktail of nostalgia and nationalism. It mythologizes a past where the nation was supposedly at its strongest and most pure, using that imagined past to incite unrest and rally support for authoritarianism.

Individual perception

The right often looks back with nostalgia. You might picture the political left as dreamers, hoping for a brighter future. This is partly true in certain countries.

Left-leaning participants, especially in the US and Poland (and maybe the UK), were optimistic about the future. They felt that with wise decisions, humanity could create a much better world.

Dr. Rigoli clarifies: “…left-wing supporters believe that human actions can make a difference: their opinion is that, if appropriate choices are made, the future can improve substantially.”

Study significance

It’s tempting to think of these findings as intellectual curiosities. But they reveal something fundamental about how we form perception from political views and interact with those who disagree with us. This deeper understanding can help us:

Decode campaign slogans

Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can” are more than catchy slogans; they are messages that deeply connect with specific groups due to psychological reasons. These slogans work by tapping into how people view the past and future based on their political beliefs.

Right-wing individuals, viewing the past with nostalgia as a better time, find slogans promising a return to that past very appealing. “Make America Great Again” directly appeals to this feeling, suggesting a restoration of past greatness. In contrast, left-wing people, optimistic about future progress, are attracted to messages like “Yes, We Can” that highlight change and improvement.

Understanding the psychological appeal of these messages can shed light on why they strongly resonate with certain voter groups.

Understanding resistance to change

The study highlights why some resist change, even when the status quo is flawed. Right-wing oriented people, who view the past positively, see change as a departure from the “good old days.” They actively resist it as a step away from a cherished past towards an uncertain future.

This understanding clarifies the dynamics behind political debates and resistance to policy changes. The discussion often transcends the change’s merits, touching on deeper views of time and progress.

Common ground in perceiving political views

The findings are vital for political discourse and finding common ground in an era of polarized debates and incivility. Realizing that political opponents may view history through a different lens can lead to more tolerance.

Acknowledging that we all view the world through “customized historical mirrors” can encourage more empathetic conversations. While this might not change minds, it can create a respectful space for acknowledging differences, potentially reducing political conflict intensity.

Understanding the psychology behind political beliefs, campaign slogans, and resistance to change can foster a deeper, more respectful conversation. It’s not about abandoning our beliefs but acknowledging our shared humanity despite different views. This approach could make political debates more civil and effective.

The study is published in the journal Political Psychology.


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