Authoritarian attitudes are associated with higher autonomic reactivity to stress and lower recovery

Emotion. 2020 Jul 27. doi: 10.1037/emo0000775. Online ahead of print.


Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO) both predict generalized prejudice, dehumanization, intergroup discrimination, oppression, violence, right-wing political party preference, and generally punitive attitudes. Authoritarian attitudes have been theorized to involve maladaptive emotional, cognitive, and social self-regulation. However, there is no study of authoritarianism using the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) as a physiological index of self-regulation, thus leaving it unclear whether regulation is "impaired" with authoritarian attitudes per se. PNS functioning is commonly assessed by examining tonic and phasic heart rate variability (HRV). These two components are recognized to be important in terms of adaptation to stress. Decreased HRV has been associated with hypoactive prefrontal regulation, hyperactive subcortical structures, maladaptive self-regulation, hyper-vigilance, decreased prosocial tendencies, defensiveness, impulsive behaviors, and aggression. Previous research suggests that self-regulatory failure may favor hostile attitudes and prejudicial intergroup behaviors. In a first study, we found that high RWA was associated with lower tonic HRV at rest. In a second study, stress-induced autonomic reactivity and poststress autonomic recovery were examined as potential pathways linking authoritarian attitudes to self-regulation. We found that high RWA and high SDO were associated with (i) lower tonic HRV during stress, (ii) greater autonomic reactivity during stress, and (iii) lower autonomic recovery. Overall, our results suggest that autonomic dysregulation during and following stress is a plausible physiological pathway connecting RWA and SDO to self-regulation. Implications of such results for research on political attitudes are discussed. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).