Who Is the Alt-Right? Researchers Build a Psychological Profile

Among other things, researchers found that there are two subgroups of the Alt-Right, but that the more economically motivated members may buy into White Supremacy over time.

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' march during the 'Unite the Right' rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' march during the 'Unite the Right' rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Now that the prefix “alt” is being thrown in front of anything one opposes, a new study investigates the characteristics of people affiliated with the Alt-Right. The paper offers insight into what this collection of individuals and small movements really thinks about the state of the union. 

Two assistant professors—Patrick S. Forscher, in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas, and Nour S. Kteily, in the Department of Management and Organizations at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University—used Amazon’s mTurk platform, in which people post bulletins to recruit human intelligence for tasks computers cannot perform, for data collection. Members affiliated with the Alt-Right were paid $3 while a comparison group of non-Alt-Right members received $2. 

While trusting online replies by self-identifying members of any group is tricky, a two-tier verification system offered at least some semblance of honesty. After discarding a number of responses, the researchers analyzed 447 members of the Alt-Right with 382 non-Alt-Right respondents in the comparison group. While we’ll look more deeply into the methods, this summation from their conclusion is perhaps unsurprising: 

Our Alt-Right sample reported high levels of social dominance orientation, strong support for collective action on behalf of White people, and strong opposition to collective action on behalf of Black people… they were quite willing to blatantly dehumanize both religious/national outgroups and political opposition groups, reported high levels of the motivations to express prejudice towards Black people, and reported high levels of harassing and offensive behavior.

In last week’s Real Time, Bill Maher mentioned the Alt-Right could not exist without the Internet. Indeed, many groups would not have formed without this powerful device. (I’ve previously written about another such phenomena, misophonia.) Forscher and Kteily wanted to better understand if the Alt-Right leaned more populist, focused on anti-globalist and anti-establishment issues, or were truly the products of White Power. It turns out a little of both, with the latter expressed more forcefully. 

The Method

In this study, members of the Alt-Right were first asked questions regarding the gap between elites and non-elites, attitudes toward the economy, trust in various media outlets, and notions of supremacy, including social dominance orientation, Right-Wing Authoritarianism, and Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) characteristics. Measures of self-reported aggression and extremist philosophies also played a role. 

The comparison group described their own political ideologies and feelings on the Alt-Right. Both groups were asked if the Alt-Right is racist. Importantly, they left out comments about Trump and his potential affiliations with the Alt-Right during analysis.

Then they dove into minutia. Respondents had to measure friendships and moral foundation traits, including equality, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. Intergroup allegiance was rendered, as well ideas about dehumanization. In perhaps the most telling aspect of the study, the famous chimp-to-human evolution drawing was presented. Respondents were asked to identify where along the timeline the following three subgroups were located: Alt-Right members, such as Americans, Europeans, Swedes, and Whites in general; religious and ethnic groups like Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, and Blacks; political opposition groups, such as Democrats, feminists, journalists, and Republicans who refused to vote for Trump. You can read all the questions asked here.

Image used for the ascent scale anchor points in the study (page 32 of the survey).

Next measured was self-reported aggressive behavior, including online and offline name calling, physical threats, harassment, and willingness to make statements because others find them offensive. Economic issues followed, including perceptions of disadvantage among ten groups. Feelings of in-group and out-group political affiliations were discussed, followed by support for the police, governmental and economic corruption, trust in both mainstream and alternative media sources, and finally, feelings on race-based collective action, such as Black Lives Matter. 

The Results

Members of the Alt-Right display low trust in mainstream media and moderate trust in alternative media sources like Breitbart and Alex Jones. They measured at the midpoint on Dark Triad traits, Social Dominance Orientation, Right-Wing Authoritarianism, and dehumanization of religious and ethnic groups and their political opposition groups. They generally believe some groups of people are “simply inferior to other groups.”

The Alt-Right scored much higher on motivations and willingness to express prejudice and to harass others. They support the organization of Whites but claim Black Lives Matter has been harmful to the country. Their respect for the police was higher, and they derived more pleasure from dehumanizing others—non-members were notable for not dehumanizing members of the Alt-Right. The two groups shared similar scores regarding the moral outlooks of their friends (in-group mentality), economic evaluations, and concerns about governmental corruption. 

We found some evidence for the populist portrayal, as Alt-Right supporters expressed suspicion of mainstream media and trust in alternative media. Interestingly, we found little evidence that this populism extended to economic issues: Alt-Right supporters were more optimistic about the current and future states of the economy than non-supporters. 

The authors recognize limitations. As a cross-sectional study, this paper only speaks to correlates rather than causes of Alt-Right membership. They only measured a subset of potential variables, leaving out anxiety about social status and other markers. As their recruitment process was through convenience sampling, the dangers of self-reporting are apparent, including people lying about their affiliations. 

One of the more interesting aspects of this paper is the authors’ belief that members of the Alt-Right sometimes begin with populism and get pulled toward supremacism as they befriend more White Power advocates—again, in-group mentality. This makes sense given how tribalism is expressed in many aspects on both sides of this study. 

But no, that does not give credence to the notion that “both sides are to blame” for incidents like Charlottesville. This paper clearly shows increased levels of hostility and aggression as well as willingness to harass and dehumanize on the Alt-Right. Perhaps most sadly, though, is that both sides do express distrust in the government and economic forces ruling America. A united effort could produce substantial change, but so long as the tribes battle that seems impossible.

In his book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky writes:

Almost by definition, you can’t have a society with both dramatic income inequality and plentiful social capital. Or translated from social science-ese, marked inequality makes people crummier to one another.

Bigotry, ethnocentrism, and oppression speak to our lowest, basest instincts. The biological mechanisms of out-group hostility played an important role in human development, but that time is over. So long as the fighting remains aimed at other ethnicities instead of the forces stoking nationalist flames, progress is impossible.

There are arguments amongst evolutionary biologists about whether evolution is gradual or has sudden jumps and fits. As this paper shows, we need a serious social jump right now, biology be damned. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Entangled drumheads.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Keep reading Show less