Who Are The Social Darwinists?

Polish psychologist Piotr Radkiewicz discusses his new research on viewing the world as a competitive jungle.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 2, 2021

A new paper appearing in the journal PLOS-ONE suggests that people who espouse a "Social Darwinist" view of the world — that is, a belief that the world is a competitive jungle where only the strong survive — are more likely to exhibit a range of problematic personality traits such as fearful attachment styles, high anxiety, and antisocial inclinations.

I recently spoke with Dr. Piotr Radkiewicz, the lead author of the research, to discuss his findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of beliefs surrounding social Darwinism and what did you find?

A direct inspiration was the New Zealand psychologist John Duckitt's research on the concept of the Dual-Process Motivational model, which postulates two main paths for developing authoritarian attitudes. This model is "double" because researchers point to two different sources of social threat underlying the two components of the authoritarian ideology. The first component refers to submission (measured as right-wing authoritarianism, RWA) and the second refers to dominance (measured as social dominance orientation, SDO). Researchers showed that threat to social order activated the motivational goal of establishing and maintaining collective security, cohesion, and stability, which was expressed in high RWA. Whereas social environment organized on the Darwinian-mannered competition (competitive threat) activated motivational goal of power, dominance, and superiority, which was expressed in high SDO.

Thus, one can say that the duality of human motivation underlying RWA and SDO comes from two deep human misgivings: fear of societal disintegration and fear for survival in a society where man is a "wolf to his fellow man." Both RWA and SDO, though resulting from different personality and motivational origins, have many similar socially dysfunctional consequences (like intergroup prejudice, social discrimination, and xenophobia).

There are two ways of thinking about social Darwinism. First, it can be a permanent form of perception of the social world. As my studies also show, such Darwinian thinking has a rich basis in dispositional and personality characteristics.

On the other hand, we can also look at this phenomenon in terms of a situational variable. This issue is still under-researched, but the first results are exciting. For example, it is not surprising that the more strongly people express ethics of Care for others and Fairness (as defined by Jonathan Haidt in his Moral Foundations Theory), the less likely they are to be socially dominant. However, my research suggests that in the conditions of growing competitive threat, these ethical codes seem to be less and less related to the rejection of power, dominance, and group-based social hierarchy. The inhibitory effect of moral judgments on SDO can be partly or even entirely suppressed by ruthless, aggressive competition for resources. As a result, people who highly value Care and Fairness begin to score relatively high on SDO. This may mean that in the social context of a competitive threat, ideology contained in SDO loses its moral negativity and primarily becomes an adaptive strategy of personal survival. The consequence must be an increase in social anomie.

Is a belief in social Darwinism, or viewing the world as a competitive jungle, necessarily at odds with prosocial personality traits such as empathy, altruism, and cooperation?

All the dispositional and personality correlates of Darwinian thinking that I know suggest so. Intuition suggests that closest people, especially family, should be the least exposed. There are significant positive links between Darwinian thinking and the so-called Dark Triad of personality (Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism), which do not favor prosocial motives like empathy, altruism, or compassion. The core characteristics of the Dark Triad connote interpersonal antagonism, lack of respect for social norms, a tendency to exploit people, and admiration-seeking. Among the Dark Triad components, the strongest predictor was Machiavellianism, characterized by emotional coldness, cynicism, and insensitivity to others' feelings. So, going back to your question, I would say that Social Darwinists are undoubtedly capable of showing empathy, altruism, and cooperation. The question is: is it natural or is it instrumentalized for some benefit? As a rule, one should assume that the latter is true.

If viewing the world as a competitive jungle is one social theory people invoke to understand the social world, what are some others?

Beliefs concerning the rules that govern the world are an essential category of narratives explaining the social reality. We can divide such beliefs into two categories. The first assumes the antagonistic nature of interpersonal relations ("People are egoistic by nature") and that the interests of various individuals and social groups are incompatible. The second one sees people as cooperative, social relations as synergic, and human nature as basically good. Darwinian beliefs fall into the former category. Since negative stimuli carry greater psychological weight than positive ones, negativistic worldviews attract more researchers' attention.

Our research found noticeable positive relationships between Darwinian beliefs and two other sets of beliefs linked to a pessimistic view of human nature. The first is a generalized lack of trust in people ("One should not trust a person one does not know") and the second is the belief that social life is a zero-sum game ("It is a fact of life that when one person wins another must lose").

We have not, however, investigated the relationship with the undoubtedly most studied phenomenon of this type. I mean the just-world fallacy, described by Melvin Lerner, according to which the world is a place where one gets what one deserves and deserves what one gets. It would be fascinating to experimentally see whether people who believe in a just world accept or reject social Darwinism, depending on which option they find right or just. The situational context (Darwinist vs. cooperative) manipulated by the researcher should be decisive.

Are certain societies more likely to promote a social Darwinistic worldview than others?

It is certainly worth investigating. Let us also recall the history of this concept. Nowadays, it is almost always one of the social myths — socially shared beliefs that describe and explain the social world. However, older philosophical and sociological concepts treated social Darwinism as a general characteristic of whole societies or an impersonal, biologically conditioned process that organizes social life. Remember that, most broadly, this term refers to the concept that extends the principles of evolution advocated by Darwin onto the human population. The principles of 'struggle for existence 'and 'survival of the fittest 'were seen by some thinkers as fundamental driving forces for social progress and the development of modern societies. Such an idea came to light in the social sciences in the second half of the nineteenth century, mainly through the sociological thought of Herbert Spencer and William Sumner. However, we owe its popularity to American historian Richard Hofstadter who used it as a metaphor to entitle his book, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944). He pointed out how social Darwinism became the biological basis for laissez-faire doctrine and the theoretical foundation of such social practices as eugenics, racism, and imperialism.

Interestingly, I also found clear manifestations of such relationships. In the polls conducted on the Polish population, I noticed a strong positive relationship between the belief that the social world is a competitive jungle and a specific political ideology. In short, this ideology glorifies so-called negative freedom and rejects the notion that one's needs and living conditions should impose a moral obligation on the political community. It seems to me that today most elements of this way of thinking about the political community can be found in libertarianism.

Are you planning to do more research on this topic?

Yes, but perhaps more in a broader theoretical context, going beyond single beliefs. The phenomenon of generalized beliefs about the social world is still an under-researched topic in psychology. Recently, a group of researchers around Jeremy Clifton from the University of Pennsylvania introduced the concept of environmental beliefs called primals (primal world beliefs). They identified close to 30 beliefs that concern the world's overall character, such as the world is good/dangerous/just. According to the authors, primal world beliefs may have many psychological implications, ranging from the mental health of an individual to complex macrosocial processes. I think the concept of primals is a good starting point for explaining the genesis, psychological functions, and consequences of such views as the belief that the world is a competitive jungle.

What can people take away from this research to possibly help them in their own lives?

Maybe research on phenomena such as a belief in a competitive jungle will allow us to understand our behavior better. Note that the idea of generalized beliefs about the social world is going beyond the usual attribution scheme — dispositions/personality vs. situational factors/social context. Beliefs, such as social Darwinism, are somewhere in between — they are stable, like dispositions, but extrinsic, derived from the social environment. The authors of the concept of primals put it well when writing, "[…] human action may not express who we are so much as where we think we are and much of what we become in life — much joy and suffering — may depend on the sort of world we think this is" (p. 98, Clifton et al., 2019).