Individuals differ in the degree to which they endorse group-based hierarchies in which some social groups dominate others. Much research demonstrates that among individuals this preference robustly predicts ideologies and behaviors enhancing and sustaining social hierarchies (e.g., racism, sexism, and prejudice). Combining aggregate archival data from 27 countries (n = 41,824) and multilevel data from 30 US states (n = 4,613) with macro-level indicators, we demonstrate that the degree of structural inequality, social instability, and violence in different countries and US states is reflected in their populations’ minds in the form of support of group-based hegemony. This support, in turn, increases individual endorsement of ideologies and behaviors that ultimately sustain group-based inequality, such as the ethnic persecution of immigrants.Abstract
Whether and how societal structures shape individual psychology is a foundational question of the social sciences. Combining insights from evolutionary biology, economy, and the political and psychological sciences, we identify a central psychological process that functions to sustain group-based hierarchies in human societies. In study 1, we demonstrate that macrolevel structural inequality, impaired population outcomes, socio-political instability, and the risk of violence are reflected in the endorsement of group hegemony at the aggregate population level across 27 countries (n = 41,824): The greater the national inequality, the greater is the endorsement of between-group hierarchy within the population. Using multilevel analyses in study 2, we demonstrate that these psychological group-dominance motives mediate the effects of macrolevel functioning on individual-level attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, across 30 US states (n = 4,613), macrolevel inequality and violence were associated with greater individual-level support of group hegemony. Crucially, this individual-level support, rather than cultural-societal norms, was in turn uniquely associated with greater racism, sexism, welfare opposition, and even willingness to enforce group hegemony violently by participating in ethnic persecution of subordinate out-groups. These findings suggest that societal inequality is reflected in people’s minds as dominance motives that underpin ideologies and actions that ultimately sustain group-based hierarchy.