We all feel lost sometimes. Forgotten, disengaged from society, alienated. From there, it can be a short distance to anger, or something more intense than anger—rage, even hatred, directed against yourself, against the system, against people who aren't like you and and don't understand you, against everything. To quote Alfred in The Dark Knight, "Some men just want to watch the world burn." According to a recent study, wanting to watch the world burn is a frighteningly common feeling—and it might explain a lot about the political instability America and the world are grappling with.
The paper, "A 'Need for Chaos' and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies," came out in August 2018 but just won an award from the American Political Science Association—and subsequently got highlighted by the New York Times's Thomas Edsall. The researchers, from Denmark's Aarhus University and Temple University, were interested in why people spread "hostile political rumors" online. One explanation is that in an increasingly polarized age, partisans are more likely to share nasty bits of gossip—true or not—about their political opponents. But the paper's authors favor a much more disturbing conclusion: The impulse to share hateful rumors "are associated with 'chaotic' motivations to 'burn down' the entire established democratic 'cosmos'… This extreme discontent is associated with motivations to share hostile political rumors, not because such rumors are viewed to be true but because they are believed to mobilize the audience against disliked elites."
The researchers came to this conclusion after surveying a representative sample of more than 6,000 people in multiple surveys conducted in both the U.S. and Denmark (which is considered less politically polarized than the U.S.). They asked whether participants would share a variety of statements that were either obviously untrue or extremely hard to assess (i.e., "Former President Obama has been creating a 'shadow-government'… to take down President Trump"), and also assessed a factor they called "Need for Chaos," or NFC. They did this by asking their subjects if they agreed with statements like:
- I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over
- I think society should be burned to the ground
- Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things
- There is no right and wrong in the world
What the researchers found is that after controlling for gender, age, education level, and ideology, NFC was strongly correlated with a willingness to spread hostile rumors online. Younger, less educated men were more likely to have a strong NFC, as were people who were lonely and perceived themselves as lacking social status. NFC is associated with support for Donald Trump and, more weakly, with support for Bernie Sanders, as the researchers told Edsall. What's more, though these NFC-related statements may sound melodramatic, some of them had broad appeal. Edsall writes:
The responses to three of the statements in particular were "staggering," the paper says: 24 percent agreed that society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent concurred with the thought that "When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking 'just let them all burn' "; and 40 percent also agreed that "we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over."
It's tempting to imagine that this Need for Chaos is only found in what you might call deplorables: Isolated, angry, young white men who seethe at being unemployed or underemployed and spend all day on toxic online forums like 8chan. You can also see a desire for chaos in the stated motivations of mass shooters and would-be mass shooters, and in those whose lives have been swallowed up by the QAnon conspiracy theory. As Edsall notes, NFC can also explain some of Trump's support, as a not insignificant slice of the American electorate seems to be driven by a desire to tear down the system. Republican Congressman Thomas Massie offered a version of this theory in 2017, when he told the Washington Examiner that what he had thought was a preference for small-government libertarianism among GOP voters was actually an impulse to vote for the "craziest son of a bitch in the race."
From this vantage point, Trumpism isn't a fever, or even really a political ideology. It's an expression of a deep-seated Need for Chaos that manifests itself in all kinds of ways—NFC characteristics might, for instance, explain why online alt-right trolls love to make memes about longshot presidential candidate Andrew Yang. NFC certainly provides a possible explanation for why obviously untrue rumors spread so quickly online and take root so deeply that conspiracy theories lead to instances of IRL violence.
The paper notes that none of the findings predict something drastic like revolution or sudden political upheaval in the U.S. "This study provides insights into the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that people are motivated to entertain when they sit alone (and lonely) in front of the computer, answering surveys or surfing social media platforms," the authors write. But, they add, "In an age of fake news and hostile political rumors, system-defeating behavior does not take much more than that. A few chaotic thoughts that leads to a few clicks to retweet or share is enough."
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