A new study has found that liberals’ attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants became more like those of conservatives following the July 7, 2005, bombings in London.
Data from two nationally representative surveys of British citizens revealed that feelings of national loyalty in liberals increased after the terrorist attack, along with prejudice against Muslims and immigrants. At the same time, they expressed less concern for fairness.
“Our findings show that terrorism shifts public attitudes towards greater loyalty to the in-group, less concern with fairness, and greater prejudice against Muslims and immigrants, but it seems that this effect is stronger on those who are politically left-leaning than those who are right-leaning,” said psychological scientists from the Center for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent.
“The overall impact is to create a climate in which it may be harder to promote or sustain intergroup tolerance, inclusiveness and trust,” said Julie Van de Vyver of the University of Kent, one of the authors of the study.
Previous research has shown that people often adopt ideological belief systems that reduce their feelings of threat.
Based on these findings, the University of Kent researchers hypothesized that the bombings would cause liberals to shift moral perspectives in favor of protecting the in-group, akin to the values typically reported by political conservatives. They speculated that this shift would ultimately lead to an increase in prejudice toward the out-group among liberals.
The researchers analyzed newly available data from two nationally representative surveys, administered about six weeks before and one month after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London. The bombings, which led to the deaths of 52 people and injured 770 people, were part of an Al Qaeda attack carried out by three British-born Muslims from immigrant families and one Jamaican convert to Islam.
In the two surveys, participants rated their agreement with statements that represented four moral foundations: In-group loyalty (i.e., “I feel loyal to Britain despite any faults it may have”); authority-respect (i.e., “I think people should follow rules at all times, even when no one is watching”); harm-care (i.e., “I want everyone to be treated justly, even people I do not know. It is important to me to protect the weak in society); and fairness-reciprocity (i.e., “There should be equality for all groups in Britain”).
Participants also rated their agreement with statements about attitudes toward Muslims (e.g., “Britain would lose its identity if more Muslims came to live in Britain”) and immigrants (e.g., “Government spends too much money assisting immigrants”).
As expected, attitudes towards Muslims and toward immigrants were more negative following the attacks than before, but only among liberals, according to the study’s findings. The conservatives’ views stayed relatively constant, the researchers noted.
This increased prejudice was accounted for by changes in liberals’ moral foundations. Specifically, liberals showed an increase in in-group loyalty and a decrease in fairness, and these shifts accounted for their negative attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants, the researchers reported.
The findings show that people’s moral perspectives aren’t necessarily constant — they can change according to the immediate context, the scientists said.
“For people working to tackle prejudice, it is important to be aware that terror events may have different effects on the attitudes of people who start from different political orientations,” the researchers write in the study.
Based on the findings, the researchers argue that terrorist attacks may ultimately lead conservatives to consolidate their existing priorities, making them resistant to change. At the same time, these attacks may prompt a shift in liberals’ priorities toward more prejudiced attitudes.
This shift in attitudes may be reflected in the U.K. parliament’s recent decision, following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, to approve bombing missions in Syria — a reversal of its decision in 2013, the researchers noted.
They point out that the greatest change in voting occurred among Labour Members of Parliament, who fall on the left end of the political spectrum. They showed a 20 percent increase in support for the bombing missions from 2013 to 2015, the researchers said.