Alex Taranto

A new study by researchers at Yale and the University of Oslo found that Americans who experience “identity fusion” — a psychological phenomena that occurs when people have a “visceral feeling of oneness” with another person or group — with U.S. President Donald Trump are more likely to commit political violence.

Researchers used participants’ answers to a survey to rate them on an “identity fusion scale.” The paper reported that people who have “fused” with Donald Trump were more willing to violently challenge election results, to personally protect the border from an immigrant caravan and to perpetuate violence against Iranians, Muslims and immigrants. Bringing together data from seven studies, the paper was published in Nature Human Behaviour on Sept. 2.

“We showed — in seven studies conducted with Republican partisans — [that] people who experience identity fusion with their leader, Donald Trump, show higher intentions to personally persecute immigrants, Muslims or Iranians living in the [United States], if Republicans asked them to,” said Jonas Kunst, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Oslo.

This series of studies focused specifically on identity fusion with Trump, but the authors explained that their findings could apply to any political leader, regardless of ideology. People have likely politically fused with many left-wing leaders throughout history, they noted.

“People think that we have our own identity, but sometimes we form relationships with other people or groups in a way that we lose our personal identity and let it become immersed in the image of another person,” said John Dovidio, professor of psychology at Yale and senior author of the paper. “This is not just about Trump.”

Kunst, Dovidio and their co-author Lotte Thomsen, professor at the University of Oslo, surveyed people who self-identify as Republicans on the platform Amazon Mechanical Turk. The seven studies spanned from 2016 to 2019 in order to test their theories over the course of the 2016 presidential election and in its aftermath.

Although not all Republicans were fused with Trump, those who exhibited high levels of identity fusion, as measured on a scale, were found to be willing to engage in extreme actions.

“This is one of the first studies that has looked at fusion with a person who is a political leader and how that might contribute to policies that are injurious to members of minority groups,” said William Swann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a peer researcher in social and personality psychology, who was not involved in the study. “It’s very important to understand the sources of prejudice in our society, and [this research] has taken some important steps in that regard in showing that deep alignment with a political leader can be responsible for these phenomena.”

Inspired by the increasingly charged political climate in the United States, Kunst and Dovidio wanted to understand the psychological phenomena behind the current political dynamics.

Kunst noted that the role of leadership has received little attention in the study of social psychology and the psychology of intergroup conflict, adding that this research demonstrates the importance of the relationship between leaders and followers.

Dovidio emphasized two main conclusions he hopes that people take away from the study: First, because humans are “social animals,” leaders can change our identity in “very dramatic ways.” Second, he hopes that the study will provide insight into “the complexity of who other people are.”

“Just because positive values are not activated at this time does not mean that those people do not have positive values that you can draw on later — that can help bring people together,” Dovidio said.

The next steps for the researchers are to look at individuals who experience identity fusion with more progressive leaders or with leaders in countries outside the United States. Kunst said that he is currently applying the research to leaders on the political left and right in the Israeli national elections, while Dovidio pointed to the need to study how to “de-fuse” a person’s identity from their leader.

“Fusion itself is not a bad thing,” Kunst said. “People need to understand that it’s not about good or bad, in this situation. If we just understand it, we no longer have to see everyone as opposite or opposing to us.”

In counties where Trump held a 2016 rally, hate crimes spiked 226 percent in counties compared to those that did not host rallies, according to recent research from the University of North Texas.

Kate Pundyk | kate.pundyk@yale.edu