Right-Wingers Lead Simulated Global Politics Game. Guess How Many Virtual People They Killed.


It looks like Team Australia, smells like Team Australia, sounds like Team Australia. But in fact it was a game used to simulate real world global politics, and the results were startling. Back in the real world, Dr Lissa Johnson looks at the collision of government and fantasy in the lucky country.

In 2003 Robert Altemeyer, the father of contemporary Right-wing authoritarianism research, reported on a series of global leadership simulations. Publishing in the Journal “Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy” Altemeyer named his paper, “What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? A Simulation”.

The last couple of weeks in Australian politics brings Altemeyer’s simulations to mind, not because our reality looks like what happens when authoritarians inherit the earth. Because it looks worse.

Using a paradigm known as the Global Change Game, Altemeyer created two mock worlds, one in which leaders and followers were high on Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), and one in which they were low.  Right-wing authoritarianism correlates with political conservatism and involves punitive submission to authority and the status quo.

The Global Change Game is a “sophisticated three-hour simulation of the earth’s future” in which decades unfold over the three hours. It is conducted on a basketball-court sized map of the world, where approximately 70 players are distributed across world regions and tasked with selecting leaders and policies.

According to the games’ developers, participants “are given tokens representing their real-world resources, and are informed of the problems facing their regions. The players select what their priorities will be, and work within their groups and with their neighbours to achieve the goals which they have set”.

Throughout the game, facilitators calculate results of participants’ decisions using “complicated formulae” that take into account the consequences of war, long-term unemployment, malnutrition and poor medical infrastructures (if only our governments took the same considerations seriously when evaluating their own decisions. With respect to Australia’s first peoples, for instance).

Given what Altemeyer knew about Authoritarianism, he was curious whether Authoritarian psychology would affect the game’s outcomes.

By way of brief background, Authoritarianism as a concept first emerged following World War II, when psychologists sought to understand the psychology of fascist leaders and their followers. After falling out of fashion for a time, in the 1980s and 1990s Altemeyer revived and refined the authoritarian concept, spawning fruitful new generations of research.

It turns out that RWA is an important psychological building block not only of fascism but also prejudice, conservatism and right leaning ideology in general.

For a snapshot of the RWA psyche, in Altemeyer’s own words:

“By now we know quite a bit about them… high RWAs have been proven to be relatively submissive to government injustices, unsupportive of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, supportive of the Experimenter in the Milgram situation, high shockers themselves in a ‘punish the learner’ situation, punitive towards law-breakers, mean-spirited, ready to join government “posses” to run down almost everyone (including themselves), happy with traditional sex roles, strongly influenced by group norms, highly religious (especially in a fundamentalist way), and politically conservative (from the grass roots up to the pros, say studies of over 1,500 elected lawmakers).

“They also have remarkably compartmentalised minds, endorse a multitude of contradictory beliefs, apply a variety of double standards to their thinking on social matters, are blind to themselves, dogmatic, fearful of a dangerous world, and self-righteous to beat the band.

“Right-wing Authoritarians are also relatively prejudiced, against just about any racial, ethnic or nationalistic minority you can think of, and against homosexuals, women… atheists, and other religious people who happen to belong to different faiths.”

On his University of Manitoba Website page Altemeyer adds that authoritarians are “enemies of freedom and equality” who “can give the flimsiest of excuses and even outright lies about things they’ve done wrong” and are “almost totally uninfluenced by reasoning and evidence”.

So what happened when these people ruled the simulated world?

As if we, in Australia, need to ask, although you might be surprised to learn, that they didn’t give themselves the right to strip people of their citizenship for kicking wheelie bins nor to patrol the streets paramilitary-style stopping anyone who looked like they might need a visa.

What they did do is produce a nuclear holocaust that killed everyone and destroyed the planet. But Altemeyer chalked it up to learning and gave them a second chance.

On their second go, sticking to conventional rather than nuclear weapons, team RWA killed 2.1 billion people over 40 game-years, through war, famine and disease.

The low RWA world, in contrast, remained “entirely peaceful” for the duration. Four hundred million people did die as a result of disease and starvation, but the low RWAs responded with “a great deal of inter regional co-operation” that “eventually produced food, health and jobs for nearly everyone”.

In a high RWA world, then, five times as many people, or an extra 1.7 billion, died.

Back in the real make-believe world of Team Australia, dropping bombs on Syrian people for no justifiable reason is one way to advance the global death-toll on behalf of authoritarians everywhere.

Following these results, Altemeyer wondered what might happen if “the plot thickened” and the world were ruled not by authoritarians alone, but people who were also high on Social Dominance Orientation.

Social Dominance Oritentation (SDO) involves a more ruthless, gratuitous dog-eat-dog pursuit of hierarchy and inequality than RWA. In an ideal SDO world, the ‘strong’ in society oppress the ‘weak’ by whatever means they can, whether consistent with tradition and authority or not.

Whereas RWA is known to be driven primarily by fear of change and difference, with an anxiously aggressive quest for certainty, simplicity and the familiar, SDO has a different personality profile.

It is predicted not by the fearful, rigid, closed-minded personality of the authoritarian, but by antagonistic personality traits, including the ‘dark triad’ of personality; psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. These personality correlates share with SDO a “dark core” of callousness or lack of empathy, and dishonesty.

Being cruel and ruthless simply feels satisfying to the socially dominating psyche, particularly when the target is weakened or vulnerable. Lying comes naturally. There is no conscience to appease.

Although different from one another, SDO and RWA both correlate with conservatism or right leaning political orientation, and together explain almost all of the variance in prejudice. They are understood as two distinct pathways to conservatism and prejudice.

Social Dominance Orientation was only a few years old at the time of Altemeyer’s Global Change Game studies. He called social dominators “the new bullies on the block,” noting that authoritarians had recently “lost the title” to them as “the most prejudiced group ever found”.

What would the simulated world look like ruled by people who were high on both RWA and SDO (double highs)?

Double highs are rare, but they are around. Altemeyer expected them to be adept at rising rapidly to power in an authoritarian milieu, given their drive for dominance, their shared love of inequality and hierarchy, and the tendency for authoritarians to submit to power.

To try it and see, Altemeyer placed several double highs amongst a larger group of RWAs, allocating one double high to each world region, and he let the games begin. As expected the double highs rose rapidly to leadership positions (within 12 seconds) and the RWAs became willing followers.

Altemeyer also ran another game with a pure RWA sample. In terms of deaths and militarism both groups did dismally, causing deaths in the billions. Altemeyer gave both worlds a failing grade, noting that, “Ordinary high school students usually produce better futures” (italics original).

What distinguished the double-high-led world was its poor environmental performance. With high SDO in the power mix, leaders never made any co-ordinated efforts to deal with global environmental problems, whereas the RWA world did.

The other distinguishing feature of an SDO-led world was the absence of charity. “No region accepted refugees from impoverished areas. No-one gave any generous loans to the impoverished.”

For all its failings, with is military, environmental, immigration, and foreign aid policies our Government is doing an excellent job of imitating fantasy.

If only it were a game.

The ‘Border Farce’ of Operation Fortitude was sufficiently surreal that it felt like one.

Whether senior ministers knew of this operation of not, their staff could be forgiven for thinking that they would approve. These are, after all, the leaders seeking to legalise lethal use of force by untrained staff against people convicted of nothing, who are simply seeking refuge. And, ideally, a visa. Preferably one that might allow them to contribute productively to society.

The fact that Operation Fortitude alienated media commentators known for their right wing authoritarian views is telling. It might also point to potential openings for wedges between our socially dominating leaders and their RWA rank and file.

Authoritarians generally don’t like change. They don’t mind change that harkens back to inequalities of the good old days, but they dislike change that is too radical, rapid, and drastic, or that undermines their sense of sameness and predictability.

Underestimating this authoritarian need for familiarity, may yet bring the Coalition unstuck even among authoritarian voters, so lost are they in their shared fantasies of social domination. With the help of some savvy reporting perhaps.

Let’s hope.

Back in the real world again, bombing Syrians (not just Syria but Syrians; people; human beings; men women and children) makes no logical sense. Every lesson learned in the Middle East tells us that there is nothing but more death, destruction and destabilisation on the other end.

But it does make psychological sense. It satisfies a psychological urge.

To a socially dominating psyche, killing and maiming people who are already vulnerable and weakened simply feels right. It feels natural. It feels good.

The psychological literature would suggest that that is an important reason, if not the main reason, we are poised to enter another distant war.

Our Government, for instance, will not drop food parcels on Syrians because of the impossibility of accurate targeting. We can’t discriminate between innocent civilians and ‘baddies’.

This same inaccuracy with respect to our bombs, however, is of less concern.

Our leaders are more bothered by feeding baddies than bombing the innocent.

Not only does bombing feel good to a social dominator, charity, mercy, kindness, humanity, generosity, altruism and compassion feel bad. They feel weak. Feeding people is just soft.

Altemeyer has called political psychology an ‘impolite’ discipline. And it is. The light that psychological research has shed on the motives behind much conservative and right leaning ideology is not flattering.

Speaking up about these realities inevitably hurts feelings and bruises egos, which psychologists generally try to avoid doing. But staying quiet means turning a blind eye to millions, and even billions over time, of unnecessary deaths and devastated lives, which seems the greater of the two evils.

To justify the oppression, discrimination and death toll of socially dominating endeavours, leaders employ ‘legitimising myths’. Fear-mongering to ramp up national security and violence is the most tried and true.

Simply framing social domination as a form of ideology, philosophy or policy, however, is a legitimising myth of its own. High social dominance orientation is not a logical philosophical ideological stance. It is a psychopathology.

A psychopathology, moreover, that is considered “malignant”, “malevolent” and “amoral”.

The real issue is psychological fitness for the job.

And I’m not talking about any particular minister here. They are all in it, up to their eyeballs, together.

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Dr Lissa Johnson is a clinical psychologist and practice principal in private practice. Prior to becoming a psychologist she qualified in Media Studies, with a major in Sociology. Lissa has a longstanding interest in the psychology of social issues and the impact of social issues on psychology, and is a former member of the Australian Psychological Society Public Interest Advisory Group.