identity factors are behind our largest challengesIn a groundbreaking new study published in “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin“, an international team of researchers has added significant empirical weight to an observation that the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD), other organizations, and scholars have made for some time: the seismic social and political shifts we are witnessing across liberal democracies are being driven, at their core, by threats to people’s identities.

The Study

The study, led by Efisio Manunta and colleagues, examined the psychological underpinnings of the rise of populism in five countries—Chile, France, Italy, Romania, and the United Kingdom. Their findings provide compelling evidence that both economic distress and cultural backlash, the two main explanations put forward for the populist surge, lead to greater endorsement of populist ideology through a common mechanism: identity threat.

What is Identity Threat?

As the authors explain, identity threat occurs when “specific identity elements (e.g., an ingroup or an individual characteristic) affect one or several fundamental psychological needs that are functional for a fulfilled self.” In other words, when key aspects of how we see ourselves are challenged or devalued, it shakes our sense of having a secure and meaningful place in the world.

Types of Identity Threat

The researchers focused on two specific types of identity that are relevant to the populist wave:

  • Economic Status-Based Identity: How people conceive of themselves in relation to their economic position.
  • Society-Based Identity: How people see themselves as members of their society.

Key Findings

Across all five countries studied, they found that economic distress—measured through subjective social status and feelings of relative deprivation compared to other groups, individuals, and one’s own past—led to greater endorsement of populist ideas.

When both economic distress and cultural backlash were considered together in an integrated model, identity threat—and especially threat to the fundamental need for belonging—emerged as the key linking mechanism. In the researchers’ words:

“Identity threat—especially to belonging—appears central to the understanding of the populist thin ideology… Individuals, for whom the thought of themselves as a member of society—or as a person of a certain social status—frustrates the belonging motive, attempt to manage this identity threat. They become more likely to adhere to a simplistic political narrative that gives them a positive moral ingroup identity (the People) compared to an immoral corrupt outgroup (the elite)”.


These findings underscore the deeply personal nature of the social and political upheavals we are living through. As Manunta and colleagues conclude, “These findings emphasize the implication of identity threat to belonging as an explanatory mediator and demonstrate the cross-national generalizability of these patterns”.

The populist surge, the polarization of our politics, the unraveling of social cohesion—these are not abstract, impersonal forces. They are the direct result of a pervasive sense of identity threat experienced by millions of people across many different societies, whether due to economic dislocation, cultural change or deliberate identity manipulation. And this primary threat is to our most fundamental need—to feel that we belong, that we are included, that we matter.

Moving Forward

As we grapple with the challenges such use of identity pose to our democracies, we must keep this human reality front and center. Only by addressing the deep identity threats so many are experiencing can we hope to find a way forward together. The health of our societies depends on it.