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Clarifying the nature of the association between social dominance orientation and environmentalism

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posted on 07.12.2021, 15:07 by Stanley, Samantha Kay

A small number of studies have reported a negative association between social dominance orientation (SDO: the relative preference for social inequality and intergroup dominance) and environmentalism. However, the existing research has yet to fully investigate the nature of this relationship. In this thesis, I develop a programme of research that aims to clarify how ideology relates to environmentalism, in several important ways.  I start by systematically reviewing the relationship between SDO, the related ideological construct of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA: the preference to submit to authority and tradition, and punish those who deviate), and environmentalism. I do this by meta-analysing the associations reported in the existing literature, and previously un-published datasets. These analyses show that both ideological constructs are important for understanding human-environment relations. Importantly, SDO is more strongly related to environmentalism in general population samples than in student samples, which helps to reconcile previous inconsistencies in the literature.  I then explore the ideology-environmentalism link over time, comparing the strengths of the associations with environmentalism and SDO and RWA. Consistent with the meta-analyses I show that, while RWA is more predictive of changes in environmental attitudes over time in student populations, SDO is the key predictor among general population samples. Therefore, dependent on sample, these findings indicate that endorsing these ideologies lead to changes in environmentalism over time.  Next, I elaborate on the SDO-environmentalism relationship by exploring whether and how the two facets of SDO (anti-egalitarianism and dominance) differentially relate to environment-relevant attitudes. Overall, I find that anti-environmental attitudes are largely driven by individual preference for inequality rather than for intergroup dominance.  Previous work, including my own, has focused exclusively on quantitative survey-based methods. I invited individuals scoring relatively high, moderately, and low on SDO to share their ideas on climate change. Interviews with these individuals revealed that many were concerned about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to climate change. Most participants were also armed with justifications excusing their, and others’, inaction on the problem. To establish how the ideas shared in the interviews related to SDO, I reworked them into statements for survey-based research. This research demonstrates that ideology (both SDO and RWA) also related to most of these interview-based statements, with those scoring higher on dominance attitudes more opposed to top-down action on climate change, and those more tolerant of inequality more opposed to individual action.  In sum, my work adds to the growing body of research that establishes ideology as a barrier to environmental engagement. My findings support the interpretation of SDO as a barrier to engagement through an environmental justice framework. If we are to stop the warming of the planet and increased social inequality that this brings, then we must also understand ideology as a barrier to belief and action on climate change.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and the Cognitive sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Wilson, Marc S.