Psychedelics ain’t all puppies, rainbows, and tree-hugging. So warn the authors of a recent paper. Research indicates most people emerge from psychedelic experiences with a more liberal mindset. But authors Brian A. Pace and Neşe Devenot argue that psychedelics can also have the opposite effect, pushing people even further to the right.
Reporting around the myriad potential health and psychological benefits of psychedelics has led to a “shroom boom.” In the past few decades reporters have breathlessly touted numerous studies showing psychedelics can help alleviate treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, addiction, fear of dying, and more. These promises, and the fact that psychedelics are relatively safe and non-addictive, means many people see them as a sort of miracle drug for promoting mental health and social harmony.
Timothy Leary, a grandfather of sorts of the modern psychedelic movement, seemed to believe widespread LSD use among the younger generation would inevitably lead to widespread positive social change. He’s hardly the only one.
This excitement isn’t entirely misplaced. Psychedelics do offer a lot of hope and promise for a better world. Many social problems do stem from or are exacerbated challenges like depression, addiction, and complex trauma. However, psychedelics are best seen as neutral tools rather than cure-alls. And like all tools, they can be used for good or evil.
To understand how psychedelics can have a negative impact on individuals, it’s useful to examine a recent review of the literature from Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, and Case Western Reserve University. It points to numerous examples of people who have retained or even increased their illiberal, authoritarian, anti-egalitarian worldviews after exploring altered states of consciousness through psychedelics.
The authors of Right-Wing Psychedelia: Case Studies in Cultural Plasticity and Political Pluripotency point out that using psychedelics doesn’t necessarily cause someone to lean more toward the political left or right. For one thing, what’s considered left and right changes with time and place. Perhaps the more important axis to consider is authoritarianism versus liberalism.
Because authoritarianism and illiberalism from both the left and right acutely threaten liberal, democratic norms and are responsible for some of the worst politicians and policies to arise in recent decades.
Liberalism and authoritarianism can be understood as two ends of a spectrum. A more liberal society is more pluralist, tolerant, and diverse. Its government protects individual liberty and private property rights. A more authoritarian society is more totalitarian, intolerant, and homogeneous. Its government is more autocratic, oppressive, and more likely to violate private property rights to achieve its ends.
In 2020, political psychologist and behavioral economist Karen Stenner published Authoritarianism, which examined the “authoritarian personality.” Stenner argues that there are particular authoritarian personality traits, which everyone possesses to some degree. But in about a third of people these traits are especially pronounced, giving them a more “authoritarian personality.”
Stenner finds people with a more authoritarian personality are more likely to have low openness to experience, one the ‘Big Five’ personality traits. They’re also more likely to have limited willingness and ability to deal with complexity, which Stenner describes as “cognitive incapacity.”
It’s easy to see, at least theoretically, how people with low openness and low capacity to deal with complexity would prefer a society that’s more stable and predictable and less chaotic and diverse.
Personality traits tend to remain pretty stable over a lifetime. What changes is behavior, based on context.
According to Stenner, people with more authoritarian personalities prefer to live in homogeneous communities governed by strict adherence to rigid hierarchies. They condone coercion and constraint when necessary. People with more liberal personalities tend to prefer more pluralism, diversity, and individual freedom and are willing to live peaceably with people who are racially, morally, and politically quite different from them.
Elements of the right and left wing display authoritarian tendencies, depending on the question. For instance, the right supports more individual freedom when it comes to taxes and firearms, but more authoritarianism when it comes to what people choose to put into their bodies. The left supports more individual freedom when it comes to who to marry or whether a trans person is allowed to medically transition, but more authoritarianism when it comes to the level of emissions your vehicle is allowed to emit.
Authoritarianism does have some utility. More homogeneous societies tend to have higher trust, for example, which corresponds to lower rates of crime and predation. Too much individualism can lead to atomization, alienation, and loneliness, which research shows actually makes people measurably physically and mentally sicker. Certain infringements on individual freedom can also boost physical and mental health. Kids who grow up with limited lead exposure and tax-funded social safety nets, for example, actually grow up to be measurably more healthy, intelligent, and successful adults.
However, many, if not most, authoritarian practices and policies don’t achieve their stated ends and sow unnecessary misery along the way.
For example, authoritarians tend to support a gender hierarchy which keeps men in positions of power in the home and society. But this kind of sexism is extremely expensive to maintain. Keeping women out of the workforce would have cost the US billions of dollars in foregone growth. Increasing female labor force participation is estimated to provide $1.6 trillion or a 5% increase in GDP. It also measurably boosts productivity. Every 10% increase is associated with a 5% increase in everyone’s wages. And no compelling evidence suggests any measurable benefits to keeping women at home that could have offset the lost wealth.
In their desire for a racially homogeneous society, authoritarians tend to oppose immigration. This, again, is a very expensive policy with little to recommend it. Immigration boosts US GDP and either raises or barely impacts wages for the vast majority of native-born workers. Immigrants’ lower average wages can also help curb inflation. No argument against immigration holds up to scrutiny. Tons of compelling evidence suggests legal and undocumented immigrants are significantly less likely to commit “just about every type of crime,” including homicide, sexual offenses, and larceny.
Authoritarians tend to support protectionist trade policies, curbing civil liberties, criminalizing and stigmatizing sex between consenting adults, punative sentencing, and more. These are all policies the evidence very clearly shows not only don’t work, but actually make the problems they’re supposed to solve worse.
So how do psychedelic experiences interplay with authoritarianism?
Pace and Devenot point to Jordan Peterson as an example of someone who didn’t come out of their psilocybin use any less right-leaning.
Peterson’s career as a public intellectual started when he rage-quit academia over the demonstrably false claim that the Canadian government would jail him for misgendering students. His job now seems to consist of periodically rage-quitting Twitter in between bouts of complaining about Sports Illustrated models being too fat. There’s not much evidence to suggest psychedelics have pushed him in a more pluralist, egalitarian direction.
While Peterson would likely contest the authoritarian label, the large overlap between his publicly stated views and authoritarianism can’t be denied.
Peterson supports racial essentialism, claiming that some races are inherently less intelligent in a podcast interview with avowed white supremacist Stefan Molyneux. This idea is not just extremely compatible with support for racial hierarchy, but has been used by others for precisely this purpose. Peterson also supports gender essentialism and inegalitarianism, encouraging women to focus more on motherhood and less on their careers.
“Unambiguously, Peterson attributes the prosociality induced by psychedelics to grateful acceptance of one’s place within the dominance hierarchy,” is how the study authors put it. This demonstrates that psychedelics don’t necessarily cause people to question their existing beliefs. Users can just as easily come away from psychedelics believing they’ve experienced an encounter with a higher power who confirms what they already believe about the world.
Peter Thiel provides another example. Despite investing in (and possibly ingesting) psychedelics, Thiel in many ways personifies the authoritarian personality. He co-founded a company that helps the US government surveil and detain immigrants and assassinate disfavored targets. He opposes democracy generally and enfranchisement of women specifically. He unapologetically supports South African apartheid and financially supports slavery apologist and anti-democratic thinker Curtis Yarvin along with a slew of anti-immigrant extremist candidates for public office.
Pace and Devenot give numerous other examples of people who have left their psychedelic experiences just as authoritarian, or even more so, than they arrived. These include neo-Nazi murderers from the Atomwaffen Division, the founder of the Proud Boys, and the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
Pace and Devenot, along with Stenner, agree that one’s life experiences will often radically impact their behavior. In the case of authoritarianism, the evidence is strong that psychedelics can shift users in either direction.
Again, liberalism versus authoritarianism doesn’t align perfectly with other dichotomies. This means the goal isn’t a society that’s more right or left, more conservative or progressive. The goal is a democratic society that protects individual liberty and tolerates diversity in every form—race, gender, orientation, creed, ideology, religion, etc. Even if you don’t want a liberal society for its own sake, the evidence suggests liberal democracies beat out authoritarian societies on most every measurable dimension. Liberal democracies are more prosperous than authoritarian states and offer citizens far greater levels of individual liberty by definition. But the people who live in them are also safer, healthier. and happier on average.
Safeguarding our pluralist, liberal democracy requires that we avoid pushing people further into their authoritarian tendencies.
Stenner calls for institutions and rituals that promote feelings of unity and sameness to help give authoritarians enough safety to not feel the need to openly agitate for a more patriarchal ethnostate. We need to enhance everyone’s feelings of solidarity and cohesion through things like pulling together as one against a common foe. And we need more economic equality.
Psychedelics on their own are unlikely to ameliorate authoritarianism.
But psychedelics can help us achieve these goals. There’s evidence that using psychedelics increases one’s feelings of oneness with the universe, which could certainly include outgroups. It might be useful to learn from the ways indigenous communities use psychedelics as part of unifying institutions and rituals.
Whether psychedelics push people toward liberalism or authoritarianism comes down to that old canard of set and setting. Creating a society that doesn’t activate authoritarian tendencies quite as much is difficult, but essential work. There’s also a role for practitioners, shamans, and other guides to help ensure everyone can access psychedelics in spaces that promote unity and cohesion, rather than division and destruction.