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Russian Authoritarianism & Zero-Sum Game

Psychological Research
Apr 14, 2023
10 min

Executive Summary


  • We conducted a study to determine the interplay between Russians’ views on their society in general (authoritarianism, social dominance, etc.) and their attitude toward the war in Ukraine.

  • First of all, individuals believing in the superiority of one group over another (social dominance beliefs) tend to support war and the government in Russia while opposing peace negotiations with Ukraine. They equally prefer having strong leaders and policies that maintain power hierarchies. Instead, those who oppose the war place greater value on equality and have a lower tolerance for violence, also feeling that their group is marginalized and persecuted in Russia.

  • Another factor detrimental to one’s pro-war convictions is authoritarian beliefs. It involves strict conformity to group norms, submission to authority, and aggression towards any outsiders and dissidents.

  • Further, people who support the war in Russia prioritize their group's interests, while those opposing the war favor cooperation and believe in creating resources for the common good. At the same time, most Russians, no matter their war & government attitudes, believe in the zero-sum game, meaning that resources are limited and must be competed for, rather than the positive-sum game, where resources can be created and shared.



Respondents were recruited online.

The sample was stratified by sex and age (equal age and sex groups 18-30, 31-44, 45-60 years). The data was cleaned, and the analysis excluded people who did not answer all the questions. The final sample consisted of 1026 respondents, 512 men and 514 women. The mean age of the respondents is 37.5, the standard deviation is 11.6.

Respondents were asked to choose which of three general descriptions of different clusters best represented their own attitudes toward the war. This allowed us to determine which cluster of Russian society they belonged to.

Cluster 1. Hawks (15.9%). Firmly believe that Russia is moving in the right direction, support the war against Ukraine, strongly identify themselves with Russia and Russians, believe in themselves and their group, have low stress levels, and are psychologically well.

Cluster 2. Loyalists (39.9%). Hold the same beliefs as the Hawks but express them much less vividly than the latter. They have an average level of stress and a high level of authoritarian obedience.

Cluster 3. Uncertain (11.9%). Have average rates of support for the war and are not sure if Russia is moving in the right direction, but their level of psychological suffering is the same as that of Poor Liberals.

Cluster 4. Poor liberals (17.3%). In their opinion, Russia is moving in a catastrophic direction. They oppose the war and do not identify themselves with Russia and the Russians. They do not believe in their own strength and the strength of their group to change the course of events. They have the highest stress level among all clusters, and the indicators of psychological, emotional, and even social well-being are the lowest.

Cluster 5. Moderate Liberals (15.1%). Oppose the war against Ukraine, but not as clearly and pronounced as the Poor Liberals. They’re also more prosperous and older than the latter.

Respondents answered a set of socio-demographic questions, questions about their attitudes towards the ongoing war against Ukraine (“Special military operation”), Russian President V. Putin, peaceful negotiations with Ukraine, the country’s direction, and following socio-psychological tests in Russian adaptation:

  • Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) test - the desire of individuals to establish and maintain a hierarchical social order, with themselves at the top, through means such as aggression, manipulation, and the pursuit of social status;

  • Right-wing authoritarianism scale - the degree to which people defer to established authorities, show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression and support traditional values endorsed by authorities;

  • Zero-sum game beliefs scale - a notion that resources are limited, resulting in a situation where any gain for one individual or group results in a loss for others.

Please see Appendix 1 for a detailed explanation.

Pearson correlation analysis and ANOVA were used for the data analysis.


Key Findings


Individuals who support dominance over other groups are inclined to back the current government and war efforts in Russia while resisting peace negotiations. The belief in a zero-sum game appears to have minimal if any, impact. Conversely, the influence of authoritarianism on supporting the regime, war efforts, and its components, such as aggression, obedience, and conservatism, is considerable.

The results of the linear regression model, which analyzes support for the "special military operation" as a dependent variable (R^2 = 0.565), indicate that the variables associated with social dominance attitudes and zero-sum game beliefs do not have a statistically significant impact on the model if it includes indicators of authoritarianism. In our model, β for authoritarian obedience is 0.38***, for conservatism: 0.32***, and for authoritarian aggression: 0.11**.

The importance of authoritarianism and its components in understanding support for war and the political regime in Russia appears to be significantly greater than that of social dominance attitudes and belief in the zero-sum game, as evidenced by their limited impact on support for Putin's power and peace talks. It means that war supporters are people prone to blindly obeying the authorities due to their power status, desiring conformity, and feeling hostile towards any rebels within their group.

The application of ANOVA to compare the groups of zero-sum game belief across different clusters of Russian society also revealed that the differences between the groups are generally insignificant.

There’s one exception, however: extreme supporters (Hawks) and opponents of war (Poor Liberals) differ from each other by almost a third of a standard deviation (Cohen's d = 0.3*) in their views on resource distribution. This suggests that ardent militarists are more likely to hold a zero-sum belief that resources are limited and worth pursuing for themselves and their group, while outspoken liberals are more likely to believe in the cooperative creation of resources for the common good.

Many Russians, whether liberal or moderate, may have been convinced by their experiences in Russian society that the zero-sum game is more in line with reality than the positive-sum game. As a result, the variation in this measure among Russians is relatively small.

In Russia, war supporters believe that a small group should be in charge of what is happening in the country, while others should simply follow instead of mutual cooperation. The differences between Hawks and Poor Liberals (Cohen's d = 0.71***) are significant, as are the differences between Hawks and Moderate Liberals (d = 0.34***) and Loyalists and Poor Liberals (d = 0.58***). Poor Liberals strongly oppose group dominance, even compared to their less active Moderate Liberal counterparts (d = 0.37**).

These differences stem from the greater value placed on equality, low tolerance for violence among opponents of the war, and the perception of marginalization and persecution of their group. In this context, social dominance would not benefit opponents of war but their ideological opponents.

When it comes to authoritarianism, Russian society exhibits significant differences across various clusters. Those who score higher on authoritarianism scales are more likely to support military invasions of other countries, including Ukraine. This is partly because authoritarianism emphasizes the importance of hierarchy and obedience to authority, which can be expressed through support for aggressive military actions.

Additionally, high levels of authoritarianism may lead to a strong sense of loyalty to a country and its leaders, further fueling support for military interventions. These factors contribute to authoritarian individuals being more likely to express their support for Russia’s military actions.




In Russia, people who support war and political leaders tend to be driven by authoritarian beliefs, which, in their turn, include wanting everyone, including any dissidents, to follow the same rules and leaders, along with being aggressive toward those who disagree with mainstream ideology. Instead, those holding anti-war convictions value equality and have a low tolerance for violence, feeling marginalized and persecuted.

Accordingly, the more authoritarian one’s beliefs are, the more likely that such a person would support the military invasion of Ukraine, consistent with that person’s tendency to value obedience and loyalty to Russia and their leaders.


Appendix 1: Questionnaire explanation


The concept of Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) refers to an individual's preference for inequality among social groups. Individuals with high SDO tend to pursue professional roles that reinforce hierarchy, while those with low SDO seek roles that mitigate it. SDO is associated with a wide range of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy, such as racism, as well as with support for policies that impact intergroup relations, including war, civil rights, and social programs.

Additionally, SDO has a negative correlation with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. In social dominance theory, anti-egalitarianism refers to the belief that there are inherent differences in social groups, and that these differences justify unequal treatment or access to resources. This belief system rejects the idea of equality between social groups and views hierarchy as natural and necessary. Dominance refers to the desire for social hierarchy and the pursuit of power and influence over others. Individuals who score high in dominance seek to establish and maintain a hierarchical social order, with themselves at the top, through means such as aggression, manipulation, and the pursuit of social status.

The term authoritarianism refers to a characteristic of individuals who rely heavily on a cohesive group that enforces obedience and conformity through three primary conditions: strict adherence to group norms, submission to higher-status individuals, and aggression towards both nonconformist group members and individuals external to the group. It is noteworthy that these traits, including conformity, subordination, and aggression, often co-occur.

However, there is no correlation between an individual's level of authoritarianism and their intelligence. Authoritarianism is divided into three components.

Authoritarian submission (obedience) involves a strong desire to comply with perceived legitimate authority figures within a social group. This may lead to viewing the world through dichotomous power relations and uncritically accepting the views of authority figures.

Authoritarian aggression involves hostility towards noncompliant individuals and enemies of authority, including nonconforming group members. It is also marked by strict adherence to group norms, the belief in the superiority of one's own group, and a tendency to condemn and punish those with differing views.

Conventionalism (or conservatism) means that authoritarians strongly adhere to traditional societal norms and desire conformity among their group members while rejecting diversity. They view conforming to norms as both a social and moral obligation and reject the idea that foreign norms are equally valid.

Belief in a zero-sum game (BZSG) is grounded on the notion that resources are limited, resulting in a situation where any gain for one individual or group results in a loss for others. This belief is rooted in game theory and represents a fundamental and unwavering conviction about the nature of social interactions. BZSG can be defined as a shared belief among individuals within a society or culture that social relations are antagonistic, based on the assumption that there is a finite amount of goods in the world and that any gain made by one person will inevitably result in others losing out.

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Psychological Research
Apr 14, 2023
10 min
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