Dr. Michael Bang Petersen

Michael Bang Petersen is a professor of political science at Aarhus University in Denmark and received his PhD from the same university in 2007. His research is focused on the intersection of political science and evolutionary psychology, analyzing modern political issues and problems through the lenses of evolutionary psychology. On this topic, he has published in the major journals within both political science and psychology. As a junior scholar, he received training in evolutionary psychology at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UCSB. Today, he is a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters and serves as the PI of two large research projects on online political hostility and pandemic behavior, respectively. He has served as an advisor of the Danish government throughout the corona pandemic.


HBES 2021 Plenary Address:

The Destructive Side of Status-Seeking: How Status-Seeking Drives Extreme Political Discontent When Alone, in Groups, in the Streets and on the Internet

Modern democracies are currently experiencing destabilizing events including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media. In this talk, I draw together a series of recent studies to argue and demonstrate that the evolved psychology of status-seeking lies at the core of this syndrome of extreme political discontent, whether it involves groups engaged in street riots or lonely Internet trolls who spread “fake news”.

Social status constitutes one of the key adaptive resources for any human, as it induces deference from others in conflicts of interest. Prior research has identified two routes to status: Prestige acquired through service and dominance acquired through coercion. I will argue and demonstrate that extreme political discontent involves behaviors aimed at dominance through engagement in either individual aggression or in mobilization processes that facilitate coalitional aggression. Furthermore, I will argue that the most extreme forms of political discontent involve a particular evolved status-acquisition strategy, focusing on generalized destruction of entire status-hierarchies. This strategy is triggered in contexts of deep feelings of marginalization and exclusion, which are becoming widespread in the increasingly unequal Western societies.