Authoritarian Personality Definition
The authoritarian personality describes a type of person who prefers a social system with a strong ruler— the authoritarian person is comfortable being the strong ruler but if the individual is not the strong ruler then he or she will demonstrate complete obedience to another strong authority figure. In both cases, there is little tolerance toward nonconservative ways of thinking. People whose personalities are structured in the manner of an authoritarian personality tend to conform to authority and believe that complete obedience to rules and regulations is completely necessary; any deviation from rules is to be treated harshly. The authoritarian personality often results in people harboring antagonistic feelings towards minority groups, whether religious, ethnic, or otherwise.
Authoritarian Personality History and Development
The history of research on the authoritarian personality stems largely from the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. During the 1950s, one prevailing fear was the potential spread of anti-democratic ideologies as had been seen by the rapid spread of Nazi fascism. The origin of racism and prejudice was an important topic in the academic world because of the mass genocide of the Jews. Scientists also realized that prejudice and anti-democratic ideologies—and fascism in particular—were not characteristic of any specific group, which meant that they began looking for another theory to explain these phenomena.
Concerns over the potential rise of fascism led to a search for a theory to identify those who were susceptible to anti-democratic ideologies. Theodor Adorno, a sociologist, is credited with the theory of authoritarian personality, which addressed the need for an explanation of prejudice and racism. Adorno believed that a certain personality structure was common among people who may fall victim to anti-democratic ideology. Adorno and his colleagues characterized the authoritarian personality structure on nine dimensions, discussed in the following section.
One implication of the theory that a personality structure causes this susceptibility is that the prejudice or racism is a product mostly of the people believing it, and not of the actual target. More specifically, anti-Semitism would not have much to do with the characteristics of Jewish people, but rather the characteristics of the people who dislike the Jews.
The authoritarian personality is thought to emerge from childhood experiences. This reasoning comes from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Freud suggested that childhood experiences, especially those with parents, lead to people’s attitudes as adults. For example, if children have a very strict authoritarian parent, they will learn to suppress thoughts, feelings, and actions which might be considered immoral (e.g., aggression or sex drive). Later, because the child learned not to act on certain urges, the urges are projected onto other “weaker” people, often minorities. This results in the negative attitudes that authoritarian people carry regarding other groups. Again, the projection of internal suppressed urges onto others suggests that the prejudice is due to the individual’s personality, not to traits of the oppressed group.
Though the term authoritarian personality implies a dominating or controlling personality, in theory a person with an authoritarian personality can actually prefer to be obedient to a clear authority figure. This type of personality desires strict adherence to rules and sees a clear distinction between the weak and the strong. Authoritarian personalities are somewhat conflicted because they want power, but also are very willing to submit to authority.
Despite Adorno’s efforts to separate right-wing conservatism from authoritarian personality, Robert Altemeyer’s later version of authoritarian personality was almost synonymous with right-wing conservatism. Altemeyer’s take on authoritarian personality included only three of Adorno’s nine dimensions associated with authoritarian personality: conventionalism, authoritarian aggression, and authoritarian submission. Recently, a book by John Dean critically discussed conservatism (and the Republican Party) from the right-wing authoritarian personality viewpoint put forth by Altemeyer.
Authoritarian Personality Research
The first research on authoritarian personality was, for the reasons mentioned above, very politically driven. While the overarching goal was to explain racism and prejudice, the research direction boiled down to trying to predict who would be susceptible to anti-democratic ideas by measuring personality traits.
Three scales that were assumed to be indicative of authoritarian personality (the anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and political economic conservatism scale) were used to measure the general agreement with an antidemocratic or fascist viewpoint. Adorno and his colleagues sought to further understand the personality structure and developed a scale, the F-scale, which was meant to measure “implicit antidemocratic tendencies and fascist potential.” The scale’s more general purpose was to show the underlying structure of an authoritarian personality and to predict potential for conforming to fascism and anti-democratic ideology. The F-scale is made up of questions relating to nine aspects: conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intraception, superstition and stereotypy, power and “toughness,” destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity, and sex.
Each of the aspects of the scale is meant to tap a different part of the authoritarian personality. Conventionalism questions get at how strongly one believes in middle-class values. Fascism was thought to originate in the middle class and potential fascists would then score high on conventionalism. Those who are very willing to submit to authority and desire strong leaders would score high on authoritarian submission questions. High ratings on the authoritarian aggression questions reflect attitudes that imply dislike toward minority groups and the belief that deviations from authority deserve severe punishment. It was thought that a person high in authoritarian aggression had probably had a strict childhood, preventing him or her to indulge in few desires, which led to this person projecting his or her frustration onto other people who participated in “morally unsound” practices. Anti-intraception is a characteristic of the authoritarian personality which results in a low tolerance for creative thinking and emotion-importance; people who are anti-intraceptive (i.e., are not particularly self-aware) reject subjective thinking in favor of more concrete thinking (e.g., placing high importance on clearly observable facts instead of thoughts and feelings). Superstition and stereotypy show the extent to which a person feels that his or her fate depends mostly on external forces and that he or she cannot personally influence outcomes of situations. A strong belief in two types of people (e.g., strong and weak) will be reflected in power and toughness questions. Authoritarian personalities prefer strong leaders who can maintain order by severe punishment of those who deviate. The destructiveness and cynicism variable again addresses the authoritarian personality’s aggression, but this time the aggression is not based on morality. The idea here is that people with authoritarian personalities harbor aggression and are just waiting for an opportunity to act on it. The projection items on the F-scale are used to tap subjects’ repressed urges (which were mentioned in relation to authoritarian aggression) by asking them about the negative attributes of others. For example, an anti-Semite’s view that Jews are hostile may actually reflect his or her own repressed hostility projected onto someone else. Finally, the sex items on the F-scale also deals with the suppression of urges, namely sexual. Because authoritarian personalities suppress their sexuality (they see it as immoral), their attitudes toward people who engage in these acts is especially negative.
Since the creation of the F-scale, its validity (i.e., ability to actually predict what it claims to predict) has been called into question on numerous occasions, and on numerous occasions has failed these validity tests. It has also failed to predict right-wing authoritarianism, as many left-wing group members can score high on the test. However, the F-scale has shown some correlations, or relationships, to other constructs such as superstition and “old-fashioned” values. Another suggestion has been that the F-scale reflects narrow-mindedness.
Overall, scientists have abandoned the use of the F-scale to study prejudice and racism today. If the scale merely reflects values from the early 1900s or superstitious beliefs, it is not very useful for identifying and predicting racist attitudes. Many of the scale’s questions do mirror the cultural environment of the 1920s and 1930s, but this does not necessarily imply that these values are strongly related to potential for fascist behavior. Also, the idea that racism exists because of alternative attitudes of a few people is not very plausible. Rather, scientists now believe that racism and prejudice result largely from group membership attitudes that reside in all humans. Research on prejudice and racism now tend to take a group approach, instead of studying the personalities of people individually. Political researchers, on the other hand, still make use of authoritarian personality, but generally use Altemeyer’s right-wing authoritarianism in place of Adorno’s original construct.
- Adorno, T. W. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.
- Altemeyer, B. (1988). Enemies of freedom: Understanding right-wing authoritarianism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Dean, J. (2006). Conservatives without conscience. New York: Viking Press.
- Martin, J. L. (2001). The authoritarian personality, 50 years later: What questions are there for political psychology? Political Psychology 22(1), 1-26.