Authoritarian personality

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The authoritarian personality is a personality type characterized by a disposition to treat authority figures with unquestioning obedience and respect. Conceptually, the term authoritarian personality originated from the writings of Erich Fromm, and usually is applied to people who exhibit a strict and oppressive personality towards their subordinates.[1]

Historical origins[edit]

In his 1941 book Fear of Freedom, a psychological exploration of modern politics, Erich Fromm described authoritarianism a defence mechanism.

In The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford proposed a personality type that involved the "potentially fascistic individual."[2] The historical background that influenced the theoretical development of the authoritarian personality included the rise of fascism in the 1930s, the Second World War (1939–1945), and the Holocaust, which indicated that the fascistic individual was psychologically susceptible to the ideology of antisemitism and to the emotional appeal of anti-democratic politics. Known as the Berkeley studies, the researches of Adorno and Frenkel-Brunswik, and of Levinson and Sanford concentrated upon prejudice, which they studied within psychoanalytic and psychosocial frameworks of Freudian and Frommian theories.

Although the term was first coined in 1950, different portrayals of the authoritarian personality type have been made before. One example is Heinrich Mann's novel Der Untertan, which draws its inspiration for its authoritarian protagonist from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.[3] The book shows that the idea for an authoritarian personality type predates fascism.[citation needed]

The authoritarian personality has a strict superego, which controls a weak ego that is unable to cope with the strong impulses of the id. The resulting intrapsychic conflicts cause personal insecurities, which result in the superego adhering to externally imposed conventional norms (conventionalism), and unquestioning obedience to the authorities who impose and administer the social norms of society (authoritarian submission). The ego-defense mechanism of psychological projection arises when the authoritarian person avoids self-reference to the anxiety-producing impulse(s) of the id, by projecting the impulse(s) onto the "inferior" minority social-groups of the culture (projectivity), which are expressed by way of greatly evaluative and harshly judgmental beliefs (power and toughness) and rigid stereotype.[citation needed]

The authoritarian person also presents a cynical and disdainful view of humanity, and a need to wield power and be tough, which arise from the anxieties produced by the perceived lapses of people who do not abide by the conventions and social norms of society (destructiveness and cynicism); a general tendency to focus upon people who violate the value system, and to act oppressively against them (authoritarian aggression); anti-intellectualism, a general opposition to the subjective and imaginative tendencies of the mind (anti-intraception); and an exaggerated concern with sexual promiscuity, especially when concerning women.[4]

In human psychological development, the formation of the authoritarian personality occurs within the first years of a child's life, strongly influenced and shaped by the parents' personalities and the organizational structure of the child's family; thus, parent-child relations that are "hierarchical, authoritarian, [and] exploitative" can result in a child developing an authoritarian personality.[5] Authoritarian-personality characteristics are fostered by parents who have a psychological need for domination, and who harshly threaten their child to compel obedience to conventional behaviors. Moreover, such domineering parents also are preoccupied with social status, a concern they communicate by having the child follow rigid, external rules. In consequence of such domination, the child suffers emotionally from the suppression of his or her feelings of aggression and resentment towards the domineering parents, whom the child reverently idealizes, but does not criticize. Such personalities may also be related to studies in preschool children of personality and political views as reported by scientists in 2006 which concluded that some children described as being "somewhat dominating" were later found, as adults, to be "relatively liberal", and those described as "relatively over-controlled" were later found, as adults, to be "relatively conservative"; in the words of the researchers, "Preschool children who 20 years later were relatively liberal were characterized as: developing close relationships, self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, relatively under-controlled, and resilient. Preschool children subsequently relatively conservative at age 23 were described as: feeling easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable."[6]


Bob Altemeyer used the right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) scale, to identify, measure, and quantify the personality traits of authoritarian people.[7] The political personality type identified with the RWA scale indicates the existence of three psychological tendencies and attitudinal clusters characteristic of the authoritarian personality: (i) Submission to legitimate authorities; (ii) Aggression towards minority groups whom authorities identified as targets for sanctioned political violence; and (iii) Adherence to cultural values and political beliefs endorsed by the authorities.[8] As measured with the NEO-PI-R Openness scale, the research indicates a negative correlation (r = 0.57) between the personality trait of "openness to experience", of the Five Factor Model of the human personality.

The research of Jost, Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Sulloway (2003) indicates that authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism are ideological constructs for social cognition, by which political conservatives view people who are the Other who is not the Self. That the authoritarian personality and the conservative personality share two, core traits: (i) resistance to change (social, political. economic), and (ii) justification for social inequality among the members of society. Conservatives have a psychological need to manage existential uncertainty and threats with situational motives (striving for dominance in social hierarchies) and with dispositional motives (self-esteem and the management of fear).

The research on ideology, politics, and racist prejudice, by John Duckitt and Chris Sibley, identified two types of authoritarian worldview: (i) that the social world is dangerous, which leads to right-wing authoritarianism; and (ii) that the world is a ruthlessly competitive jungle, which leads to social dominance orientation.[9] In a meta-analysis of the research, Sibley and Duckitt explained that the social-dominance orientation scale helps to measure the generalization of prejudice and other authoritarian attitudes that can exist within social groups. Although both the right-wing authoritarianism scale and the social-dominance orientation scale can accurately measure authoritarian personalities, the scales usually are not correlated.[10]


The Authoritarian Personality was subject to close scrutiny and criticism almost immediately after publication.[11] Following its publication was an extensive debate on the merits of the work, with many of the themes of this debate persisting in authoritarianism research today.[12] A critique was that the F-scale, designed to tap a set of beliefs thought to be associated with authoritarianism without the need for specific out-groups indicated, only included items where a higher level of agreement indicated a higher level of authoritarianism.[13] There was the possibility that individuals with a greater tendency to acquiesce might have been falsely identified as authoritarian, despite the original authors making various attempts to control for this type of bias.[2]

Early research[edit]

These researchers' most noteworthy measurement for authoritarianism is the F-scale. Kirscht and Dillehay (1967)[14] outlined several problems with the Berkeley studies, including response bias. Response bias results from the F-scale being uniformly worded in a confirming direction. Hence, if one tends to respond in agreement with items, regardless of their content, one is rated as an authoritarian by such a test. Several studies have shown that more variance of the F-scale can be explained by response bias than the content of the items (Kirscht & Dillehay, 1967).

Actual assessment of 16 Nazi criminals at Nuremberg trials (reported in Zillmer, et al., 1995)[15] conducted by clinicians using the Rorschach test, and in one study, the F scale for authoritarianism, found that these ex-Nazis score high on three dimensions (anti-intraception, superstition and stereotyping, and projectivity), but not all nine dimensions as the theory predicted.

One of the first applications of the authoritarian scales in academia was by Stern et al., in the early 1950s, at the University of Chicago.[16] The hypothesized prediction was that "authoritarian" students would have difficulty in the sciences and humanities, and use of an attitudinal scale was a successful predictor.


Among the criticisms of the sociologic theory presented in The Authoritarian Personality (1950) are the validity of the psychoanalytic interpretation of personality; methodological inadequacies of the California F-scale personality test; and bias that authoritarianism exists only in the right wing of the political spectrum. In addition an analysis examining the authoritarian personality approach written by C.G. Sibley and J. Duckitt reported that more recent research has produced two more effective scales of measurement for authoritative personalities. The first scale is called the Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) and the second is called the Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). They have proved to be highly reliable in predicting prejudice and other characteristics associated with authoritative personalities.[10] In The Anti-authoritarian Personality (1977) W.P. Kreml found stylistic similarities between authoritarians and anti-authoritarians (dogmatism, rigidity, etc.), and that variable constructs, such as (a) the relative need for order, (b) the relative need for power, (c) the rejection or acceptance of impulse, and (d) extroversion-versus-introversion, differentiated the two types of personality, and could underpin a full-spectrum psycho-political theory.[17]

Wiggins provided an insightful explanation of how the authoritarian construct is an example of the synthetic approach to personality assessment. In short, in the synthetic approach, the assumption is that those with authoritarian personality characteristics are assessed with researcher's intuitive model of what characteristics fit the criterion role requirements of the predicted situation (support of Fascism). Hence, it is not a completely empirical approach to prediction, but rather based on "arm chair" situational analysis of the criteria, and intuited psychological characteristics to be assessed that fit the situation. More recently, Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (2003)[18] have presented how the traditional research in authoritarianism or conservatism has confounded the psychological variables (e.g., personality characteristics) with the political criteria (conservative attitudes). Hence the scales measuring individual differences on authoritarianism often include the criteria attitudinal statements of political ideologies.

The personality construct for the authoritarian personality proposed that the social environment influenced the expression of prejudice, based upon the social forces of the time, because the authoritarian person's ideology is created within the culture. Yet, in "The Social Being and Social Psychology" (1998) S. Taylor[19] said that the hypothesized interaction of society and the authoritarian person was lost to the subsequent research that used the F-scale in differential psychological studies. Given the science of personality assessment, the variety of methods Adorno, et al. used are now unsupported, and might explain that lack of empirical studies using the F-scale or the other scales developed by Adorno et al. in subsequent research. An example of the social environment impact is presented by Gibb (1969)[20] in his critique of personality traits and leadership, where a study by Katz suggested that the social situation can override personality differences. In the study, groups of black and white students were formed. Some mixed racial groups had students scoring high authoritarian F scores, and in other mixed groups, low F score students. Comparisons of high authoritarian white students to those not scoring authoritarian indicated that the former student type were more cooperative and less willing to endorse stereotypes towards blacks. Situational norms against prejudicial perceptions might have influenced authoritarian students to act less prejudicial in order to conform to the prescribed norm. Altemeyer's analytical research indicated that of the nine personality components hypothesized, only three components correlated: (i) authoritarian submission, (ii) authoritarian aggression, and (iii) conventionalism.[21]


Western countries[edit]

In 2021, Morning Consult (an American data intelligence company) published the results of a survey measuring the levels of authoritarianism in adults in America and seven other Western countries. The study used Bob Altemeyer's right-wing authoritarianism scale, but they omitted the following two statements from Altemeyer's scale: (1) "The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just "loud mouths" showing off their ignorance"; and (2) "Women should have to promise to obey their husbands when they get married." Morning Consult's scale thus had just 20 items, with a score range of 20 to 180 points. Morning Consult found that 25.6% of American adults qualify as "high RWA" (scoring between 111 and 180 points), while 13.4% of American adults qualify as "low RWA" (scoring 20 to 63 points).[22]

Prevalence among adults in Western countries
2021 Morning Consult survey
Low RWA High RWA
US 13.4% 25.6%
UK 13.6% 10.4%
Germany 17.4% 6.7%
France 10.2% 10.7%
Spain 17.9% 9.2%
Italy 17.9% 12.9%
Australia 17.1% 12.9%
Canada 21.3% 13.4%

United States[edit]

In a 2009 book, Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler identified evangelical Christians as the most authoritarian of voting blocs in the United States. Furthermore, the former Confederate states (i.e. "the South") showed higher levels of authoritarianism than the rest. Rural populations tend to be more authoritarian than urban ones. The authoritarianism levels of these demographics were assessed with four items that appeared in the American National Election Studies:

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: INDEPENDENCE or RESPECT FOR ELDERS
  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: CURIOSITY or GOOD MANNERS
  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: OBEDIENCE or SELF-RELIANCE
  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: BEING CONSIDERATE or WELL BEHAVED
Average authoritarianism by relevant party coalition groups
Group Mean authoritarianism
(2004 data)[23]
Evangelical 0.709
Catholic 0.571
Mainline Protestant 0.530
Secular 0.481
Jewish 0.383
Church Attendance
Weekly or More 0.689
Less than Weekly 0.549
the South[a] 0.657
Other states 0.547
Population density
Rural 0.603
Small town 0.584
Suburb 0.524
Large City 0.502
Inner City 0.549
Less than High School 0.754
High School Degree 0.657
Some College 0.590
College Degree 0.505
Graduate Degree 0.373

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The states that constituted the now-defunct Confederacy.
  1. ^ Baars, J. & Scheepers, P. (1993). "Theoretical and Methodological Foundations of the Authoritarian Personality". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 29, pp. 345–353.
  2. ^ a b Adorno, T. W.; Frenkel-Brunswik, E.; Levinson, D.J.; Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Harper & Brothers. ISBN 978-0-06-030150-7.
  3. ^ "Heinrich Mann - "Der Untertan" bleibt ein zeitloses Phänomen". Deutschlandfunk (in German). Retrieved 2021-12-02.
  4. ^ de Grazia, Alfred (December 1950). "The Authoritarian Personality. By T. W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford. (New York: Harper & Brothers. 1950. Pp. xxxiii, 990. $7.50.)". American Political Science Review. 44 (4): 1005–1006. doi:10.2307/1951300. ISSN 0003-0554.
  5. ^ Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (1950) pp. 482–484.
  6. ^ Block, Jack; Block, Jeanne H. (October 2006). "Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later" (PDF). Journal of Research in Personality. 40 (5): 734–749. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.09.005. Retrieved 22 February 2022.
  7. ^ Altemeyer, Bob (1998). "The Other 'Authoritarian Personality'", Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, pp. 30, 47–91.
  8. ^ McCrae and Costa (1997). Conceptions and Correlates of Openness to Experience. Handbook of Personality Psychology, R. Hogan, J. Johnson, S. Briggs, Eds). pp. 835–847.
  9. ^ Duckitt, John; Sibley, Chris G. (2009). "A Dual-Process Motivational Model of Ideology, Politics, and Prejudice". Psychological Inquiry. 20 (2–3): 98–109. doi:10.1080/10478400903028540. S2CID 143766574.
  10. ^ a b Sibley, Chris G.; Duckitt, John (2008-08-01). "Personality and Prejudice: A Meta-Analysis and Theoretical Review". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 12 (3): 248–279. doi:10.1177/1088868308319226. ISSN 1088-8683. PMID 18641385. S2CID 5156899.
  11. ^ Westie, Frank R.; Christie, Richard; Jahoda, Marie (1954). "Studies in the Scope and Method of "The Authoritarian Personality:" Continuities in Social Research". American Sociological Review. 19 (5): 610. doi:10.2307/2087803. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2087803.
  12. ^ Herzog, Benno (2021-06-04). "Authoritarianism as pathology of recognition: the sociological substance and actuality of the authoritarian personality". Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. 8 (1): 135. doi:10.1057/s41599-021-00819-5. ISSN 2662-9992. S2CID 257086593.
  13. ^ Shils, E. A. (1954) Authoritarianism: "Right and left." In R. Christie & M. Iahoda (Eds.), Studies in the scope and method of the "authoritarian personality." New York: Free Press of Glencoe. 1954. pp. 24-49.
  14. ^ Kirscht, JP, & Dillehay, RC. (1967). Dimensions of Authoritarianism: A Review of Research and Theory. University of Kentucky Press: Lexington, TN.
  15. ^ Zillmer, E. A., Harrower, M., Ritzler, B.A., and Archer, R.P. (1995). The Quest for the Nazi Personality: A Psychological Investigation of Nazi War Criminals. LEA Hillside, NJ
  16. ^ Wiggins, J.S. (1980). Personality and Prediction: Principles of Personality Assessment. Addison-Wesley. Reading, Mass.
  17. ^ Kreml, William P. The Anti-Authoritarian Personality (1977) Oxford; New York: Pergamon Press.ISBN 978-0080210636.
  18. ^ Jost, JT., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, AW., and Sulloway, FJ. (2003). "Political conservatism as motivated social cognition." Psychological Bulletin, 129. pp. 339–375.
  19. ^ Taylor, S. (1998). "The social being in social psychology." In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th, ed. (Eds. Gilbert, D.T., Fiske, S., and Lindzey, G). pp. 58–95.
  20. ^ Gibb, C. A. (1969). "Leadership." The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol IV. pp. 205–282. Lindzey. G., & Aronson, E. (Eds.). Addison-Wesley: Reading, Mass
  21. ^ Altemeyer, B. Right-Wing Authoritarianism (1981) University of Manitoba Press. ISBN 978-0887551246.
  22. ^ Rachel Vengalia; Laura Maxwell (28 June 2021). "How We Conducted Our International Study on Right-Wing Authoritarianism". Morning Consult. Retrieved 3 Jan 2022.
  23. ^ Hetherington; Weiler (2009). Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, p. 59


  • Marc J. Hetherington; Jonathan D. Weiler (2009). Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-511-65165-6.

External links[edit]