Right-wing authoritarianism

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In psychology, the right-wing authoritarian is a personality type that describes somebody who is naturally submissive to his authority figures, acts aggressively in the name of said authorities, and is conformist in thought and behavior.[1] The prevalence of this personality type in a population varies from culture to culture, as a person's upbringing and education play a strong role in determining whether somebody develops this sort of personality. In the population of the United States, the prevalence is somewhere between 20% and 25% of the population.[2]


Bob Altemeyer defines a right-wing authoritarian as somebody who:

  • is naturally submissive to authority figures whom he considers legitimate
  • acts aggressively in the name of said authority figures
  • is very conventional (ie conformist) in thought and behavior


The concept of right-wing authoritarianism was introduced in 1981 by Canadian-American psychologist Bob Altemeyer[3] as a refinement of the authoritarian personality theory originally pioneered by University of California, Berkeley, researchers Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford.[4]

After extensive questionnaire research and statistical analysis, Altemeyer found that only three of the original nine hypothesized components of the model correlated together: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression and conventionalism. Researchers have traditionally assumed that there was just one kind of authoritarian personality, who could be either a follower or a leader. The discovery that followers and leaders are usually different types of authoritarians is based on research done by Sam McFarland.[5] Altemeyer describes another scale called "Social Dominance" which measures how domineering a person is. Altemeyer calls people who score highly on both his "Right-Wing Authoritarian" and "Social Dominance" scales as "Double Highs".[5]


Right-wing authoritarianism is measured by the RWA scale which uses a Likert scale response. The first scored item on the scale states: "Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us". People who strongly agree with this are showing a tendency toward authoritarian submission ("Our country desperately needs a mighty leader"), authoritarian aggression ("who will do what has to be done to destroy") and conventionalism ("the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us").[6]

Psychometrically, the RWA scale was a significant improvement over the F-scale which was the original measure of the authoritarian personality. The F-scale was worded so that agreement always indicated an authoritarian response, thus leaving it susceptible to the acquiescence response bias. The RWA scale is balanced to have an equal number of pro and anti authoritarian statements. The RWA scale also has excellent internal reliability, with coefficient alpha typically measuring between 0.85 and 0.94.[7] The RWA scale has been modified over the years as many of the items lost their social significance as society changed. The current version is 22 items long.[8]

Although Altemeyer has continually updated the scale, researchers in different domains have tended to lock-in on particular versions. In the social psychology of religion, the 1992 version of the scale is still commonly used.[9] In addition, the length of the earlier versions (30 items) led many researchers to develop shorter versions of the scale. Some of those are published,[10][11] but many researchers simply select a subset of items to use in their research, a practice that Altemeyer strongly criticizes.[12]

The uni-dimensionality of the scale has also been challenged recently. Florian Funke showed that it is possible to extract the three underlying dimensions of RWA if the double- and triple-barreled nature of the items is removed. Given the possibility of underlying dimensions emerging from the scale, it is then the case that the scale is no longer balanced since all the items primarily capturing authoritarian aggression are pro-trait worded (higher scores mean more authoritarianism) and all the items primarily measuring conventionalism are con-trait worded (higher scores mean less authoritarianism).[13] Work by Winnifred R. Louis, Kenneth I. Mavor and Chris G. Sibley recently demonstrated that the existence of two or three factors in the RWA scale reflects real differences in these dimensions rather than acquiescence response bias.[14]


Right-wing authoritarians want society and social interactions structured in ways that increase uniformity and minimize diversity. In order to achieve that, they tend to be in favour of social control, coercion and the use of group authority to place constraints on the behaviours of people such as political dissidents and immigrants. These constraints might include restrictions on immigration, limits on free speech and association and laws regulating moral behaviour. It is the willingness to support or take action that leads to increased social uniformity that makes right-wing authoritarianism more than just a personal distaste for difference. Right-wing authoritarianism is characterized by obedience to authority, moral absolutism and punitiveness towards dissidents and deviants. In parenting, right-wing authoritarians value children's obedience, neatness and good manners.[15]

In 2013, Boris Bizumic and John Duckitt wrote that RWA measures the support "for the subordination of individual freedom and autonomy to the collective and its authority". Their studies show that it can be split into three distinct factors:[16]

The names of these three components of RWA resemble their standard use but actually correspond to the three statistical factors. Right-wing authoritarianism was previously split differently into three attitudinal and behavioral clusters which correlate together:[17][18]

  1. Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
  2. Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
  3. Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms.[19]

The terminology of authoritarianism, authoritarian personality and right-wing authoritarianism tend to be used interchangeably by psychologists, although inclusion of the term personality may indicate a psychodynamic interpretation consistent with the original formulation of the theory.[citation needed]

Left and right[edit]

The phrase right-wing in right-wing authoritarianism does not necessarily refer to someone's specific political beliefs, but to his general preference vis-à-vis social equality and hierarchy. The classic definition of left-wing describes somebody who believes in social equality and right-wing describes somebody who believes in social hierarchy. Altemeyer's personal distinction is that a right-wing authoritarian submits to the established authorities in society whereas left-wing authoritarians submit to authorities who want to overthrow the establishment.[20] In his books, Altemeyer writes that right-wing authoritarians are drawn to domineering leaders, who by nature do not believe in equality and thus have something in common. Milton Rokeach's dogmatism scale was an early attempt to measure pure authoritarianism, whether left-wing or right-wing. The scale was carefully designed to measure closed-mindedness without regard to ideology. Nevertheless, researchers found that it correlated with British conservatism.[21] In a similar line of research, Philip Tetlock found that right-wing beliefs are associated with less integrative complexity than left-wing beliefs. People with moderate liberal attitudes had the highest integrative complexity in their cognitions.[22]

Research has shown that, since the 1960s, voters who prefer authoritarian leadership styles are more likely to support Republican candidates. Trump supporters were more likely than non-Trump-supporting Republicans to score highly on authoritarian aggression and group-based dominance. Furthermore, many left-leaning authoritarians have become less engaged with politics and voting.[23]

There have been a number of other attempts to identify "left-wing authoritarians" in the United States and Canada. These would be people who submit to leftist authorities, are highly conventional to liberal viewpoints and are aggressive to people who oppose left-wing ideology. Left-wing authoritarians were found in Eastern Europe.[24] During the Cold War, authoritarians in the United States were usually anti-communist whereas in the Soviet Union authoritarians generally supported the Soviet Communist Party and were opposed to capitalism.[25] Authoritarians thus generally favor the established ways and oppose social and political change, hence even politics usually labeled as left-wing or right-wing is not descriptive. While communism in the Soviet Union is seen as leftist, it still inspired the same responses. Furthermore, recent research indicates that political progressives can exhibit the qualities of authoritarianism when they are asked about conservative Christians.[26] A 2017 study found evidence that was suggestive of the existence of left-wing authoritarians[27] and a 2015 study suggested that support for political correctness (defined as censoring views that offend or disadvantage a particular group in society) could be a manifestation of left-wing authoritarianism[28] (this was also supported by a 2020 study[29]). A 2012 study criticised research into authoritarianism, arguing that there had been biased and inadequate research into left-wing authoritarianism.[30] Three 2020 papers argued there was increasing evidence for the existence of left-wing authoritarianism.[31][32][33]

According to Karen Stenner, an Australian professor who specializes in authoritarianism, authoritarianism is different from conservatism because authoritarianism reflects aversion to difference across space (i.e. diversity of people and beliefs at a given moment) while conservatism reflects aversion to difference over time (i.e. change). Stenner argues that conservatives will embrace racial diversity, civil liberties and moral freedom to the extent they are already institutionalized authoritatively-supported traditions and are therefore supportive of social stability. Conservatives tend to be drawn to authoritarianism when public opinion is fractious and there is a loss of confidence in public institutions, but in general they value stability and certainty over increased uniformity. However, Stenner says that authoritarians also want difference restricted even when so doing would require significant social change and instability.[15]


According to research by Altemeyer, right-wing authoritarians tend to exhibit cognitive errors and symptoms of faulty reasoning. Specifically, they are more likely to make incorrect inferences from evidence and to hold contradictory ideas that result from compartmentalized thinking. They are also more likely to uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs and they are less likely to acknowledge their own limitations.[18] Whether right-wing authoritarians are less intelligent than average is disputed, with Stenner arguing that variables such as high verbal ability (indicative of high cognitive capacity) have a very substantial ameliorative effect in diminishing authoritarian tendencies.[15] However, one study suggested the apparent negative relationship between cognition and RWA could be partially explained by methodological issues.[34] Measured against other factors of personality, authoritarians generally score lower on openness to experience and slightly higher on conscientiousness.[35][36][37]

Altemeyer suggested that authoritarian politicians are more likely to be in the Conservative or Reform party in Canada, or the Republican Party in the United States. They generally have a conservative economic philosophy, are highly nationalistic, oppose abortion, support capital punishment, oppose gun control legislation and do not value social equality.[18] The RWA scale reliably correlates with political party affiliation, reactions to Watergate, pro-capitalist attitudes, religious orthodoxy and acceptance of covert governmental activities such as illegal wiretaps.[18]

Authoritarians are generally more favorable to punishment and control than personal freedom and diversity. They are more willing to suspend constitutional guarantees of liberty such as the Bill of Rights. They are more likely to advocate strict, punitive sentences for criminals[38] and report that punishing such people is satisfying for them. They tend to be ethnocentric and prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities[39] and homosexuals.[40][41] However, Stenner argues that authoritarians will support programs intended to increase opportunities for minority groups, such as affirmative action, if they believe such programs will lead to greater societal uniformity.[15]

In roleplaying situations, authoritarians tend to seek dominance over others by being competitive and destructive instead of cooperative. In a study by Altemeyer, 68 authoritarians played a three-hour simulation of the Earth's future entitled the Global Change Game. Unlike a comparison game played by individuals with low RWA scores which resulted in world peace and widespread international cooperation, the simulation by authoritarians became highly militarized and eventually entered the stage of nuclear war. By the end of the high RWA game, the entire population of the earth was declared dead.[18]

The vast majority of research on right-wing authoritarianism has been done in the United States and Canada. However, a 2003 cross-cultural study examined the relation between authoritarianism and individualism–collectivism in samples (1,080) from Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Poland and the United States. Both at the individual level and the societal level, authoritarianism was correlated with vertical individualism or dominance seeking and vertical or hierarchical collectivism which is the tendency to submit to the demands of one's ingroup.[42] A study done on both Israeli and Palestinian students in Israel found that RWA scores of right-wing party supporters were significantly higher than those of left-wing party supporters and scores of secular subjects were lowest.[43]

Right-wing authoritarianism has been found to correlate only slightly with social dominance orientation (SDO). The two measures can be thought of as two sides of the same coin as RWA provides submissive followers and SDO provides power-seeking leaders.[5]

Some recent research has argued that the association with RWA and prejudice has dominated research into RWA, with recent developments discovering a more complicated relationship.[44]

Relationship to personality traits[edit]

Research comparing RWA with the Big Five personality traits has found that RWA is positively correlated with conscientiousness (r = 0.15) and negatively correlated with openness to experience (r = −0.36). SDO has a somewhat different pattern of correlations with the Big Five, as it is also associated with low openness to experience (r = −0.16), but is not significantly correlated with conscientiousness (r = −0.05) and instead has a negative correlation with agreeableness (r = −0.29). Low openness to experience and high conscientiousness have been found to be predictive of social conformity. People low in openness to experience tend to prefer clear, unambiguous moral rules and are more likely to support the existing social order insofar as it provides clear guidance about social norms for behavior and how the world should be. People low in openness to experience are also more sensitive to threats (both real and symbolic) to the social order and hence tend to view outgroups who deviate from traditional social norms and values as a threat to ingroup norms and values. Conscientiousness is associated with a preference for order, structure and security, hence this might explain the connection with RWA.[35]

Criticism and development[edit]

A recent refinement to this body of research was presented in Karen Stenner's 2005 book, The Authoritarian Dynamic. Stenner argues that RWA is best understood as expressing a dynamic response to external threat, not a static disposition based only on the traits of submission, aggression and conventionalism. Stenner is critical of Altemeyer's social learning interpretation and argues that it cannot account for how levels of authoritarianism fluctuate with social conditions. She argues that the RWA Scale can be viewed as a measure of expressed authoritarianism, but that other measures are needed to assess authoritarian predispositions which interact with threatening circumstances to produce the authoritarian response.[45]

Recent criticism has also come as a result of treating RWA as uni-dimensional even in contexts where it makes no sense to do so. This include RWA being used in regression analyses with fundamentalism as another predictor and attitudes to homosexuality and racism as the outcomes.[46] This research seemed to show that fundamentalism would be associated with reduced racism once the authoritarian component was removed and this was summarized in a recent review of the field.[47] However, since the RWA scale has items that also measure fundamentalist religiosity and attitudes to homosexuality, this undermines the interpretation of such analyses.[48][49] Even worse is the possibility that the unrecognised dimensionality in RWA can cause a statistical artifact to arise in such regressions which can reduce or even reverse some of the relationships. Mavor and colleagues have argued that this artifact eliminates or even reverses any apparent tendency for fundamentalism to reduce racism once RWA is controlled. The implication is that in some domains such as the social psychology of religion it is not only preferable to think of RWA as consisting of at least two components, but it is essential in order to avoid statistical errors and incorrect conclusions.[49] Several options currently exist for scales that acknowledge at least the two main underlying components in the scale (aggression/submission and conventionalism).[11][13][14][49][50][51][52]

Altemeyer's research on authoritarianism has been challenged by psychologist John J. Ray, who questions the sampling methods used and the ability of the RWA Scale to predict authoritarian behavior and provides evidence that the RWA Scale measures conservatism rather than "directiveness", a construct that John J. Ray invented and that he relates to authoritarianism.[53][54] However, Ray's approach is a minority position among researchers[55] and other psychologists have found that both the RWA scale and the original F-scale are good predictors of both attitudes and behavior.[56]

In 2012, the American Journal of Political Science[57] published an article discussing the correlation between conservatism and psychoticism which they associated with authoritarianism, among other traits. In 2015, they released an erratum showing mixed correlations.[58]

In 2017, the new Regality Theory suggested a reinterpretation of RWA in the light of evolutionary psychology. Regality theory agrees that authoritarianism is a dynamic response to external threats, but rather than seeing it as a psychological aberration, regality theory posits that authoritarianism is an evolved response to perceived collective danger. The tendency to support a strong leader when faced with common existential threats has contributed to Darwinian fitness in human prehistory because it helped solve the collective action problem in war and suppress free riders. It is argued that regality theory adds a deeper level of analysis to our understanding of authoritarianism and avoids the political bias that the research in the authoritarian personality and RWA is often criticized for.[59]

In 2019, Ronald Inglehart combined RWA with his theory of postmaterialism, arguing that both reflected the tendency of insecure environments to produce individuals whose worldview values conformism over self-expression.[60]

Although some earlier scholars had claimed that a comparable construct of left-wing authoritarinism (LWA) on the political left does not exist and compared the search for LWA to trying to find the Loch Ness monster, more recent work suggests the possibility that LWA does exist and that it predicts similar outcomes as RWA.[61] This has spurred debate about whether liberals might be similarly authoritarian as conservatives.[62]

Honeycutt et al argue that RWA scores may be misrepresented by distribution as high-scorers on the scale may actually have moderate scores and are only "high" relative to lower scorers, rather than scoring high on the scale in any absolute sense. Thus differences between "high" and "low" scorers may be exaggerated.[63]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]