Theories of authoritarian personality

A key problem faced today by liberal democracies throughout the world is the fact that millions of citizens in those democracies seem to support parties and candidates who are fundamentally anti-democratic. The authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Modi of India, President Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Trump of the United States are evident in their speeches and their actions, in varying ways and degrees. And each of these national leaders is supported by millions of citizens in their countries, who apparently endorse and support their inclination towards authoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities and critics. What explains the willingness of ordinary citizens to support these populist strongmen in their open contempt for the norms, values, and institutions of constitutional democracy?

John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have offered a summary of a theory of authoritarian psychology that has long roots in the discipline of personality psychology, extending back to efforts by psychologists to understand popular support for fascism and Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers summarizes these theories and offers a warning: Trumpism will survive the presidency of Donald Trump. They argue that a very large number of supporters of Trump’s variety of populist authoritarianism score high on psychological measures for intolerance (racism, xenophobia) and support for authoritarian leaders, and that these psychological characteristics account for the fervent and unwavering support that the President gains from his base. In a word, many men and women in Trump’s base continue to support him because they appreciate his impulses towards authoritarian language and action, and they approve of his apparent comfort with white supremacy and racism. Dean and Altemeyer propose a psychological theory of Trump’s base and the base that supports other right-wing xenophobic populists in other countries as well: a certain percentage of citizens have been subject to social, cultural, and familial circumstances that enhanced features of intolerance, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in their personality structure, and these individuals constitute ready ground for supporters of xenophobic authoritarian populism. And, very importantly, Dean and Altemeyer were able to make use of a highly reputable survey research organization (the Monmouth University Polling Institute Survey, Autumn 2019) to measure personality characteristics of a sample of voters (link). The surveys found that Trump supporters do indeed show high levels of intolerance and prejudice, and high levels of authoritarian attitudes.

There is an extensive field of research on the topic of personality characteristics of “liberals” and “conservatives”. Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008) review this literature and current developments in the field (link). They affirm that there are persistent differences in the personality characteristics of conservatives and liberals, writing that:

We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant, especially with respect to social (vs. economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized. (808)

And they quote an important conclusion by Jost et al. (2003) (link):

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear…. Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated…. (814)

The analysis offered in Authoritarian Nightmare is based on two distinct psychometric measures developed by different traditions of social psychologists that have been used and refined over several decades. The first is a scale measuring “social dominance orientation” (SDO) and the second is a scale measuring “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). Social dominance orientation is the psychological characteristic of expecting and valuing inequalities of worth and status in society, manifest for example in racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and anti-Muslim bigotry. The psychological characteristic identified in the measure of RWA is a willingness to accept a political system based on domination and one-person or one-party rule, without institutional protections of the rights of minorities.

Bob Altemeyer is a respected and accomplished academic psychologist who is one of the founders of RWA theory. He spent his career (in Canada) studying the emotional and motivational characteristics of authoritarian citizens, and was the author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in 1986. Through his research Altemeyer developed an instrument for measuring an individual’s propensity for authoritarian thoughts and actions. This is the RWA scale, and the method has received widespread adoption and use. Saunders and Ngo provide a brief explanation of Altemeyer’s construction of the scale in “The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale” in Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (link).

The right-wing authoritarianism scale measures 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. (1)

Saunders and Ngo note that this line of research derived from studies of “the authoritarian personality” initiated by Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is their summary of the RWA scale:

Right-wing authoritarianism, as currently measured by the RWA scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 2006), is an individual difference variable that assesses attitudes concerning three covarying facets derived from Adorno et al.’s (1950) nine original dimensions: Authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. In other words, RWA measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities (i.e., authoritarian submission), show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression (i.e., authoritarian aggression), and support traditional values, particularly those endorsed by authorities (i.e., conventionalism). (2)

The “social dominance orientation” (SDO) scale was introduced by James Sidanius and colleagues in the 1990s, and is presented in a research article entitled “Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes” (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, Malle, 1994; link). Here is the abstract to the article:

Social dominance orientation (SDO), one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.

They explain the central idea of social dominance ideology in these terms:

The theory postulates that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (see also Sidanius, Pratto, Martin, & Stallworth, 1991). Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimize discrimination. To work smoothly, these ideologies must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-apparent truths; hence we call them hierarchy-legitimizing myth…. For example, the ideology of anti-Black racism has been instantiated in personal acts of discrimination, but also in institutional discrimination against African-Americans by banks, public transit authorities, schools, churches, marriage laws, and the penal system . (741)

Saunders and Ngo observe that the RWA scale and the SDO scale are often used together to predict the political affinities and behavior of different groups, and that the two measures are correlated with each other.

What appears to be left unexplained in the psychometric literature on the SDO and RWA measures is the developmental question: why do different individuals develop in such a way as to manifest important differences on each of these scales? Why do some individuals become intolerant and authoritarian adults, whereas other adults are tolerant and democratic? Are these two aspects of personality linked, or are they independent from each other? What facts of social context, family relations, education, and other social and political factors are most important for giving rise to the social psychology of social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism? The most plausible theory mentioned by Saunders and Ngo is a social-cognitive theory (motivated social cognition) derived from Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (link): “people adopt RWA attitudes to meet psychological needs such as the reduction of fear (i.e., existential needs), uncertainty and loss (i.e., epistemic needs), as well as meeting related needs for structure and cognitive closure.” Jost et al summarize their approach in these terms in the abstract to this article: “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” On this approach, conditions of insecurity, fear, and threat are thought to encourage the personality psychology of intolerance and authoritarianism. 

The developmental question is important, but the empirical fact is alarming enough: tens of millions of American citizens rank highly on both scales, and these individuals tend to support right-wing populists with xenophobic and racist inclinations. And the two scales are correlated. “In large adult and student samples, for example, right-wing authoritarianism positively predicts anti-Black prejudice and did so more strongly than several other correlates of prejudice” (Saunders and Ngo 2017:4).

In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos make use of this body of theory and research in their analysis of the influence of racism within grassroots conservative movements in the United States, including the Tea Party movement. In particular, they make use of survey research to assess the level of Social Dominance Orientation in different voting groups.

Abamowitz’s analyses of the 2010 ANES data yield results that are very consistent with the Parker/Barreto findings. In particular, Abamowitz finds three variables to be especially strong predictors of attitudinal support for the Tea Party. Two of the three—“dislike of Obama” and “racial resentment”—essentially mirror the first two variables in the Parker/Barreto study. Abramowitz’s conclusion echoes that of Parker and Barreto: “these results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House.” Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (p. 353)

It seems, then, that researchers in personality psychology have developed theories and measurement tools that contribute to answering part of the anti-democratic populism puzzle. The prevalence in a significant percentage of citizens of the personality attributes of social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism may explain the dramatic and surprising upsurge of support that anti-democratic populist politicians are able to draw upon. The difficult questions of “why now?”, “why in this generation?” are as yet unanswered, though the cognitive theory of personality formation above may give the clue. The precariousness of certain parts of the populations in Western Europe and North America — terrorism, fear of shifting demographic balance, fear of the consequences of globalization — may be all it takes to trigger this toxic and intolerant form of personality in an extensive proportion of the population of these countries. This suggests that the theories of authoritarian personality at the individual level and political entrepreneurship at the political level — in an environment of rapid change and perceived threats to various groups — may go a long way to explaining the scope and depth of right-wing populism in liberal democracies today.

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