What is it like working for an authoritarian?  What does it mean to be an authoritarian?

What kind of people accepted Nazi ideology and took part in the holocaust?

After the Second World War a group of American based social scientists, led by Theodor Adorno, posed this question.  It resulted in a book called the Authoritarian Personality published in 1950

Their theory focused on the individual as a cause of social evils.  Parents, they argued, bring about authoritarianism by frequently and seriously punishing and shaming their children for even minor offences.   This makes them hostile to adults and all authority figures in power.  The child does not consciously acknowledge this aggression because it simply lead to more punishment.  Also they are dependent on their parents whom they are supposed to love, which can cause great tension.

Thus, so the theory goes, those exposed to authoritarian, rather than authoritative, parenting have their repressed antagonism displaced and projected onto weaker members of society.

Authoritarians are nearly always ethnocentric in that they have a certain, simple and unshakable belief in the superiority of their own racial, cultural and ethnic group with a powerful disclaim for all those in other groups.  This can easily lead to brutality, aggression and naked open prejudice.

Whilst the idea took hold it has been criticized both because many other factors lead to the development of authoritarian thinking and behaviour but also because prejudiced behaviour is shaped by others for powerful situational factors. Social psychologist reject the fundamental attribution error concept of authoritarianism explaining every day prejudice. They believe group and situational factors are much more important in the development and maintenance of discrimination and prejudice

Yet authoritarians have been shown to avoid situations that involve any sort of ambiguity or uncertainty, are reluctant to believe that ‘good people’ possess both good and bad attributes.  However they often appear less interested in political affairs, participate less in political and community activities, and tend to prefer strong leaders.

There are a number of well-established measures of authoritarianism; the best known (and hence the most widely used) is the California F Scale which attempts to measure prejudice, rigid thinking.  There are nine factors and statements reflecting each factor:

1. Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional middle-class values. (‘Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.’)
2. Authoritarian submission: uncritical acceptance of authority. (‘Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but as they grow up they ought to get over them and settle down.’)
3. Authoritarian aggression: a tendency to condemn anyone who violates conventional norms.  (‘A person who has bad manners, habits and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.’)
4. Anti-intraception: rejection of weakness or sentimentality.  (‘The businessman and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and professor.’)
5. Superstition and stereotypy: belief in mystical determinants of action and rigid, categorical thinking. (‘Some day it will probably be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.’)
6. Power and toughness: preoccupation with dominance over others.  (‘No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough willpower.’)
7. Destructiveness and cynicism: a generalized feeling of hostility and anger. (‘Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict.’)
8. Projectivity: a tendency to project inner emotions and impulses outward. (‘Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places.’)
9. Sex: exaggerated concern for proper sexual conduct. (‘Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.’)

There are various different related concepts to that of authoritarianism.  These include conservatism, dogmatism, and ethnocentrism.  Some focus on thinking style, others on prejudice.  Most argue that this “attitudinal syndrome” rather than a personality trait, occurs for both genetic/heredity and environmental factors.  At the core of the theories is the idea of a generalized susceptibility to experience anxiety and threat when confronted by ambiguity or uncertainty.

Thus for various reasons – a person’s ability and personality, their early life and current circumstances – some people feel inferior and insecure and fearful of lack of clarity.  Therefore to avoid uncertainty authoritarians dislike anything or anybody that advocates complexity, innovation, novelty, risk or change.  They tend to dislike conflict and decision making and subjugate their personal feelings and needs to external authorise.  They obey the rules norms, conventions and more importantly insist others do too.

So conservatives and authoritarians get obsessed by ordering and controlling their internal world and external world.  They like simplistic, rigid and inflexible duties, laws, morals, obligation and rules.  This affects everything from their choice of art to how they vote.

Closed-minded, dogmatic authoritarian people are characterized by three things:

1. A strong desire to reject all ideas opposed to their own;

2. A low degree of connectedness among various beliefs;

3. Many more complex and positive ideas about things/issues they do believe in as opposed to those they don’t believe in.

It is not a matter of intelligence but open minded people do solve questions more quickly and they seem able to synthesize information more quickly into new ideas.  That is why they seem happier with novel, difficult and strange problems.  Closed-minded people tend to get aggressive or withdraw when faced by novel ideas.  There are many questionnaires that try to assess dogmatism.These are statements from them:

In this complicated world of ours the only way we can know what’s going on is to rely on leaders or experts who can be trusted.
My blood boils whenever a person stubbornly refused to admit he’s wrong.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are for the truth and those who are against the truth.
Most people just don’t know what’s good for them.
Of all the different philosophies which exist in this world there is probably only one which is correct.
Most of the ideas which get printed nowadays aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

The latest work in this area is exclusively on Right-Wing Authoritariasm (RWA) because it is recognised that left wing people like Stalinists and Trotskyists can equally be authoritarian.

The idea is that RWA is made of up three attitudinal and behavioural clusters.  The first is total submission to established authorities; the second generalized aggression to all “enemies” of those authorities and the third blind adherence to established social norms and conventions. So those with strong RWA beliefs and absolutists, bullies, dogmatists, hypocrites and zealots.  They are enthusiastic advocates of punishment of all kinds and dubious about liberals and libertarianism.  They are uncritical of all they stand for being at times inconsistent and holding contradictory ideas.  These are noticeable open to criticism of holding double standards but simultaneously self-righteous and not at all humble or self-critical.

Authoritarians are found in all walks of life, though they do get attracted to jobs and religions that concur with their particular value. They can be very intolerant and particularly malicious to those who they see as outsiders


About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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