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What’s the Deal With Authoritarianism?

Quantifying fascism, a mid-century trend, continues in psychology today.

The construct of the authoritarian personality has been a controversial topic in personality psychology since its inception. Like other personality styles, it can be conceptualized as a categorical type (e.g., the authoritarian character) or as a dimensional trait (e.g., the person displayed excessive authoritarianism). In past and present popular political discourse, we often see institutions, groups, or nations personified with labels such as “authoritarian,” “strong-man,” “totalitarian,” “autocratic” or “dictatorship,” often used interchangeably. To better understand authoritarianism, it’s necessary to trace its evolution within academic psychology and social science as well as within a broader historical context.

 Jim Vallee/Shutterstock
Source: Jim Vallee/Shutterstock

Interest in the empirical and theoretical study of the authoritarian personality within psychology can be traced back to, among others, Gordon Allport, a primary founder of the field of personality and social psychology. In the early 1950s, Allport also published a book entitled The Nature of Prejudice in which—along with other lasting contributions—he provided a definition of the authoritarian personality, theoretical context, and summary of the empirical research to date. Allport was also editor of the Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, and his intellectual footprint in the journal can be seen in its focus on validating the authoritarian personality construct. That construct was born post-World War II, a period marked by efforts to understand the horrific, unexpected rise of Nazism and fears of Communism. During this time, there was a focus on using science to increase knowledge and ultimately identify fascist personality traits at the level of the individual—presumably with implications for interventions as well as to contrast such "prejudiced" individuals with "tolerant" personality traits that are well suited to liberal democracy. The authoritarian personality and what was labeled the fascist personality of mid-century academic psychology were overlapping, if not indistinct, concepts.

To validate a construct in the field of personality assessment, it is necessary to start with a historically, theoretically, and clinically valid definition of its content. After establishing a valid content definition, quantification, typically in the form of a self-report questionnaire, is necessary for its measurement. Assessment of the measure’s consistency and stability (psychometric properties) is now considered a requirement. Criticisms of the authoritarian personality from within academic psychology equated the construct with its measure—which at the time was the Fascism Scale. Specifically, the F-Scale was found to have poor internal consistency and lacked evidence for its construct validity—that is, it did not correlate with measures of variables that were theoretically related to authoritarianism.

somsak suwanput/Shutterstock
Source: somsak suwanput/Shutterstock

Regardless of the validity of criticisms, the authoritarian personality faded from popularity within and outside of academia—until recently. A resurgence in authoritarianism references in the media has dovetailed with some recent empirical research on the authoritarian personality. One challenge to reviving authoritarianism in psychology as a topic worthy of empirical and scholarly attention is the existence of numerous related and overlapping constructs from various sub-fields. For example, in developmental psychology, the multi-factorial theory of parenting styles has received substantial empirical attention. One of those styles—authoritarian parenting—matches up directly with the mid-century theoretical conception of the personality style. Authoritarian individuals were viewed as having a strict, controlling, critical, rigid, and punitive—or as portrayed in the film American Beauty, a “structure and discipline”—mentality. The parent victimizes or oppresses the child through the use of threats of punishment and the actual implementation. Creativity, self-discovery, independence, and the realization of what Carl Rogers called the “True Self” (which could contradict parental expectations) were forbidden. The authoritarian individual was thought to adopt these parental characteristics, internalizing them such that they comprise the personality functioning of the individual.

Other facets of the authoritarian dimension from mid-century psychology included the traits of

(a) prejudice (negative attitudes towards the other),

(b) rigidity (closed-mindedness, dogmatic, black-and-white thinking),

(c) lack of sense of humor,

(d) self-abnegation (denial of one’s own impulses and avoidance of self-gratification, i.e., pleasure),

(e) fatalism (e.g., belief in astrology and mysticism)

(f) obedience and admiration of authority (also labeled suggestibility, conformity, passivity, and submissiveness), and

(g) low tolerance for uncertainty/ambiguity.

Theoretically, authoritarian individuals were conceptualized as likely to show a “follow-the-leader” lemming-like tendency. Allport asserted that a specific sort of morality underlies the affective, behavioral, cognitive, and interpersonal functioning of authoritarians. Allport conducted a brief study in which he found that the answer to one question differentiated prejudiced from non-prejudiced individuals. The questions follow:

If you were to run into a swindler or a gangster, who would you be more scared of?

He found that prejudiced/authoritarian individuals reported answering "swindler" at a significantly higher rate as compared to non-prejudiced/tolerant individuals who reported "gangster" at significantly higher rates. These findings—reliability questions notwithstanding—suggest that individuals high in authoritarianism value social appearance, maintaining face, and avoiding scams or being tricked out of money over their own physical safety. Of course, alternate explanations are in no short supply but moral values that emphasize propriety and appearance over feelings and well-being may be a distinguishing dimension of authoritarians.


O’Connor, P. (1952). Ethnocentrism, “Intolerance of ambiguity,” and abstract reasoning ability. J. Abn Clin Psych 47 (2).

Allport, Gordon. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Addison Wesley: London.

Medalia, N.Z. (1955). Authoritarianism, Leader Acceptance, and Group Cohesion. J. Abn Clin Psych 51 (2).