Authoritarian Personality

The authoritarian personality is a psychological syndrome of traits that correlates highly without group prejudice. Three  personality traits in particular characterize the syndrome: deference to  authorities, aggression toward out groups, and rigid adherence to cultural conventions.  Thus,  authoritarians  hold  a rigidly hierarchical view of the world.

Nazi Germany inspired the first conceptualizations. The  Frankfurt School, combining Marxism, psychoanalysis, and sociology, introduced the syndrome to explain Hitler’s popularity among working class Germans. An early formulation appeared in Erich Fromm’s (1941) Escape from Freedom. American social psychologists soon demonstrated the syndrome in the United States. In 1950, the major publication, The Authoritarian Personality, appeared. The product of two German refugees (Theodor Adorno and Else Frankel Brunswik) and two American social psychologists (Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford) at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, this publication firmly established the concept in social science. The volume offered both clinical and questionnaire evidence. But it was the easily administered F (for fascism) Scale that led to an explosion of more than 2,000 published research papers.

Critics immediately disparaged the work on political,  methodological,  and  theoretical grounds.  Right wing  detractors  questioned the finding that political conservatives aver aged higher scores on the F  Scale. They argued that there was widespread authoritarianism on the left as well. To be sure, the Berkeley investigators were politically liberal, and the syndrome exists on the left. But research repeatedly shows that the syndrome is preponderantly found among those on the political right. Indeed, a modern measure is simply called the Right Wing Authoritarian ism Scale.

Methodological critics unearthed a host of problems. For example, the clinical evaluators were not blind to the F Scale scores of their interviewees. Consequently, their assessments were not independently derived. No probability samples of respondents were tested – only samples of convenience (usually college students). The F Scale itself has problems. All the items are worded positively, so that agreement indicates authoritarian tendencies. This allows response sets to invalidate some scores, because some respondents agree or disagree regardless of the item content.

The Authoritarian Personality also provoked theoretical criticism. Its Freudian foundation is difficult to test directly. Many objected to its nominalist approach – the use of extreme categories based on the highest fourth of F Scale scores labeled ‘‘authoritarians’’ and the lowest fourth  labeled ‘‘equalitarians.’’ The Berkeley co authors virtually ignored the middle half of their subject distribution. The most important theoretical objection concerned the 1950 study’s neglect of the social context. Authoritarianism rises in  times of societal threat, and recedes in times of calm. Crises invoke authoritarian leadership and encourage equalitarians to accept such leadership. Moreover, the  syndrome’s link  to  behavior is strongly related to the situational context in which authoritarians find themselves.

Many of these criticisms have merit. Nonetheless, research throughout the world with various F  Scales shows that  authoritarians reveal similar susceptibilities. In  particular, high scorers are more likely than others to favor extreme right wing politics and exhibit prejudice against outgroups. Three key questions arise: Just  what is authoritarianism? What are its origins? And why does it universally predict prejudice against a variety of outgroups?

This  remarkable  global  consistency  of results, despite the problems involved, sug gests that the authoritarian personality is a general personality syndrome with early ori gins in childhood that center on universal issues of authority. A plethora of theories attempt to define the personality type and its origins. The original Berkeley study viewed it as a personality type with particular character istics. Relying on psychoanalytic theory, it stressed the effects of a stern father in early life. Later formulations emphasize the syndrome’s focus on strength and weakness, its intense orientation to the ingroup, and the importance of modeling of authoritarian behavior by parents. The most recent work on the syndrome’s origins connects authoritarianism with attachment theory. Rejection by an early caregiver, often the mother, leads to an avoidance attachment style that closely resembles the authoritarian personality. Recent survey data with a probability sample of German adults reveal a strong relationship between the syndrome and a strong desire to avoid interpersonal closeness.

These German surveys also suggest why authoritarianism is universally related to out group  prejudice.  Developed early in  life, authoritarianism later leads to conditions and behaviors that  in turn  generate intergroup prejudice. For example, authoritarians more often feel politically powerless (‘‘political inefficacy’’) and that modern life is too complex and bewildering (‘‘anomia’’) – both predictors of  prejudice.  Situational  factors  are  also involved. Authoritarians tend to associate with others who are prejudiced. And they tend to avoid contact with outgroup members – a major means for reducing prejudice.

Thus, the authoritarian personality concept is an important  tool for social science to understand a range of important social phenomena. For all its problems, it has stood the test of time and an abundance of research. But it operates at the individual level of analysis. Writers often erroneously employ it to explain societal phenomena – a compositional fallacy that assumes societal processes are mere composites of individual behavior. However, when authoritarianism is combined with situational and societal perspectives, it gains explanatory power in accounting for such phenomena as extreme right wing politics and intergroup prejudice.


  1. Adorno, T. W., Frankel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. , & Sanford, R. N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. Harper & Row, New York.
  2. Altemeyer, (1988) Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right Wing Authoritarianism. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
  3. Christie, & Jahoda, M. (Eds.) (1954) Studies in the Scope and Method of ‘‘The Authoritarian Personality.’’ Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
  4. Fromm, E. (1941) Escape from Rinehart, New York.
  5. Pettigrew, F. (1999) Placing Authoritarianism in Social Context. Politics, Group, and the Individual 8: 5 20.
  6. Sales, (1973) Threat as a Factor in Authoritarianism: An Analysis of Archival Data. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28: 44 57.
  7. Sanford, N. (1973) Authoritarian Personality in Contemporary Perspective. In: Knutson, J. N. (Ed.), Handbook of Political Psychology. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, pp. 139 70.
  8. Strong, F., Lederer, G., & Christie, R. (Eds.) (1992) Strength and Weakness: The Authoritarian Personality Today. Springer-Verlag, New York.

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