Monday, September 24, 2007

The Psychology of Right-Wing Authoritarianism

John Dean is in the process of writing a three part series explaining part of his new book Conservatives Without Conscience. Something he wrote struck me:

The Followers: Right-Wing Authoritarians
In addition to being especially submissive to established authority, Altemeyer's research revealed that those he calls right-wing authoritarians also show "general aggressiveness" towards others, when such behavior is "perceived to be sanctioned" by established authorities. Finally, these people are always highly compliant with the social conventions endorsed by society and established authorities. These basic traits, submissiveness to authority and conventionality, are the essence of those Altemeyer describes as right-wing authoritarians. If these traits are not present in some significant (albeit varying) degree, he does not consider the subject to be a right-wing authoritarian. However, these people can, and often do, consistently reveal they have many other interesting traits as well.

Based on Altemeyer's study, as well as those of other social psychologists, I prepared a list of the additional traits that these personalities, both men and women who test high as right-wing authoritarians, often evidence: highly religious, moderate to little education, trust untrustworthy authorities, prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own), mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical toward their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarian, severely punitive, demands loyalty and returns it, little self-awareness, usually politically and economically conservative/Republican.

The Leaders: Social Dominators
People who test high as social dominators are also economically conservative and have little tolerance for equality. They consistently agree when asked about statements such as the following: "Some people are just more worthy than others"; "This country would be better off if we cared less about how equal all people were"; and "To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on others." In addition, they will respond in the negative to the proposition that "All humans should be treated equally." (In fact, they are given many more questions when tested; I am merely providing a very small sample.)

Again, I have prepared a listing of the traits revealed in the testing of these remarkably manipulative and cunning personalities, who are typically men: dominating, opposes equality, desirous of personal power, amoral, intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheats to win, highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic), mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, tells others what they want to hear, takes advantage of "suckers," specializes in creating false images to sell self, may or may not be religious, usually politically and economically conservative/Republican.

These lists of traits for both right-wing authoritarian followers, and social dominating authoritarian leaders, should be understood as not necessarily describing every person who falls into the type. While many have all the traits, not all will have all, or even most, of them. Most people who test high as authoritarians, whether followers or leaders, have some of these traits, however.

What struck me at first was a sense that many of these qualities seemed to be similar to that of a psychopath or sociopath ("amoral," "pitiless"). John Dean says he calls people who exhibit all of these traits Conservatives Without Conscience. That may be fitting because we often call people who are amoral and have no conscience as sociopaths. However, I admit I may be overreading this.

I've mentioned Altmeyer's work before. But I am still digesting this commentary. However, John Dean's column is worth a read. You can find his prior columns here.


Anonymous said...

For many years, even during the Reagan administration, this amoral republican/conservative behavior syndrome, as I called it years ago, was apparent to me. I was kidded even by family members who were democrats because they thought I went too far in describing these people.

This syndrome also ties in with the dominant, aggressive type of person who often drives an SUV. Regardless of the real environmental and personal economic costs of driving this sort of fantasy vehicle, the behavior persists in defiance of all logic. In fact, suppressed GM marketing studies clearly point to the typical purchaser of these vehicles. The fit with republican "values" is uncanny.

Also, a few years ago I read parts of a paperback (at the local B&N bookstore) written by a woman who is a psychiatrist at Bethesda Hospital on the East coast. She described the personality traits of a population of amoral, economically successful, charismatic, conscience-free people, mostly men. She pegged their numbers at greater than 5% of the male population. In retrospect, unknown to her, she was describing the typical, hard line, right-wing authoritarian republican.

Where have all these aberrant males come from? Have they always been there and we just never saw them before? Have you noticed that women don't have adam's apples, but that a popular, blond, right-wing media gadlfy does?

The more one looks at all of this information, the stranger it all gets, at least IMHO. The continued dominance of these people in the republican party is terrifying to me. Are we headed towards a nazi state similar to preWWII Germany? I think yes. And unless the democrats dominate politics for many years, effectively disenfranchising republican designs on our national future, I believe that the worst may eventually happen.

Marty said...

Altemeyer's work meshes very nicely with Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski's work, Political Ponerology. Lobaczewski acknowledges the phenomenon of RWAs (although he doesn't use that word), but the main thrust of his work is that periods of great "evil" (revolutions, tyrannies, empires) are defined by the presence of psychopaths in positions of power. Check out for more info on his work.

I think Altemeyer's and Lobaczewski's work, and an application of their ideas in education and politics, is probably the only solution to the problems we're seeing as a result of the social dominators in American politics.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anon.

What was the name of that book? I would be very interested in getting.

Thanks for mentioning Altemeyer, Marty. He is a very respected Canadian professor at University of Manitoba. About a year ago, I found his book on the net. He decided to put it up because no publisher would touch it.
His description of the RWA personality is the neocon personified.

It's interesting (scary!) how this kind of hard-hitting information is difficult to find. I heard that there was pretty much the same problem with getting Ponerology published. Thanks too, for the link to the ponerology info.