The Authoritarian Personality

After World War II ended and the Nazi atrocities were exposed for all the world to see, people could not help but wonder, “Why would anyone follow Hitler and help him carry out murderous policies that extended far beyond conventional warfare?” In 1950, social scientists Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, provided an answer to this question when they published The Authoritarian Personality, based on their research at the University of California, Berkeley both during and after the war.

The authors hypothesized a specific personality type – Authoritarian – and proposed criteria by which to measure components of the type. Their measuring instrument was called the California F-Scale, the F standing for Fascist. The scale identifies a personality type that makes one susceptible to fascist, anti-democratic messages. The components of this type include: Belief in conventional values, and admiration of authority figures who preach those values; a worldview that sees danger from those who express individuality, independence, and imaginative thinking; acceptance of a simplistic view of reality as black or white, right or wrong, us or them; a belief that those who are wrong – them, the outsiders – must be suppressed and dominated by a forceful leader.

Someone with this authoritarian personality would obviously be attracted to a strong, charismatic leader like Hitler, and believe that he knows how to solve problems. He is confident and self-assured, he divides the world into good guys (Aryan non-Jews) and bad guys (Jews and various political and social groups), and presents issues in unambiguous fashion. Following him makes sense.

In 2016, before election day, Matthew MacWilliams, a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, did an informal survey of 1,800 South Carolina voters. In addition to the usual demographic questions (gender, race, age, etc.), and for which candidate they intended to vote, he also asked them how they thought children should be raised. Specifically, he asked them to pick only one from each of the following pairs of words to describe the traits they valued most in children and would want their children to show:

(1) respectful/independent; (2) obedient/self-reliant; (3) well-behaved/considerate; and (4) well-mannered/curious.

The first word of each pair reflects the preference of an authoritarian parent; the second word reflects the preference of an egalitarian parent. Interestingly, the voters’ candidate preference was strongly correlated with whether they chose the first or the second word of each pair: Trump voters tended to choose the first word; Clinton voters tended to choose the second word.

Politics aside, the authoritarian personality provides us with a valuable reminder about coping with stress: Sometimes your personality dynamics can make you overly susceptible to particular individuals and their messages that may not be in your best interest. Recognizing that fact and being alert to your personality tendencies can help you maintain critical thinking about messaging that sounds a little too good to be true. When confronted with any messaging, exercising careful and critical thinking is a good coping rule to follow.

The authoritarian research also illustrates how you might inadvertently validate questionable messaging by literally indoctrinating your children into obediently accepting your beliefs as best. For instance, if children are rigidly taught that it is best to obey the dictates of the person in charge – such as, Dad – they may grow up being vulnerable to messages from individuals they consider to be authority figures – like their Dad! In essence, they become vulnerable to cult messages issued from dictatorial and autocratic cult leaders.

Your parental childrearing values may be genuine and honorable, but surely – unless you are an authoritarian personality – you want to raise your children to think for themselves, and be able to decide on their own to identify with your values – not from a sense of obligation but from free and autonomous choosing. It’s great to teach kids your values, but you must be vigilant to do so in a democratic-authoritative – not authoritarian – manner.

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