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Personality & Individual Differences, Vo. 11, No. 8, 765-769, 1990.



University of New South Wales, P.O. Box 1, Kensington, N.S.W. 2033, Australia

(Received 17 August 1989)

Summary -- Helm and Morelli (1985, Political Studies, 33, 6I0-627) have voiced suspicions concerning the assumption that response to authority is highly generalizable from one context to another. Other justifications for such suspicions are presented and it is concluded that new data are needed. To provide it, a random sample of 100 people in the Australian city of Sydney received a questionnaire containing the Rigby and Rump (1979, Human Relations, 32, 469-487) GAIAS (to measure attitude to authority), The Ray Deference and Attitude to Morality scales and an ad hoc scale to measure attitude to education. The attitude to Morality scale showed a substantial correlation (0.405) with the GAIAS but the other scales did not. From theories such as that of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson and Sanford (1950, The authoritarian personality, New York: Harper) one should have been able to expect that authority attitudes would be highly general but the present work suggests that they are instead quite multidimensional. 'Attitude to authority', let alone 'authoritarianism' may therefore not exist as such.


In their immediate post-war attempt to explain the genesis of German Nazism, Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford (1950) saw the Nazi state as following a military model. Their view of a military organization was one wherein any individual within it had to be ready to give either unquestioning obedience or dominant leadership at any given time. They rightly saw this as a psychologically difficult task and sought to explain how a person with such a personality could emerge. For some reason they overlooked the possibility that a military organization might be like any other human organization -- i.e. one where people specialize. They appear, in other words, not to have given adequate consideration to the possibility that most people in most military organizations spend most of their time either leading or following -- thus minimizing any potential psychological conflicts. They implied that a military organization or a militaristic society needs a particular type of person rather than a particular type of training, environment or organization.

This view has proved to be generally attractive and the theory has been very influential. It almost now passes for conventional wisdom among many psychologists. Laudatory references to it are still readily found (e.g. Meloen, Hagendoorn, Raaijmakers & Visser, 1988). It is held that a person's attitude to authority is highly generalizable, deeply significant and widely explanatory. Thus it could be seen as all part of one process to observe that soldiers kill and respect authority on the one hand while on the other the Nazis wiped out Jews and worshipped Hitler. The Nazi outlook was simply a militaristic one and vice versa. Both soldiers and Nazis have an authoritarian personality.

Central to this notion of an 'authoritarian' personality, however, is the claim that attitude to authority is highly generalizable. Adorno et al. (1950) in fact claimed that it was experience with a domineering father in childhood that made one more or less authoritarian and thus dictated one's later attitudes to political authority. Attitude to the father generalized to attitude to the political leadership. To be a little crass about it, it was said that if your father was a bit of a Hitler, your admired political leaders of adulthood would also tend to be Hitler types.

The evidence in support of the view that attitude to authority is highly generalizable has been summarized by Rigby and Rump (1979) and, with some qualifications, found to support the Adorno et al. contentions. Rigby and Rump (1979) themselves added to this evidence by constructing four scales of attitude to the Army, the Police, the Law and Teachers and finding that the four scales correlated highly.

As Helm and Morelli (1985) point out in their critique of Milgram's (1974) work, however, it is a big leap to generalize from what students do or say in the classroom to explain what happens in national politics. It would be a great achievement for social science if such simple generalizations could be made but the complexities of politics may not augur well for such simplifications. Some support for the view that attitudes to authority might be more complex than has generally been believed is to be found in a study by Ray (1971) wherein an attempt was made to construct a scale of general attitude to authority. The many criticisms that have been levelled at the Adorno et al. work from Christie & and Jahoda (1954) to Altemeyer (1981) made such an exercise seem important. What was found, however, was quite unexpected. The scale items were designed to fall into three subsets: "View of the leader, executive versus decision-maker"; "Evaluation of authoritarian institutions and other examples of the exercise of authority" and "Freedom versus regulation". It was found, using community samples, that the first of these three subsets was unrelated to the other two. People agreed that "Two years in the Army would do everyone the world of good" and that "People should be made to be punctual" but then did not also agree that "It is important for a leader to get things done even if he must displease people by doing them" or that "If a leader is himself sure of what is the best thing to do, he must try to do this, even though he has to use some pressure on the people". In other words, people who would like to see the behaviour of others externally regulated can still put harmony and consensus high on the list. (Socialism?)

Another finding from the same study that calls into question the generalizability of attitude to authority was explicitly political. In the political science literature the concept of 'social deference' is sometimes used to help explain the fact that roughly a quarter of working class people in Australia and Britain do not in national elections vote for the (Leftist) party that allegedly represents them. This is held to be at least in part an outcome of the fact that some of the workers are deferential: i.e. they look up to people in higher social positions and see them as best fit to govern. In class-polarized politics they therefore vote Tory (conservative). If voting for 'one's betters' is not an instance of respect for conventional institutional authority, it would be hard to imagine what would be. Yet in Ray (1971) a scale of political deference (see Ray, 1972) was found to show virtually no correlation with the Ray Attitude to Authority scale. People who affirmed that, "You can be sure Army procedures will be good, because they have been tried and tested" did not tend to agree that "It is best that this country should be run by upper class people". Respect for authoritarian institutions did not extend to special respect for prestigious individuals or groups of individuals.

A possible criticism of both these findings is that they involve the Ray (1971) Attitude to Authority (AA) scale and the AA scale relies heavily on items concerning the Army. It might be argued that the AA scale is really about the Army and Army-like practices rather than about conventional institutional authority in general. The finding by Rigby and Rump (1979) to the effect that attitude to the Army generalizes strongly to attitude towards other types of institutional authority makes this criticism a fairly weak one but it would nonetheless be of interest to see if alternative measures of attitude to authority yielded similar results. Rigby and Rump's own scale does spring to mind as a well-constructed alternative measure. Its careful division of items into four main content areas (the Army, the Police, the Law and Teachers) clearly does make all questions of generalizability more examinable.

Rigby and Rump (1981) have in fact themselves carried out a very interesting piece of research in this connection. Noting that their original work had concerned only attitudes towards conventional institutional authority they decided to test the Adorno et al. theory much more directly by finding out whether a child's attitude towards his own parents predicted attitude towards other authorities. What they found was that attitude towards one's parents was predictive of one's attitude towards other authorities only during childhood proper and that by late adolescence the relationship vanishes entirely. This would appear to be the most explicit test yet of the Adorno et al. theory and the theory was found to fail utterly. Attitude towards one's own parents has nothing to do with one's adult attitudes to institutional authority. Far from attitude to authority having widespread covariation with other things, attitudes to different types of authority on at least some occasions do not even correlate with one another. We have just reviewed three major failures to correlate. Could there be others?

One area that would seem to be in some need of examination is attitude to education. Education is one of the most legitimate sources of authority in contemporary society so an examination of attitudes towards it should have central importance. Following Fromm (1941), Rudin (1961) in fact uses the master-slave relationship as the major instance of irrational authority whilst the teacher-student relationship is the major instance of rational authority. Education is certainly respected so do those who show disrespect for education also tend to mock other institutions of our society?

Something else in our society which has great authority for at least some people is the moral code or ethical system. In a sense, the concept of what is right and wrong does in fact lie at the basis of any form of authority. How then is what is right and wrong conceived? Is it conceived in an authoritarian way with what is right and wrong being derived from some immutable and unquestionable authority or is it conceived as the moment-to-moment customs of a given society having no intrinsic authority of its own at all? Great debates have been fought (and continue to be fought) among philosophers over this issue and they have also been shown to divide opinion sharply among non-philosophers (Ray, 1974, Chap. 53; 1981). Do those who conceive of morality in an authoritarian way also ascribe great authority to teachers, the police etc.?

Some new research on these questions seems called for.


The measuring instruments chosen for use were the 16 item form of the Rigby (1982) GAIAS (General Attitude towards Institutional Authority Scale), the Ray (1981) Attitude to Morality scale, the Ray (1972) Political Deference scale and a specially written scale of Attitude to Education. Some items from the latter were. "It is right that better educated people should be paid more" (positive item) and "Educated people are no better or wiser than anybody else" (negative item). Due to space limitations on the questionnaire, only eight items on this theme could be concluded.

The questionnaire containing these scales was answered by a random cluster sample of people living in the Australian city of Sydney. All interviews were carried out by an experienced interviewer. N was 100. The mean age of the sample was 36 yr, the sexes were roughly equally represented, mean education fell between junior and senior secondary school and approx. two-thirds worked in non-manual occupations.


The reliabilities (alpha) of the scales were: Morality 0.72, Authority 0.87, Education 0.62 and Deference 0.80. The alpha for the Education scale was rather low but could be considered reasonable in the initial version of a scale, particularly where the scale was perforce rather short as far as the number of items is concerned. Further work on the concept would however require further development of the scale.

Correlations with the attitude to authority scale were: Morality 0.405, Education 0.257 and Deference 0.235. All were significant <0.05. Neither the attitude to education nor the Deference scale, however, showed any significant correlation with the Morality scale. Attitude to Education and Deference correlated 0.253. The only significant demographic effects on attitudes were of age (0.213 correlation with Morality only) and education (-0.264 correlation with attitude to authority).


Clearly, the present results show that attitude to education has little to do with attitude to other sources of authority. The scale's highest correlation (0.253) was still very low in absolute magnitude (6% shared variance). This is strong support for the Fromm (1941)/Rudin (1961) theory with its specification of educational authority as quite distinct from other sources of authority.

We are, however, left with the puzzle of how to reconcile this finding with the often-replicated finding by Rigby and Rump (1979) to the effect that attitude to teachers is highly predictive of other authority attitudes. Must we distinguish between attitude to teachers and attitude to education? It seems we must. Apparently similar and related things turn out not to be very similar or related at all. One would have thought that the 25% of items in the GAIAS that concern teachers should have caused that scale to correlate highly with attitude to education but such was not to be the case. Perception of education as authoritative does not lead to perception of teachers as authoritative. Respondents in the survey appear to have made a distinction between the product (education) and the producer (teachers). In other words, far from being monolithic, people's attitudes to authority are highly differentiated and complex. The cautious phraseology of Rigby and Rump (1979) in describing what their scale measures does then stand well justified. There appears to be no such thing at all as a general or overall attitude to authority. There may be only a consistent attitude towards 'conventional institutional authority'.

The other correlations of the present study, however, show that even this formulation lacks precision. With items like "You cannot go against your conscience" and "There are universal moral laws", the Attitude to Morality scale was hardly tapping institutional authority attitudes. Yet it correlates almost as well with the GAIAS as that scale's subscales correlate with one another. Further, with items like "Men who were educated at one of our better private schools would usually be the ones best fitted to run this country" and "I would prefer to be represented in Parliament by a man respected for his social position", the Deference scale would seem to be talking about a type of authority that is highly institutional. Yet the correlation between the Deference scale and the GAIAS shows that they have very little in common at all. The present finding is strengthened by the fact that a previous study using another measure of attitude to authority also showed little correlation between Deference and Attitude to Authority (Ray, 1971).

Even conservatism cannot be picked out as the influence underlying all the present correlations. The Deference scale was explicitly conceived as expressing a high-Tory ideology yet it does not correlate with the GAIAS -- which has been found to be a good predictor of conservatism in other senses (Rigby & Rump, 1979). Clearly, the present correlations just cannot be explained as the outcome of one single underlying influence. They testify to multidimensionality in authority attitudes -- not unidimensionality. If attitude to authority does not exist as such, however, more inclusive concepts such as 'authoritarianism' must surely be even more untenable.

It could perhaps be contended that the present findings support the contentions of Mischell (1977), who claims that traits are essentially imaginary entities anyway. Imaginary entities might not be expected to show much correlation. The basis of Mischell's argument was however that trait scales are poor predictors of behaviour. This is only partly right. It is true that measuring behaviour in naive ways can lead to poor predictions by trait scales but where proper or even elementary precautions are observed, trait scales can predict behaviour very well. One example might be the 0.79 correlation observed between the Ray Directiveness scale and authoritarian behaviour (Ray, 1987). There is, therefore, no reason to treat correlations (or the lack of them) between trait scales as inherently unmeaningful.

Finally, it might be noted that there are many studies in the group dynamics literature which examine power, influence and leadership in experimental groups. Might such studies need to be re-evaluated in the light of the present results? If attitude to authority does not exist, what are these studies studying? The answer, of course, is that it is only generalizable attitude to authority which does not exist. There is no problem with attitudes to specific authorities. The only lesson for the group behaviour students, therefore, is the very old one about the need for caution about generalizations. It should be noted in parting, however, that the group studies (e.g. Cartwright, 1959) do tend to show attitude to authority as being highly plastic and influenceable by a whole range of stimuli. This would seem to fit well with the present finding that they are highly varied and unpredictable. We might be seeing here, in other words, one small example of the 'two psychologies' (experimental and correlational) arriving at similar conclusions.


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J. & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

Altemeyer, R. A. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Cartwright, D. (Ed.) (1959). Studies in social power. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.

Christie, R. & Jahoda, M. (1954). Studies in the scope and method of "The authoritarian personality". Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York: von Reinhardt Nostrand.

Helm, C. & Morelli, M. (1985). Obedience to authority in a laboratory setting: Generalizability and context dependency. Political Studies, 3.3, 61"27.

Meloen, J. D., Hagendoorn, L., Raaijmakers, Q. & Visser, L. (1988). Authoritarianism and the revival of political racism: Reassessment in the Netherlands of the reliability and validity of the concept of authoritarianism by Adorno et al. Political Psychology, 9, 413-429.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper.

Mischell, W. (1977). On the future of personality measurement. American Psychologist, 32, 246-254.

Ray, J.J. (1971) An "Attitude to Authority" scale. Australian Psychologist, 6, 31-50.

Ray, J.J. (1972) The measurement of political deference: Some Australian data. British Journal of Political Science 2, 244-251.

Ray, J.J. (1974) Conservatism as heresy Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co.

Ray, J.J. (1981) The morals of attitudes. J. Social Psychology , 115, 227-235.

Ray, J.J. (1987) The validity of self-reports. Personality Study & Group Behaviour 7(1), 68-70.

Rigby, K. (1982). A concise scale for the assessment of attitudes towards institutional authority. Australian Journal of Psychology, 34, 195-204.

Rigby, K. & Rump, E. E. (1979). The generality of attitude to authority. Human Relations, 32, 469-487.

Rigby, K. & Rump, E. E. (1981). Attitudes towards parents and institutional authorities during adolescence. Journal of Psychology, 109, 109-118.

Rudin, S. A. (1961). The relation between rational and irrational authoritarianism. Journal of Psychology, 62, 179-183.


What is given above is the article exactly as published. This is however an abridged version of the original. The original contains additional corroboratory evidence and can be viewed here

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