"Authoritarianism" research

By John J. Ray (M.A.;Ph.D.)

During my academic career, the single topic on which I wrote most in the social science literature was authoritarianism. I had well over a hundred academic journal articles on the topic published -- far more than anybody else ever has. I therefore became what would normally be regarded as the world authority on the subject. So if those articles do not speak for themselves it would be a sad day indeed. Academic articles are however usually impenetrable to the average reader, so I thought that it might be useful for me to set out briefly and in plain English what I found and what I learned over the many years of my involvement with the topic. The comments that follow are my attempt in that direction. [Note that all of my own articles that I refer to below are online and that you can view them by going to the list of references at the end of this article and clicking on the citations of the different articles given there.]

The theory of authoritarianism, as 20th century psychologists got to know it, originated in a book published in 1950 and titled "The Authoritarian Personality" (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford, 1950). It was written (under official American Jewish auspices) as a collaborative venture by four Left-wing Jewish authors with the alleged aim of finding (through surveys of American college students!) an explanation for the rise of German Nazism. The lead author and apparent mentor of the group was Theodor Wiesengrund (a.k.a. Adorno), a prominent European Marxist theoretician. Given its Leftist provenance, it should be little surprise that the book was really just Communist (though not Soviet) propaganda. Psychologists generally are Left-wing (McClintock, Turner & Spaulding, 1965), however, so the book won great attention and acclaim among them. They treated it as an important work of serious social scientific research rather than as the pseudo-science that it essentially was.

The popularity of the book stemmed from its central claims that authoritarianism lies at the basis of racism and that authoritarianism is essentially a conservative phenomenon. Adorno et al also claimed that conservatives cum "authoritarians" were rigid, intolerant of ambiguity, prone to black-and-white thinking and have a whole host of Freudian disorders. Conservatives definitely cannot not see the world straight, according to Adorno et al. See Ray (1988, 1989 & 1990) for an extensive academic demolition of the various Adorno claims. In short, the Adorno theory enabled Leftist psychologists to attack Rightists with psychological weapons. No wonder it was popular! Showing that your ideological opponents are psychologically sick would have large satisfactions to almost anyone.

That satisfaction, however, came at the expense of a complete disregard for reality. That authoritarianism is essentially Rightist was manifestly absurd in view of the various and invariably brutal Communist tyrannies around in the 20th Century. This was pointed out very early on (Shils, 1954).

And for Marxists to claim that authoritarianism is conservative is perhaps the biggest laugh of all. Who said this:

"Revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon".

They are of course the well-known words of Friedrich Engels -- from his controversy with the anarchists. Yes: THAT Engels, the collaborator of Karl Marx. So Engels was quite frank about the authoritarian nature of Leftism but such frankness did not suit latter-day Marxists at all.

How, then could the theory be grasped eagerly and immediately to the bosom of most psychologists? How did their reality-contact get so bad? If you know the historical background, the answer is clear. If you know the dilemma in which Leftist intellectuals found themselves in 1950, you realize what a godsend the theory was to them.

The guilty truth that academics have managed pretty well to hide from public view in the postwar era is that Leftism has changed drastically since the Nazi era and that the prewar Fascists and Nazis were not only thoroughly Leftist but were in fact fairly mainstream Leftists by the standards of their day. What they believed was also pretty much what American "Progressives" of the prewar era believed. They were to the Right of (i.e. less revolutionary than) the Soviet regime but that is about all. If all that comes as a surprise (it should) I have put together some of the documentation for it here and here. Perhaps most depressing of all, as Hitler himself noted, most of his ideas (including his racism, antisemitism and German nationalism) could be traced back to Marx & Engels. And I have fully documented that too. Browse through the archives of this blog to read it all.

In short, the Leftist intellectuals of the English-speaking world in 1950 were stuck with the enormous embarrassment that they themselves had up until the war been advocating much the same thing as Hitler advocated -- eugenics, nationalism, antisemitism, homophobia etc.

Naturally, the last thing that American Leftist intellectuals wanted was to be associated with failure. The whole motor driving Leftists is their seeking of praise as the people who champion whatever is thought at the time to be admirable and righteous and clever. So they backpedalled furiously. They became anti-racist, pro-Jewish, anti-nationalist and anti-eugenics as soon as they could. But backpedalling is embarrassing. How much better it would be if they could pretend that their backpedalling was not backpedalling at all!

And, in that context, what they needed most desperately was some way of denying that the Nazis and Fascists had been Leftists. They were now desperate to dissociate themselves with their erstwhile friends and to erase forever the memory that the Fascists too had been Leftists. And the Adorno work was exactly the exercise in extended denial that they needed. The Adorno group said that Fascism was conservative, not Leftist. And for Leftists to believe that was quite simply necessary for their self-respect at that time. So the Adorno work became part of one of the great coverups of history. Reality was revised and both Fascists and conservatives could now be abused in the one breath. The Nazi-sympathizers had become anti-Nazi.

And a central plank of being anti-Nazi was obviously to be anti-racist. So their own prewar racism (The Ku Klux Klan were all Democrats, for instance) had to be pinned by the Left onto conservatives. And the Adorno work provided THAT service. And in their usual self-selected role of being out front as champions of the good and the wise and the righteous, Leftists had to be EXTREMELY anti-racist. And the Adorno work helped there too. Adorno et al. pilloried racism in the strongest terms available to psychologists. They pilloried racism as "maladjusted".

But to claim that you had to be maladjusted to be racist was as absurd as the rest of the Adorno confection. Racism or group favouritism has always been universal among human beings (and as some elementary psychology textbooks -- such as Brown [1986] -- now finally acknowledge). We are all prejudiced towards other people in various categories (including both racial and other categories). Some of us are more prone to admitting our dislikes and prejudices, that is all. Stalin murdered Russian Kulaks (richer peasants) on a grand scale, Hitler murdered Jews of all nationalities, even Mahatma Gandhi could not stop Hindus from murdering millions of Muslim Indians, white North Americans can usually stand blacks only with great difficulty, Koreans and Japanese loathe one-another, Northern Italians loathe Southern Italians, Croats hate Serbs and even Eastern and Western Ukrainians do not get on -- etc., etc.

And what about "lookist" prejudices? What man wants to go out with ugly women? What man ever will? Are all these "prejudiced" people sick? Only if the entire human race is sick and that then tends to deprive the word "sick" of its meaning. In short, the Adorno work does not even begin to fit the known facts. If that is not pseudo-science, I do not know what would be.

In the 1989 issue of "The Skeptical Inquirer" (a journal devoted to exposing "magicians", "psychics" and the like) several authors (e.g. Randi, 1989) discussed the phenomenon of spurious findings in science. Randi commented on the amazing "mental flexibility" that individual scientists can show in resisting demonstrations that their findings are spurious. Such "flexibility" (the ability not to let any evidence interfere with a belief) is obviously a mass phenomenon among modern-day academic psychologists too.

Debunking of the Adorno theory has in fact been frequent and savage in the literature of academic psychology (e.g. Christie & Jahoda, 1954; Titus & Hollander, 1957; Rokeach, 1960, Brown, 1965; Titus, 1968; McKinney, 1973; Ray, 1976; Altemeyer, 1981; Ray, 1988a & 1989) BUT PSYCHOLOGISTS GENERALLY STILL SEEM TO BELIEVE IT! It is still often referred to and most references to it in the literature of psychology seem to be acceptant of it, or even vigorously and vocally applauding of it (e.g. Browning, 1983; Meloen, Hagendoorn, Raaijmakers & Visser, 1988; Van Ijzendoorn, 1989; Jemmott & Gonzalez, 1989; Fisher et al, 1988; Mercer & Kohn, 1980; Sidanius, 1985; Kelley, 1985)!

This meant that for me it became for a time something of a cottage industry to write critiques of such ignorant articles. To their credit, about 50% of editors (though not editors of the most prestigious journals) did print my critiques. See e.g. Ray (1987a & b).

Although I tend to be fairly savage in my critiques (I even accused one writer of being "intolerant of ambiguity"!) the hurt and upset I probably cause does not always seem to be enough to dislodge belief. For instance, I long ago wrote (Ray, 1972) a fairly stinging attack on the sloppiness of one William Eckhardt in his research into the Adorno theory. Yet, Lo and behold, 16 years after my original critique, he bobs up (Eckhardt, 1988) yet again with further ill-informed defences of the theory! See Ray (1988b). Myrdal (1957) once said: "Ignorance is seldom random but instead highly opportunistic" (p. 123). In other words, the ignorance of the limitations of the Adorno work which psychologists often show should be seen as motivated. Psychologists, on Myrdal's view, want not to hear criticisms of the Adorno work.

The towering absurdity of the Adorno work struck me from the outset so I set out to provide through research a more accurate picture of authoritarianism and racism. I was wasting my time, however. Psychologists are scientists in name only and evidence is essentially of no real interest to them. Even as late as 1997, there was, for instance, a review article in Political Psychology by an old warhorse of political psychology called Brewster Smith which again claimed that Adorno et al. got it pretty right. In true psychologist style, Smith showed no awareness of most of the literature on the subject but the amazing thing is that even the works he did cite tended to contradict his conclusions (see the research review in Altemeyer's 1981 book). That old Adorno catnip was just too tempting to reject.

This determination among psychologists to discredit Rightists through psychological "research" is not of course confined to the Adorno group. Chris Brand in the 1997 Personality & Individual Differences reviews another ludicrous attempt in that direction.

There was also a paper by an author named Hightower in the 1997 Journal of Clinical Psychology purporting to show how maladjusted racists are which used both references and measuring instruments which I myself had already shown in the literature to be seriously flawed. I had pretty much lost interest in writing for the journals by the time that Hightower's paper appeared but such flagrant negligence as his did draw me out of retirement long enough (about 3 hours) to write and submit to the journal concerned a critique of his work. It was not accepted for publication but is online here anyway.

That after more than 50 years the Adorno theory still looms large in the thinking of academic psychologists generally can be seen from the "meta-analysis" of research into conservatism written by a distinguished group of psychologists and published in a prestigious psychology journal in 2003 -- by Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. -- called "Political conservatism as motivated social cognition" (Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375). There is a summary of the article here and a PDF of the full article here. In plain English, the title of the article translates as: "Conservatives cannot see the world straight" -- a claim which is also at the heart of the Adorno assertions.

The Jost et al. (2003) article is however a perfect example of the unscientific approach of Leftist psychologists. If it really were the meta-analysis it purports to be, it would have covered ALL the research literature on the subject, or, at the very least, a representative sampling of the literature concerned. In fact, the paper ignores hundreds of relevant articles -- those that disagree with the conclusions that Jost et al. draw. Although it is a parody of science, however, it is a useful indicator of what academic psychologists believe. It is as good a partisan analysis as it is a bad meta-analysis. You can find a demolition of the paper's claims to offer scientifically defensible conclusions here.

Needless to say, most psychologists would have seen ME as the one who was out of step. For instance, I once pointed out (Ray, 1990) that the work by Witt (1989) on attitude to AIDS victims was fatally flawed by its reliance on the obsolete Adorno work. Witt (1990) made a reply of an essentially bureaucratic rather than a scientific nature. Instead of addressing the scientific issues involved directly, Witt concentrated on showing that other people also continue to do as he does -- i.e. they take the Adorno "et al. (1950) work seriously. "If I am wrong, so are they" seems to be the essence of Witt's reply. Such an argument is, however, essentially ad hominem and, as such, is of no scholarly repute whatever. No doubt the opponents of Galileo could have argued very much as Witt did.

Perhaps a personal note is in order here. In 1982, German psychologist Gerda Lederer published some survey research which showed that the attitudes of German youth had become much less "authoritarian" than they were before the war. She fairly reasonably attributed the change to the dreadful experience Germans had of authoritarian rule. In discussing my own survey research into contemporary German attitudes (Ray & Kiefl, 1984), however, I questioned whether German attitudes had changed fundamentally. I pointed out the great unmentionable: That prewar Germany had been very "progressive" too.

Shortly thereafter I met Lederer personally at a psychology conference and suggested that the differences she found might simply be a reflection of changes in intellectual fashions among Leftists. But she dismissed the view that Germans had not changed much in their basic attitudes. In the usual scholarly spirit that disagreements are not nearly as important as what subject you are interested in, I looked forward to discussing the matter further with her but she snubbed me thenceforth. I had mentioned the unmentionable. What I had mentioned was too threatening to be discussable. The psychology of psychologists can be amusing (as I have also noted here and here).

Am I authoritarian?

I have been told by some who have absorbed the Adorno gospel that I am myself authoritarian and that I have taken an interest in the subject for that reason. There is some truth in that but not what was intended by the accusers concerned. In brief:

It is perfectly true (and I am pleased to "admit" it) that I have always had some of the "Prussian" virtues: Orderly, well-organized, punctilious and punctual. If I had not been orderly, well-organized and punctilious I would scarcely have got nearly one academic journal article published per fortnight in some years. There is a considerable overlap between Prussian and academic virtues. Without a punctilious attention to detail, for instance, producing good academic work would be unlikely. And seeking order is what science is about.

And the second thing to which I plead guilty is that my interest in authoritarianism does stem from my own attitudes to it. As a libertarian it is anathema to me. I study it in the way a bacteriologist might study a dangerous bacillus -- with an eye to defeating it. And to this day I polemicize against the usual advocates of authoritarian government: Leftists.

And I can't leave the subject without noting at more length that classic of overgeneralization propagated by Adorno et al.: "rigidity". Conservatives and authoritarians were said to be mentally "rigid". I have commented extensively on that elsewhere but let me note here something that is known to any computer programmer: Being rigidly logical is essential to getting any computer program going. And I have that ability. I wrote all my statistical analysis programs myself using what is generally regarded as a low-level (i.e. difficult) computer language: FORTRAN. Writing FORTRAN seems a breeze to me. So I certainly have that sort of rigidity -- but, far from cowering in shame about it, I am perfectly pleased that I do. The plain fact of the matter, of course, is that rigidity can be good or bad, depending on the situation. So colour me rigid all you like.

And even those evil Prussian militarists can hardly be held up as an example of the bad sort of rigidity -- for the excellent reason that they were not in fact rigid! It is flexibility, not rigidity, that was notably Prussian. The much-studied Clausewitz was emphatic that a good military commander was above all flexible and improvisatory. And Hitler's Prussian generals were just that. In staff colleges worldwide people to this day still wonder about the improvisatory genius of Von Manstein, for instance. Napoleon was a plodder by comparison.

And perhaps the most famous Prussian of the 19th century -- Bismarck -- was anything but rigid. He constantly had the whole of Europe off balance with his ever changing policies and alliances -- policies that gave Europe an exceptionally long period of peace and prosperity. For a tease, there is a picture of him below, complete with Pickelhaube. I discuss Prussian history in more detail here.

UPDATE: I wrote the above in the early years of the 21st century, mostly in 2005. Since then the very interesting Mr Obama has come and gone from the U.S. presidency. He has usefully reinforced my claim Leftism is fundamentally authoritarian: That by revolution or by legislation, Leftists aim to change what people can and must do.

When in Columbia, Missouri, on Oct. 30, 2008 Obama said to huge applause from his campaign followers that he intended to "fundamentally transform" America, he was not talking about America's geography or topography but rather about American people. He wanted them to stop doing things that they wanted to do and make them do things that they did not want to do. Can you get a better definition of authoritarianism than that?


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

Altemeyer, R. (1981) Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: Univ. Manitoba Press.

Brand, C. (1997) Special review of: The politics of denial (1996) by M.A. Milburn & S.D. Conrad. MA: MIT Press. Personality & Individual Differences 23, 361-362.

Brown, R. (1965) Social psychology N.Y.: Free Press.

Brown, R. (1986) Social psychology (2nd. Ed.) N.Y.: Free Press

Browning, D. (1983) Aspects of authoritarian attitudes in ego development. J. Pers. Social Psychol. 45, 137-144.

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

Eckhardt, W. (1988) Comments on Ray's "Why the F scale predicts racism: A critical review". Political Psychology 9, 680-693.

Fisher, W.A.; Byrne, D.; White, L.A. & Kelley, K. (1988) Erotophobia-erotophilia as a dimension of personality. J. Sex Research 25, 123-151.

Hightower, E. (1997) Psychosocial characteristics of subtle and blatant racists as compared to tolerant individuals. J. Clinical Psychology 53, 369-374

Jemmott, J.B. & Gonzalez, E. (1989) Authoritarianism, knowledge of AIDS and affect toward persons with AIDS: Implications for health education. J. Applied Social Psychology 19, 584-598.

Kelley, K. (1985) Sex, sex-guilt and authoritarianism: Differences in response to explicit heterosexual and masturbatory styles. J. Sex Research 21, 68-85.

Lederer, G. (1982) Trends in authoritarianism. A study of adolescents in West Germany and the United States since 1945. J. Cross-cultural Psychology, 13, 299-314.

McClintock, C.G., Spaulding, C.B. & Turner, H.A. (1965) Political orientations of academically affiliated psychologists. Amer. Psychologist 20, 211-221.

McKinney, D.W. (1973) The authoritarian personality studies The Hague: Mouton.

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.

Mercer, G.W. & Kohn, P.M. (1980) Child-rearing factors, authoritarianism, drug-use attitudes and adolescent drug use: A model. J. Genetic Psychology 136, 159-171.

Randi, J. (1989) The case of the remembering water. Skeptical Inquirer 13, 142-145.

Ray, J.J. (1972) Militarism, authoritarianism, neuroticism and anti-social behavior. Journal of Conflict Resolution 16, 319-340.

Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

Ray, J.J. (1987a) Complex jobs and complex mental processes: A comment on Miller, Slomczynski Kohn. American J. Sociology 93, 441-442.

Ray, J.J. (1987b) Intolerance of ambiguity among psychologists: A comment on Maier & Lavrakas. Sex Roles 16, 559-562.

Ray, J.J. (1988a) Why the F scale predicts racism: A critical review. Political Psychology 9(4), 671-679.

Ray, J.J. (1988b) Authoritarianism, racism and anarchocapitalism: A rejoinder to Eckhardt. Political Psychology 9(4), 693-699.

Ray, J.J. (1989) The scientific study of ideology is too often more ideological than scientific. Personality & Individual Differences, 10, 331-336.

Ray, J.J. (1990) AIDS, authoritarianism and scientific ignorance -- A comment on Witt. J. Applied Social Psychology, 20, 1453-1455.

Ray, J.J. & Furnham, A. (1984) Authoritarianism, conservatism and racism. Ethnic & Racial Studies 7, 406-412.

Ray, J.J. & Kiefl, W. (1984) Authoritarianism and achievement motivation in contemporary West Germany. J. Social Psychology, 122, 3-19.

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1986) The generality of racial prejudice. Journal of Social Psychology, 126, 563-564.

Rokeach, M. (1960) The open and closed mind N.Y.: Basic Books.

Shils, E.A. (1954) Authoritarianism: Right and Left. In: R. Christie & M. Jahoda (Eds.) Studies in the scope and method of "The authoritarian personality Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Sidanius, J. (1985) Cognitive functioning and sociopolitical ideology revisited. Political Psychol. 6, 637-662.

Smith, M.B. (1997) The Authoritarian Personality; A re-review 46 years later. Political Psychology 18, 159-164.

Sniderman, P.M., Brody, R.A. & Kuklinski, J.H. (1984) Policy reasoning and political values: The problem of racial equality. Amer. J. Polit. Science 28, 75-94.

Titus, H.E. (1968) F scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psychological Record 18, 395-403.

Titus, H.E. & Hollander, E.P. (1957) The California F scale in psychological research: 1950-1955. Psychological Bulletin 54, 47-64.

Van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (1989) Moral judgment, authoritarianism and ethnocentrism. J. Social Psychology 129, 37-45.

Williams, R.J. & Wright, C.R. (1955) Opinion organization in a heterogeneous adult population. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 51, 559-564.

Witt, L.A. (1989) Authoritarianism, knowledge of AIDS and affect towards persons with AIDS: Implications for health education. J. Applied Psychology 19, 599-607.

Witt, L.A. (1990) Factors affecting attitudes toward persons with AIDS. J. Social Psychology 130, 127-129

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