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The Journal of Sex Research, 1988, Vol. 24, 385-387.


John J. Ray

Systematic and extensive reviews of the evidence for and against the authoritarian personality theory of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) generally conclude that the evidence for the theory is very poor (e.g., Altemeyer, 1981; Brown, 1965; Christie & Jahoda, 1954; McKinney, 1973; Ray, 1976; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983). Although high scorers on the Adorno F scale are sometimes found to behave in ways seen as submissive to authority (e.g., Higgins & McCann, 1984), this is hardly surprising in view of the many admiring statements about authority made in the F scale. It is the less obvious aspects of the theory that constitute its interest, and evidence for the other aspects of the theory is hard to find (see particularly the extensive review by Altemeyer). Considering the amount of testing that the Adorno et al. theory has had, one might expect that the many failures to confirm would be seen as fairly damning for the theory. In general, this is what has happened. In the area of central concern for the Adorno et al theory (the explanation of interracial conflict), the theory is now hardly mentioned. (See the chapters on intergroup relations in the Annual Review of Psychology by Tajfel, 1982 and Brewer & Kramer, 1985.)

There are always exceptions to every rule, however, and a recent paper in this journal (Kelley, 1985) is one of many that shows little awareness of the failures of the Adorno et al. (1950) theory. Like a considerable number of other. authors (e.g., Kinloch, 1986; Maier & Lavrakas, 1984; Miller, Slomczynski, & Kohn, 1985; Tom, Cooper, & McGraw, 1984) Kelley appears to accept the Adorno et al. theory.

There are reasons for everything, however, and one reason why the Adorno et al. (1950) theory may still have adherents is that there are some things that it does seem to get right. In particular, no matter what one does to eliminate methodological problems, the F scale always does seem to predict racism (Ray, 1980). The F scale, thus, appears to be measuring something.

What that something is, however, is not clear. The only general agreement is that it does not measure what Adorno et al. thought it measured. For instance, Adorno et al. thought that attitudes could be used to index personality and that both were predictive of behavior. When this assumption is examined, however, it is found that attitudes predict neither personality nor behavior (Ray, 1976). People who act in authoritarian ways are not, in general, people with pro-authority attitudes. Only if we equate "authoritarian" with "submissive" do we get even a weak link between authoritarian attitudes and authoritarian behavior. The F scale is not, then, a measure of authoritarian personality (see also Ray & Lovejoy, 1983).

What, then, does it measure? How are results such as those of Kelley (1985) to be interpreted? I have argued at some length elsewhere (Ray, 1987) that what the F scale really measures is simply an old-fashioned orientation. People who score high on it are lost in the culture of the past. Although it would be pointless to repeat arguments recently given elsewhere, the older work by Pflaum (1964) should be cited. Pflaum succeeded in constructing what he regarded as a parallel form of the F scale using only items taken from studies of popular myths and superstitions done around the 1920s. The F scale items, in other words, measure the popular culture of the 1920s. In a similar but perhaps more severe vein, Hartmann (1977) calls the F scale a collection of "Victorian" values.

It is suggested, therefore, that a reinterpretation of Kelley's (1985) results in this light might be fruitful. If Kelley's own interpretation of her results must be called into question, then surely some alternative to her interpretation would be useful. Kelley (1985) found, basically, that authoritarians show especial sensitivity about sexual matters. Kelley found that high scorers on a balanced version of the F scale were more loath than low scorers to be shown pictures of masturbation. This finding would appear to fit well with the psychodynamic explanation of authoritarianism proffered by Adorno et al. (1950), but there is a much simpler expianation. Although the F scale used by Kelley did not include any items with sexual references in them, the original F scale certainly did. Sexual prudery was a prominent component of the Adorno et al. account of authoritarianism. Kelley, in other words, was simply rediscovering what Adorno et al. said in 1950.

How is the Adorno/Kelley finding of an association between authoritarianism and sexual prudery to be explained? In view of the fact that the F scale seems to be, above all, a measure of old-fashioned outlook, the explanation is very simple. Sexual liberation is the catchcry of the modern age, prudery is old-fashioned. No wonder a scale of old-fashioned outlook predicts it! Since there may be other fields of research into sexual attitudes where the influence of an old-fashioned outlook may be a variable of interest, the present exposition may help to make the F scale more useful than has heretofore been the case.


ADORNO, T. W., FRENKEL-BRUNSWIK, E., LEVINSON, D. J., & SANFORD, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York, NY: Harper.

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

BREWER, M. B., & KRAMER, R. M. (1985). The psychology of intergroup attitudes and behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 36, 219-243.

BROWN, R. (1965). Social psychology. New York, NY: Free Press.

CHRISTIE, R., & JAHODA, M. (1954). Studies in the scope and method of "The authoritarian personality. " Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

HARTMANN, P. (1977). A perspective on the study of social attitudes. European Journal o f Social Psychology, 7, 85-96.

HIGGINS, E. T., & McCANN, C. D. (1984). Social encoding and subsequent attitudes, impressions and memory: "Context-driven" and motivational aspects of processing. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 47, 26-39.

KELLEY, K. (1985). Sex, sex-guilt and authoritarianism: Differences in responses to explicit heterosexual and masturbatory slides. The Journal of Sex Research, 21, 68-85.

KINLOCH, G. C. (1986). A multivariate analysis of social distance in Hawaii. Journal of Social Psyhology, 126, 137-140.

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

MAIER, R. A., & LAVRAKAS, P. J. (1984). Attitudes towards women, personality rigidity and idealized physique preferences in males. Sex Roles, 11(5/6), 425-433.

MILLER, J., SLOMCZYNSKI, K. M., & KOHN, M. L. (1985). Continuity of learning generalization: The effect of job on men's intellective process in the United States and Poland. American Journal of Sociology, 91, 593-615.

PFLAUM, J. (1964). Development and evaluation of equivalent forms of the F scale. Psychological Reports, 15, 663-669.

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

RAY, J.J. (1980) Authoritarianism in California 30 years later -- with some cross-cultural comparisons. Journal of Social Psychology, 111, 9-17.

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

RAY, J.J. & LOVEJOY, F.H. (1983). The behavioral validity of some recent measures of authoritarianism. Journal of Social Psychology, 120, 91-99.

TAJFEL, H. (1982). Social psychology of intergroup relations. Annual Review of Psychology, 33, i-40.

Tom, D. Y., COOPER, H., & McGRAW, M. (1984). Influence of student background and teacher authoritarianism on teacher expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 259-265.

John J. Ray, PhD, is an honorary research affiliate of the School of Sociology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

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