(This article was written in 1981 for publication in the Journal of Genetic Psychology but was not accepted for publication)
DRUG ABUSE, AUTHORITARIANISM AND THE MAGICAL POWER OF STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE
University of N.S.W., Australia
Mercer & Hall (1980) reported research with a version of the California F scale which purported to show that authoritarianism was caused by the type of parenting experienced and that authoritarianism was a useful predictor of drug-abuse among High School students. It is pointed out that the F scale can no longer be accepted as measuring authoritarianism but that it most likely measures an old-fashioned
orientation. The findings then reduce to a demonstration that strict fathers and loving mothers are showing a slight tendency towards becoming old-fashioned. This conclusion relies, however, on treating a statistically significant squared R of .06 as significant in some substantive sense. To do so does, however, seem bizarre.
Few topics could have more immediate and widespread concern for social scientists and socially aware people generally than the search for explanations of adolescent drug abuse. It is therefore a matter for some satisfaction to see claims such as those by Mercer & Kohn (1980), who offer a "model" for explaining such abuse. Briefly, what these authors found was that the rather hoary concept of the
"authoritarian personality" had a role to play. Certain types of parenting were shown to cause authoritarian personalities in children and this personality predicted permissive attitudes towards drugs which in turn predicted actual drug use.
When one reads beyond the abstract of this paper, however, one encounters something of a surprise. One finds that the correlation between F scale score and acceptance of drug usage was -.29. In other words, "authoritarianism" was shown to have some tendency to lead to a more adaptive (safer, rejecting) attitude towards drug abuse. Authoritarianism adaptive? Ever since Adorno et al (1950) first proposed it, the tendency in the psychological literature has always been to portray authoritarianism as maladaptive. So this finding clearly presents an interesting theoretical problem. Yet the authors skate over the problem entirely. They do not mention it. A naive reader would not guess from their discussion that there was anything unexpected about their results. Anyone who knows anything about the
Adorno theory, however, knows that authoritarianism is supposed to be maladaptive so Mercer & Kohn can hardly have been unaware of the gap between their results and the theory. It is therefore hard to understand the shape that their discussion of their results took. It is perhaps inappropriate to speculate what might have motivated them to ignore an "inconvenient" aspect of their findings but it is clear that their work may need at least some new interpretation.
As some background to such re-interpretation, it should be realized that this is far from being the first time that the Adorno theory has been found to clash with the evidence. The evidence on the correctness or otherwise of this theory is far too massive for summarization here so perhaps it will be sufficient to note that there are many instances where predictions generated by the theory are not confirmed (e.g.
Wright & Phillips, 1979; Titus, 1968; Schneider, Kohler & Wachter, 1979) and that a very comprehensive survey of all the evidence up to about 1972 or 1973 can be found in the first half of the book by Altemeyer (1981). Disquisitions on predominantly more recent evidence can be found in Ray (1987, 1988 & 1989). Anyone who knows the
literature must see the Adorno theory as seriously deficient.
The other side of the coin, however, is that there are some things that the Adorno theory seems to get right. In particular, to this day the F scale almost always seems to predict racial dislikes (e.g. Meloen, Hagendoorn, Raaijmakers & Visser, 1988). The real question of interest, then, is what underlies these successful predictions? If the
Adorno theory stands disconfirmed on many counts, what alternative theory is there to account for the confirmatory findings? If (as we must conclude -- see Titus, 1968; Ray, 1976, Ray & Lovejoy, 1983) the F scale does not measure authoritarianism, what else could it measure? The glib answer might be to say: conservatism. The F scale has always been held to have a Rightist bias (Christie & Jahoda, 1954; Ray, 1973a)
so perhaps the bias is all that the scale measures. This initially rather attractive conclusion founders, however, on the fact that the F scale does not predict conservatism of vote in general population samples (Ray, 1973b, 1983 & 1984). A measure of conservatism that does not predict conservative voting must be seen as a fairly odd one. Better explanations for what the scale measures seem badly needed.
Fortunately such an explanation is now available. It has recently become increasingly clear that, certainly now, and perhaps from the beginning, the F scale measures an old-fashioned orientation. See Ray (1987, 1988 & 1989). High scorers on the F scale are lost in the culture of the past -- on some account the past of the 1920s and on
others the past of the Victorian era.
It is one purpose of the present paper to see how this understanding of what the F scale measures influences our understanding of the Mercer & Kohn (1980) results. To reinterpret all past findings with the F scale in the light of the new understanding would be tedious, repetitious and of Augean proportions but findings in an area as important as adolescent drug abuse surely form something of an exception. We can surely not let slip past us any information or understanding that might help us in that area. Nor, by the same token, can we afford to let ourselves be misled into believing that we have an understanding when we do not.
Home background and F score
A further surprise awaits us when we look at the Mercer & Kohn data on the relationship between family background and F scale score. The four parental characteristics (e.g. "Mother's loving") described by the High School student Ss generated a combined multiple prediction of authoritarianism that is represented by a squared R of only .06! Given the sample size used, this is statistically significant but surely by any substantive criterion the degree of prediction provided is negligible and unusable in any practical sense. It would seem in fact to be one of the better instances of the tendency among many psychologists to attribute almost magical power to statistical significance. Results which in any realistic sense represent complete predictive failure are seriously interpreted as supporting some theory as long as that magical .05 boundary has been crossed in some way. See Ray (1989) for a discussion of other examples. The fact that almost any finding will be shown as statistically significant if the N is large enough just does not seem to be realized.
We are thus rather handicapped in reinterpreting the Mercer & Kohn findings on the relationship between home background and F scale score by the fact that there is essentially no finding to reinterpret. Realizing that could be seen as useful by itself, however. On the other hand perhaps in psychology we have to be thankful for small mercies and each shred of relationship has to be seized upon. If that is so, the finding could be seen as showing that old-fashioned adolescents report that their mothers are more loving and their fathers are more strict than the norm. Since children now seem to be less central in many people's lives than they once were, since permissiveness is surely one of the hallmarks of the modern age and since the past is often portrayed as a time of greater civility in various ways such a finding fits in well with the new understanding of what the F scale measures. That mother love is becoming oldfashioned is perhaps a rather troubling reflection on the values of the modern
age but, as we have seen, the effect is too slight to give cause for any real concern.
The other major findings of the study were relationships between authoritarianism and permissive attitudes to drugs and a relationship between this permissiveness and actual drug use. The latter relationship was quite strong but is also, of course, quite
unsurprising. Given that there is sometimes a lack of relationship between attitudes and behavior, however, demonstrating this particular relationship was far from superrogatory. For all that, it is of only minor theoretical interest.
The other relationship makes immediate sense in the light of the new view of what the F scale measures. Has not drug abuse increased greatly in the last few decades? If you were mentally lost in the culture of the 1920s would you not be shocked at and unacceptant of the present-day levels of drug-abuse? That is just what Mercer & Kohn
found. Old-fashioned people (high F scorers) had an impermissive attitude to drugs. What was a difficult finding for the Adorno theory is a very explicable finding in the light of the new understanding of what the F scale measures.
Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950) The authoritarian personality. N.Y.: Harper.
Altemeyer, R.A.(1981)Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: Univ. Manitoba Press.
Christie, R. & Jahoda, M. (1954) Studies in the scope and method of "The authoritarian personality" Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.
Meloen, J.D., Hagendoorn, L., Raaimakers, 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.
Ray, J.J. (1973a) Conservatism, authoritarianism and related variables: A review and an empirical study. Ch. 2 in: G.D. Wilson (Ed.) The psychology of conservatism London: Academic Press.
Ray, J.J. (1973b) Dogmatism in relation to sub-types of conservatism: Some Australian data. European J. Social Psychology 3, 221-232.
Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.
Ray, J.J. (1983) Half of all authoritarians are Left-wing: A reply to Eysenck and Stone. Political Psychology, 4, 139-144.
Ray, J.J. (1984). Half of all racists are Left-wing. Political Psychology, 5, 227-236.
Ray, J.J. (1987) Intolerance of ambiguity among psychologists: A comment on Maier & Lavrakas. Sex Roles 16, 559-562.
Ray, J.J. (1988) Why the F scale predicts racism: A critical review. Political Psychology 9(4), 671-679.
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. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1983) The behavioral validity of some recent measures of authoritarianism. Journal of Social Psychology, 120, 91-99.
Titus, H.E. (1968) F scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psychological Record 18, 395-403.
Wright, G.N. & Phillips, L.D. (1979) Personality and probabilistic thinking: An exploratory study. Brit. J. Psychology 70, 295-303
Go to Index page for this site
Go to John Ray's "Tongue Tied" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Dissecting Leftism" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Australian Politics" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Gun Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Education Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Socialized Medicine" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Political Correctness Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Greenie Watch" blog (Backup here or here)
Go to John Ray's "Food & Health Skeptic" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Leftists as Elitists" blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Marx & Engels in their own words" blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "A scripture blog" (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here)
Go to John Ray's recipe blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup here or or here)
Go to John Ray's Main academic menu
Go to Menu of recent writings
Go to John Ray's basic home page
Go to John Ray's pictorial Home Page (Backup here)
Go to Selected pictures from John Ray's blogs (Backup here)
Go to Another picture page (Best with broadband)