Personality & Individual Differences, 1987, 8 (5), 771-772.



Right-wing Authoritarianism. University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg (1981)

Books on authoritarianism seem generally to be very popular. Two of them have achieved the status of classics (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford, 1950; Rokeach, 1960) and a more recently published one (Altemeyer, 1981) received initial reviews bordering on the rapturous (e.g. Goldberg, 1982). Perhaps unfortunately, however, the third book mentioned devotes roughly half its pages to an, at times, scathing demolition of the first book mentioned. Popularity is evidently not tied to consensus. In the circumstances it seems fair to ask if Altemeyer (1981) is much of an improvement on Adorno et al. (1950). Does the popularity of the topic mean that our knowledge of it is advancing?

For a start, let it be acknowledged that the first part of Altemeyer's book is quite uncontroversial. His demolition of the work and findings of Adorno et al. (1950) could be repeated from the works of a hundred other authors from Christie and Jahoda (1954) onwards. Altemeyer is remarkable only perhaps for bringing together in one publication so much that is damaging to the Adorno et al. (1950) account. Even here, however, McKinney (1973) may be argued to have done more.

The important question becomes then one of how much Altemeyer has himself accomplished. Has he been able to construct as well as to destroy? It will be argued here that he has constructed very little.

Altemeyer's efforts to construct an alternative account of authoritarianism are, however, quite extensive and might well persuade the casual reader. A brief account of what he proposes is therefore in order.

Most notable of all is that Altemeyer completely sidesteps the important question of the relationship between ideology and authoritarianism. He claims that he is interested in only Right-wing authoritarianism and has virtually nothing to say about either Leftist authoritarianism or authoritarianism in general. This attempted sidestep does seem to be the major source of problems for his account of things. He does of course make some mention of the problem. He 'doubts' (p. 151) that there is any such thing as authoritarianism on the Left. Lenin, Stalin and their heirs among the more 'revolutionary' student Left of contemporary democratic society may be nasty types but they are not authoritarian in Altemeyer's view. In this respect Altemeyer would seem to be at one with Adorno et al. (1950). The California authors, however, did make at least some initial attempt to define authoritarianism and conservatism separately. Altemeyer's only definition of 'Right-wing' appears to be two lines on p. 152. This must be some sort of record for treating briefly such a large topic. Altemeyer's definition of the construct that does interest him, however (i.e. his definition of 'Right-wing authoritarianism') is a combination of three elements: submissiveness to established authority, adherence to social conventions and general aggressiveness. The first two elements are surely little more than versions of support for the status quo and, as such, amount to a definition of conservatism more than anything else, while the last could be seen as a reference to the fact that conservatives are more likely to favour military preparedness and wars of various sorts. It would seem that Altemeyer's slighting of the literature on conservatism has simply led him to reinvent the concept. When Altemeyer says, therefore, that Lenin and Stalin are not authoritarian in his sense, he is simply saying that they are not conservative.

In constructing his own measure of authoritarianism (the RWA scale), therefore, Altemeyer could clearly have learnt at least one thing from the work of Adorno et al. (1950). They employed throughout their work separate measures of authoritarianism and conservatism. They could therefore present it as an important empirical finding that the two tended to correlate highly. It has been shown elsewhere (Ray, 1973), in a work that Altemeyer does allude to, that the Adorno procedure was something of a charade but, far from improving on the Adorno procedure, Altemeyer simply ignores the problem. As a result, one has to ask why the RWA scale should not be regarded as just another conservatism scale? It certainly reads like any number of conservatism scales that have been used over the years and from its item content alone it would certainly seem to have no obvious claim to be a particularly authoritarian sort of conservatism scale. One must, as a consequence, ask for validity studies. Does Altemeyer present evidence that, despite appearances, the RWA scale does in fact predict authoritarianism particularly well?

In his quite extensive range of studies with the RWA scale, what Altemeyer seems to have shown is that high scorers have parents who are high scorers and that they tend to accept their parents' religion. They tend to accept or approve of the sort of government activity that liberals criticize and are more punitive towards criminals but not towards Jews. They are more obedient in the Milgram situation at intermediate levels of punishment but not at a dangerous level of punishment (the level Altemeyer refers to as 'big red'). They show a weak tendency towards racist attitudes but not towards discriminatory behaviour. All these seem to be things that could equally well be said of conservatives. For instance, there is an occasional weak association between some scales of conservatism and some scales of racist attitudes (Ray, 1972, Ray & Lovejoy, 1986) but attitudes of any sort are generally poor predictors of racist behaviour (Ray, 1971). Conservatives have also been shown to be more punitive (Boshier and Rae, 1975) but this is probably only to the extent of supporting a general community norm of high punitiveness -- particularly towards criminals (Ray, 1985b). Approval for conventional sources of authority has also been long known as an important element of conservatism (Ray, 1973; Rigby and Rump, 1979).

Even from his own work, therefore, it seems unlikely that Altemeyer has succeeded in studying authoritarianism at all. The picture on the cover of Altemeyer's book appears to be intended to convey the impression that Right-wing authoritarians are rather insane and obsessed people but there is in fact nothing in Altemeyer's findings and research that would support such a characterization. The characterization may nonetheless be true so it may be asked whether there is anything outside Altemeyer's own work that would support his conclusions.

Perhaps because it is early days yet, there appear to be only two published studies which used the Altmeyer RWA scale. In the first; Ray (1985a) applied the RWA scale to a general population sample in conjunction with another authoritarianism scale and another conservatism scale. The conservatism scale was one that had been especially counterbalanced to preclude it from measuring any component of authoritarianism. It was found that the RWA scale correlated very highly with the non-authoritarian conservatism scale and not at all with the authoritarianism scale. In concurrent validity terms, therefore, the RWA scale emerges as a measure of conservatism only. In a second study, Heaven (1984) correlated the RWA scales with peer-ratings of attributes important in the authoritarianism literature. With his student sample Heaven found that the RWA scale failed to yield significant predictions of any of the authoritarianism-related attributes. With his community sample, Heaven found that the RWA scale significantly predicted submissiveness (r = 0.22), authoritarianism (0.20) and conservatism (0.51). Although significant, the first two correlations are quite low so again we must conclude that the RWA scale is above all a measure of conservatism. By contrast, Heaven found that the Ray (1976) Directiveness scale (another measure of authoritarianism) correlated 0.34 with dominance, 0.23 with aggression and not at all with conservatism. A non-ideological scale of authoritarianism is therefore at least possible. In ignoring this possibility, Altemeyer seems to have failed to do anything at all that could confidently be called research into authoritarianism.

As a final note, it should perhaps be pointed out that even as a literature review the Altemeyer book is severely deficient. Although it was published in 1981, a glance at the references reveals that there is a plenitude of references up to 1972 but comparatively few thereafter. In his preface, Altemeyer does admit that it took him a long time to get his book published so it would seem that he completed the book in about 1973 and revised it very little while it was going from publisher to publisher. It is therefore much less up to date than its publication year might suggest. No substitute for the Altemeyer book that is more satisfactory in this respect comes immediately to mind but a partial substitute may perhaps be found in Ray (1984).



Adorno T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik E., Levinson D. J. and Sanford R. N. (950) The Authoritarian Personality. Harper, New York.

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

Boshier R. and Rae C. (1975) Punishing criminals: a study of the relationship between conservatism and punitiveness. Australian & New Zealand J. Criminology, 8, 37-45.

Christie R. and Jahoda M. (1954) Studies in the Scope and Method of the `Authoritarian Personality'. Free Press, Glenco, IL.

Goldberg L. R. (1982) Facets of fascism. J. Personality Assess. 46, 181-182.

Heaven P. C. L. (1984) Predicting authoritarian behaviour: analysis of three measures. Personality & Individual Differences, 5, 251-253.

McKinney D. W. (1973) The Authoritarian Personality Studies. Mouton, The Hague.

Ray, J.J. (1971) Ethnocentrism: Attitudes and behaviour. Australian Quarterly, 43, 89-97.

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

Ray, J.J. (1973) 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. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

Ray, J.J. (1984) Alternatives to the F scale in the measurement of authoritarianism: A catalog. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 105-119.

Ray, J.J. (1985a) Defective validity in the Altemeyer authoritarianism scale. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 271-272.

Ray, J.J. (1985b) The punitive personality. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 329-334.

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

Rigby K. and Rump E. E. (1979) The generality of attitude to authority. Hum. Relat. 32, 469-487.

Rokeach M. (1960) The Open and Closed Mind. Basic Books, New York.


Altemeyer's later work is reviewed as under. The quality has not improved.

Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Australian Journal of Psychology, 42, 87-111.

Ray, J.J. (1990) Letter to the editor about Altemeyer's Enemies of Freedom. In: Canadian Psychology, 31, 392-393.

Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Personality & Individual Differences, 11, 763-764.

Ray, J.J.(1992) Defining authoritarianism: A comment on Duckitt & Foster, Altemeyer & Kamenshikov and Meloen. South African J. Psychology, 22, 178-179.

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