Personality & Individual Differences: Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 685-686, 1988

Racism and personal adjustment: testing the Bagley hypothesis in Germany and South Africa


School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, Kensington, NSW 2033, Australia.

(Received I8 May 1987)

Summary -- In a recent resurrection of the Adorno hypothesis, Bagley has claimed that racists suffer from poor self-esteem. It is pointed out that much of Bagley's own evidence is inconsistent with his claim and it is submitted that studies of racism in Germany and South Africa would be more relevant than Bagley's study of English schoolchildren. Two general population random samples from Munich in Germany and Bloemfontein in South Africa are described. In Germany neurotics were found to be especially tolerant towards "Gastarbeiter" and in South Africa anxiety was unrelated to dislike of Blacks. It is concluded that any relationship between measures of personal adjustment and racial sentiment is a product of the culture and not a cause-effect relationship. Racism is not confined to maladjusted people.


The best known attempt to link racism with personal maladjustment in the prejudiced person is of course that by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford (1950). The type of maladjustment they studied centered around the "authoritarianism" concept. Perhaps due to the great torrent of criticism that has over the years been directed at the Adorno et al. (1950) theory (e.g. Christie and Jahoda, 1954; Rokeach. 1960; Brown, 1965; McKinney, 1973; Altemeyer, 1981), however, it is now hardly mentioned in studies of the genesis of racism (see Tajfel, 1982; Brewer and Kramer, 1985).

Recently, however, a partial revival of the theory has been attempted by Bagley, Verma, Mallick and Young (1979). They claim that low self-esteem and high neuroticism are important causes of racism. They find, like many others before them, that low self-esteem and anxiety are highly related and conclude, again fairly uncontroversially, that self-esteem is a central element in personal adjustment. They admit that the literature on anxiety and prejudice is somewhat confused in the conclusions it indicates but go on to produce fresh data of their own which in their view substantiates the connection between the two variables.

This conclusion is however a quite surprising one when we look at findings used to support it. We find (p.114) that punitive racism shows no significant correlation with any of five factors of self-esteem and that a second factor apparently comprised of items rejecting racism shows weak correlations with two out of the five self-esteem factors. A reasonable summary of such findings might be that there is in general no relationship between racism and self-esteem but that people who are low on self-esteem do show some tendency not to criticise the deeds of others-even when those deeds are racist. Why, then, do Bagley et al. draw markedly different conclusions from this? Because as well as their two second-order factors of racism, they also extracted a third-order factor of racism and this factor does show fairly consistent and certainly higher correlations with self-esteem. But how can this be? How can the two second-order and one third-order factors present such a very different picture? Bagley et al. do not themselves seem to see that there is any problem in need of elucidation here so we can only speculate that the third order factor contained a quantity of items not explicitly concerned with racism and it is these items that contributed the relationship with self-esteem. If so, the Bagley et al. data do clearly tend to support the case opposite to that which Bagley et al. in fact put. Their results are either internally self-contradictory or they deny any connection between racism and self-esteem. The conclusions actually drawn by Bagley et al. do then tend to suggest very selective attention on the part of the these authors. At the very least, critical attention to detail is not their forte.

That the Bagley et al. research must be rated as poor support for their hypothesis does not however mean that the hypothesis is incorrect. Bagley et al. do mention other evidence which is not so transparently faulty and which may therefore be relatively sound. Evidence from other sources is obviously needed before anything like a conclusion can emerge. Some evidence of this sort is presented below.


The present studies were carried out in the two countries which have been the most notable loci of race problems in this century-Germany and South Africa. Bagley et al. acknowledge the very important role of national culture in fostering racism so data drawn from countries where racism has been a particular problem would seem to have maximum relevance. Germany today is not of course a notably racist country but there are those who believe that this non-racism is little more than a surface gloss (e.g. Broder, 1986).

Study I

This study took the form of a random doorstep survey of the W. German city of Munich. A total of 136 people were interviewed and responded to the 6-item N scale from the MPI (Eysenck, 1959) plus a scale of attitudes towards immigrant workers from Southern Europe ("Gastarbeiter"). Other results from this survey have been reported elsewhere (Ray and Kiefl, 1984} -- where full methodological details may also be found. The correlation between the two scales was -0.311, suggesting that tolerance in this sample was neurotic. As Bagley et al. (1979) acknowledge the intimate association between neuroticism and self-esteem, this finding is very much in conflict with their hypothesis.

Study II

This study was done in the heavily Afrikaner South African city of Bloemfontein. A total of 95 whites were randomly sampled and responded to both an attitude to blacks scale and a slightly modified form of the Taylor (1953) MAS. Details of the modifications and other methodological details are already given elsewhere (Ray and Heaven, 1984). The MAS was used to measure trait anxiety so that sole reliance on the Eysenck N scale could be avoided. The racism and anxiety scales correlated -0.008. Racists showed, in other words, no particular tendency to be anxious. This accords with other South African results reported by Duckitt (1985).


The present results have made it very clear that prejudice can emanate from well-adjusted people. Prejudice is certainly no indicator of maladjustment. The theory advanced by Bagley et al. (1979) to link racism with adjustment does sound plausible but it is a poor predictor of reality. Furthermore, other equally plausible theories of opposite implications spring readily enough to mind. Might it not, for instance, be maintained that some association is to be expected between thinking well of oneself and thinking less well of others? Yet racism is a common form or modality of thinking less well of others so racism and high self-esteem should be associated. Perhaps thinking ill of racial outgroups helps oneself to look good by contrast and leads to generally higher self-esteem than might otherwise be expected. This is in fact very similar to the theory advanced by Bagley et al. except that for some reason Bagley et al. assume that only people who start out with low self esteem benefit from looking down on others.

An equally important implication of the present findings, however, is the attention they focus on the importance of the surrounding culture. The relationship between racism and adjustment seems to be not one of cause and effect but rather an artifact of the culture in which it is studied. Even if it is conceded that Bagley et al. have shown some association between adjustment and racism in their samples of English schoolchildren, the extra context provided by the present results shows clearly that such a relationship is not generally true. It may indeed by a peculiarly English phenomenon. How culture exerts its influence in this way must however be left to other research to answer.


Adorno T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik E., Levinson D. J. and Sanford R. N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. Harper, N.Y.

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

Bagley C., Verma G., Mallick K. and Young L. (1979) Personality, Self-esteem and Prejudice. Saxon House, Farnborough.

Brewer M. B. and Kramer R. M. (1985) The psychology of intergroup attitudes and behavior. Ann. Rev. Psychol. 36, 219-243.

Broder H. M. (1986) At thinks inside me . . ," Fassbinder. Germans and Jews. Encounter 66, 64-68.

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

Christie R. and Jahoda M. (1954) Studies in the Scope and Method of "The Authoritarian Personality". Free Press, Ill.

Duckitt J. H. (1985) Prejudice and neurotic symptomatology among white South Africans. J. Psychol. 119, 15-20.

Eysenck H. J. (1959) Manual of the Maudsley Personality Inventory. University of London Press.

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

Ray, J.J. & Heaven, P.C. L. (1984) Conservatism and authoritarianism among urban Afrikaners. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 163-170.

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

Rokeach M. (1960) The Open and Closed Mind. Basic Books, N.Y.

Tajfel H. (1982) Social psychology of intergroup relations. Annual Review of Psychology 33, 1-40.

Taylor J. A. (1953) A personality scale of manifest anxiety. J. Abnorm. soc. Psvchol. 48, 285-296.

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