(This article was written for the academic journals in 1990 but was not accepted for publication. It was one of several articles written in 1990 to see if more outspoken articles would be accepted. None were.)


J.J. Ray

University of N.S.W., Australia


It is pointed out that the authoritarian personality theory of Adorno et al (1950) is not now generally used for its original purpose: the explanation of racism. The paradox is pointed out, however that the Adorno et al work is still voluminously cited. An examination of recent citations reveals, however that such citations tend to come from the more minor journals. Nonetheless, the sheer number of the citations indicates that many people continue to see the theory as relevant. Why this is so when the theory has so often been shown as deficient is explored.

Explaining racism

In 1950, two books were published which purported to explain intergroup antagonisms or "racism" (Park, 1950; Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford, 1950). Park (1950) claimed that racism was universal and motivated by the normal human preference for the familiar. Adorno et al (1950) claimed that racism was deviant and caused by "authoritarianism" -- which in turn was caused by a history of childhood problems with the father. These are very much opposed points of view. Judging by what elementary textbooks of psychology and social psychology (e.g. Brown, 1986; Tajfel & Fraser, 1978) now say on the topic, however, the view presented by Park has thoroughly triumphed. In his introduction to the topic, Brown (1986) calls racism and its associated phenomena "universal ineradicable psychological processes". And this is moderate compared with what can be found elsewhere in the literature. For instance, Hechter (1986) claims that all racism is rational while the distinguished French anthropologist Levi-Straus (1983) not only claims that ethnocentrism is universal and inescapable but also claims that it is desirable -- on the grounds that it promotes cultural diversity. And the sociobiologists, of course (e.g. Mihalyi, 1984/5; Van den Berghe, 1986) regard ingroup favouritism as universal not only to man but to all social animals. Perhaps most extreme of all, Volkan (1985 & 1988) says that we all actually need enemies and allies and that this can function at both the personal and the intergroup level. From saying that intergroup hostility is deviant to saying it is a universal and desirable human need is certainly a long march. The Adorno et al (1950) view has, then, been thoroughly rejected.

Citations of Adorno et al.

So when we look at the literature we should find many references to Park (1950) and very few references to Adorno et al (1950), should we not? I imagine most of us have some awareness that this is far from being the case. To flesh out that awareness, it may be of interest to note that in the 1970 issue of Social Sciences Citation Index there were just over 100 recorded references to Adorno et al (1950) and 4 references to Park (1950). In the 1988 issue of the same publication there were 59 references to Adorno et al (1950) and 9 references to Park (1950). What is going on? Why is a totally rejected theory so constantly cited while a now-vindicated theory is largely ignored?

In an attempt to find out, I listed all the studies citing Adorno et al (1950) in the 1988 Social Sciences Citation Index. I give below a brief summary of the topic of each paper plus basic citation details for the convenience of those who wish to read further: Antisemitism (Political Psychology vol. 9 p. 385ff); health promotion (Health Psychology 7, 203); Identity (Research in Education 38, 65); Homosexuality (J. Sex Res. 25, 451); juror studies (Law & Human Beh. 12, 263); political choice (Amer. Political Sci Rev. 82, 719); terrorism (Terrorism 11, 91); political hate letters (Brit. J. Polit. Sci 18, 467); family studies (J. Hist. Beh. Sciences 24, 343); disarmament (Arquivos Brasileiros de Psicologia 39(4), 14); conflict (Louisiana Law Rev. 72, 753); Marxism (Communication 10, 211); critical studies (Critical. Stud. Mass Communication 5, 16); hegemony (Critical Stud. Mass Communication 5, 179); legal practice (Vanderbilt Law Rev. 41, 717); decision-making (Society 25(5), 25); personality assessment (J. Personality Assessment 52, 5); identity status (J. Adolescence 11, 195); attitude to blacks (Educ. Psychol. Meas 48, 107); N. Sanford (J. Counselling & Development 66, 451); ideology (Political Psychol 8, 563); prejudice (Small Group Beh. 19, 386); racism (J. Negro Educ. 57, 125); decision-making (Systems Res. 4, 251); ambiguity (Soc. Sci. Med. 27, 857); aggression (Human Rights Quart. 10, 393); moral judgment (Brit. J. Social Psychol. 27, 239); erotica (J. Sex Res. 25, 123); stereotypes (Social Cognition 6, 40); political philosophy (Political Psychol. 9, 209); authoritarianism (Australian J. Psychol 39, 331); political toughmindedness (J. Soc. Psychol 128, 217); childrearing (J. Moral Educ. 17, 127); murder (J. Crim. Just. 16,1); thinking skills (Res. Higher Educ. 27, 126); political symbolism (Polity 21, 137); the New Right (Signs 13, 671); Attitude to the deaf (Rehabilitation Psychol. 32, 239); Attitude to nuclear disarmament (J. Peace Res. 25, 265); sex roles (Sex Roles 19, 1); authoritarianism (J. Social Psychol. 128, 75); racism (Political Psychol. 9, 413); history of political psychology (Political Psychology 91, 165); conservatism (Psychologia 31, 170); sexuality (J. Religion & Health 27, 129); racism (Personality & Indiv. Diffs. 9, 685); cognitive style (Political Psychol. 9, 303); Attitude to authority (J. Genetic Psychology 149, 383); authoritarian personality (J. Res. Pers. 22, 465); humour (J. Social Beh. & Personality 2, 453; racism (Amer. J. Sociology 94, 273); political sophistication (J. Pers. Social Psychology 55, 37); intolerance of ambiguity (Political Psychology 9, 309); racism (Applied Psychology 37, 311); Racism (Ethnic & Racial Studies 11, 218); racism (Zeitschrift fuer Experimentelle und Angewandte Psychologie 35, 476); religiousness (Nordisk Psykologi 40, 34); moral majority (Sociological Forum 3, 234); authoritarianism (Psych. Reports 62, 959); sex (J. Sex Res. 25, 219); criminology (Brit. J. Criminology 28, 207); police (Criminology 26, 695); addiction (Brit. J. Addiction 83, 1395).

Minor journals only?

Perhaps the most obvious thing about this list is that only one journal published by the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.) occurs in it. This is despite the vast volume of citations that are contained in A.P.A. journals. This suggests the generalization that the Adorno et al theory is referred to mainly in minor journals or journals that do not have psychology as their major focus. A quick re-check of the journals listed will reveal that there are indeed few journals listed for which such a characterization would be arguable. While this is a somewhat reassuring commentary on the editorial procedures of the major psychology journals, it does not mean that the problem is solved. To dismiss the journals listed would be to dismiss a major slice of the literature and the sheer number of the citations surely reveals that the Adorno et al theory lives in the consciousness of large numbers of people with a knowledge of academic psychology. It seems, in other words, that a lot of people see the theory as relevant even if they have to turn to minor journals to get their thoughts on the subject published.

It may at this point be worth noting that Social Sciences Citation Index has a deliberate policy of not covering what its backers see as "minor" journals so the effect observed might in fact have been even stronger were it not for this policy. Social Sciences Citation Index did not at last inspection, for instance, cover The South African J. Psychology, in which many articles on authoritarianism have been published over the years.

Might it not be that people now cite the Adorno et al work only to reject it? Before answering this, it needs to be pointed out that there are now only three authors who contribute articles on authoritarianism to the literature year after year. These are K. Rigby, P.C.L. Heaven and the present author. These three authors are indeed generally critical of the Adorno et al theory but between them account for only six of the references listed. The other authors are generally ones who contribute only one or two papers on authoritarianism and then fall silent. Among such authors there seem to be many who think that the Adorno theory has significant validity. Indeed such authors sometimes treat the theory to high praise (e.g. Meloen et al, 1988). Even where the relevance of the Adorno theory is questioned, there seems often still to be the rather curious view that it can be tested only by use of the Adorno et al (1950) measuring instruments (e.g. Louw-Potgieter, 1988), indicating that the Adorno et al work is still held in some regard.

Problems with the Adorno et al theory

This is, on the face of it, quite surprising. Not only is the theory now generally recognized as of little or no use in explaining racism but it must also hold some sort of record for the number of times it has been criticized on other grounds. Almost since it was published it has attracted what might almost be called a torrent of criticism (e.g. Christie & Jahoda, 1954; Titus & Hollander, 1957; Rokeach, 1960; Brown, 1965; Titus, 1968, McKinney, 1973; Altemeyer, 1981).

One seemingly insuperable problem for the theory is that the supposed measure of authoritarianism on which it relies (the F scale) is not valid as a predictor of authoritarian behaviour (Titus, 1968; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983). It does sometimes provide a weak prediction of submissive behaviour, particularly among students (e.g. Titus, 1968; Higgins & McCann, 1984) but this is only a small part of what is said to constitute "authoritarianism". Why the theory continues to have any credibility with anyone is therefore a considerable mystery. As the list of citations above reveals, however, it is in fact seen as relevant to the study of a wide range of topics, including, in fact, most of the topics that the theory originally touched upon. It is almost as if no criticism of the theory had ever been made.

Poor communication?

Why is the theory so impervious to evidence? Why does it continue to be so widely accepted despite the evidence against it? Perhaps the main reason is that the process of scientific communication is as yet an immature one in the social sciences. Meloen et al (1988) is a case in point. They claim to have done a searching review of the literature on the Adorno et al theory and yet to have turned up nothing adverse to it. Since I alone have had published over 100 papers (starting in 1970) that were critical of the Adorno et al theory, this can only be called downright astonishing.

I do not know why psychologists do not find references that are relevant to their field of study but that they often do not seems clear. Part of the blame is of course carried by the indexing systems we use. The deliberate limitations of Social Sciences Citation Index have already been mentioned and, as I have shown elsewhere (Ray, 1986) Psychological Abstracts is even more limited. It does not now, for instance, abstract books! At one time it even abstracted book chapters. Their response to the growth in the psychology literature thus seems to have been to ignore more and more of it!

Nonetheless, both publications have over the years listed a great deal that is adverse to the Adorno et al theory so their deficiencies cannot alone provide an explanation of how hard it is to communicate new information to social scientists. Perhaps it is a problem of information overload. Whatever it is, while it persists its effect seems to be to "filter" very strongly what will get through into a social scientist's consciousness. Once a theory gets through the filter, however, the same filter tends to ensure that the theory becomes essentially unfalsifiable for large numbers of social scientists. Such social science is, then, science in name only.

Altemeyer's work

Perhaps it is a fitting conclusion to the present paper to look very briefly at a recent attempt to reanimate the Adorno et al (1950) theory. Altemeyer (1981) reviewed very comprehensively up to about 1972 or 1973 the great body of literature which tested the Adorno et al theory. He found a general lack of supporting evidence. He then selected out a subset of the Adorno et al ideas to form a new concept of Right-wing authoritarianism and devised a scale (the RWA scale) to measure it. His second book, however, reveals (Altemeyer, 1988) that his RWA scale gives virtually no prediction of anything political! Both Leftists and Rightists are roughly equally likely to get high scores on it. He is in effect reduced to saying that many Right-wing authoritarians are Leftists! That is hardly a convincing job of reanimation. It may not even be a meaningful statement.


Adorno,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.

Altemeyer, R. (1988) Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

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

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

Hechter, M. (1986) Rational choice theory and the study of race and ethnic relations. Ch. 12 in J. Rex & D. Mason (Eds.) Theories of race and ethnic relations Cambridge: U.P.

Higgins, E.T. & McCann, C.D. (1984) Social encoding and subsequent attitudes, impressions and memory: "Context-driven" and motivational aspects of processing. J. Pers. Social Psychol. 47, 26-39.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1983) Le Regard Eloigne Paris: Plon.

Louw-Potgieter, J. (1988) The authoritarian personality: An inadequate explanation for intergroup conflict in South Africa. J. Social Psychology 128, 75-87.

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.

Mihalyi, L.J. (1984/85) Ethnocentrism vs. nationalism: Origin and fundamental aspects of a major problem for the future. Humboldt J. Social Relations 12(1), 95-113.

Park, R.E. (1950) Race and culture Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press

Ray, J.J. (1986) The inadequacy of "Psychological Abstracts" Bulletin of the British Psychological Society 39, 184-185.

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

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

Tajfel, H. & Fraser, C. (1978) Introducing social psychology Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin.

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.

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