Political Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1988, 303-308.

(With twelve short post-publication addenda following the original article)

COGNITIVE STYLE as a Predictor of Authoritarianism, Conservatism, and Racism: A Fantasy in Many Movements

John J. Ray (1)

The theory that variables from the psychology of perception can be used to explain personality originated with the Nazi Jaensch but was propagated by the Adorno group. Research in the 1950s and 1960s failed to show the expected relationship between cognitive complexity and authoritarianism/conservatism. Cognitive complexity/ rigidity was found to be highly multidimensional rather than unidimensional. Recent work in the field is reviewed with similar conclusions but two dissenting voices are noted: Rump and Sidanius. Close examination of the work by these authors does, however, show that their data provide poor support for that dissent. It is concluded that intolerance of ambiguity/rigidity is best conceived of as a situational response rather than as a trait and that it does not in any case predict conservatism, authoritarianism or racism.

KEY WORDS: cognitive style; authoritarianism; conservatism; racism.

The prominent Nazi psychologist Jaensch (1938) appears to have originated the theory that variables from the psychology of perception have an important bearing on personality. To him there was an ideal Nazi personality or "type" which was characterized by precise and orderly perceptual abilities. The attractiveness of such theories to psychologists can be perhaps gauged by the fact that the Jaensch theory was taken over substantially unchanged by a group of postwar psychologists (Adorno et al., 1950). Their most notable innovation was simply to reverse the value judgments attached to the variables. What characterized the Nazi type was now called "intolerance of ambiguity" but the changed name still referred to much the same perceptual characteristics.

Given the great popularity of the Adorno et al. work, the Jaensch theory received extensive empirical testing in the 50s and 60s. This research was summarized by Bochner (1965) as failing to confirm the predicted association. Authoritarians (Nazi types) were found not to be particularly rigid or intolerant of ambiguity [note that Brown (1965, p. 506) shows that the Adorno group used "rigid" and "intolerant of ambiguity" as synonyms]. Brown (1965, p. 509) was even more subversive of the Jaensch theory when he set out evidence that there really was no such thing as a trait of rigidity. People who were rigid by one criterion were not rigid by another.

Recent work has also led to the view that there is no one such trait as intolerance of ambiguity but rather that there are many different types of intolerance of ambiguity that emerge on different occasions and in different circumstances (Stewin, 1983; Hageseth, 1983). Thus Ray (1972), in an adaptation of the Kelley repertory grid task, found that authoritarians were highly cognitively complex when the stimuli they were asked to rate were authority-related.

As far as racism is concerned, a recent study by Davidson et al. (1983) is of particular interest. Since, unlike most studies of racism, it measured not only attitudes but also behavior. A group of 154 white Australians living in rural areas, where contacts with Aborigines (blacks) could be expected to be high, both answered a questionnaire concerning their attitudes to Aborigines and gave information on how much contact they had had with Aborigines. They were also tested on their flexibility as far as communication was concerned.

As Aborigines in Australia are overwhelmingly semi-literate fringe-dwellers with poor expressive abilities in English, flexibility in the area of communication should have been far and away the type of flexibility most likely to improve race relations. In fact, however, there was no correlation between flexibility and either the attitudinal or the behavioral (contact) measure of racism. It must be stressed that this was not a study of students sitting in a classroom thinking about things in theory but of people out in the community actually involved in race relations.

The data being of unusually high quality, the finding of no connection between flexibility and racism has to be given considerable weight. There would, then, appear to be some sort of consensus that the evidence is against the Jaensch/Adorno theory. Whether or not racism, authoritarianism, and conservatism are as strongly related as Adorno et al. (1950) believed them to be, none of them appears to have much to do with cognitive style.

There do, however, appear to be two psychologists in particular who are still strong advocates of the Jaensch/Adorno theory: J. Sidanius and E. E. Rump [see Rigby and Rump (1982), Rump (1985), and Sidanius (1985)]. Both are interested in the relationship between conservatism and cognitive style and both make extensive use of the Budner (1962) Intolerance of Ambiguity scale. Rump (1985) concludes: "Those who prefer to accept without question the legitimate organs of institutional authority also tend to prefer a simple, well-ordered, unambiguous world in many other respects. The only mystery is that this well-replicated finding is still questioned." Sidanius (1985, p. 637) summarizes his findings: "The nature of the results gave strong-support to authoritarian personality theory." Who is right?

The study by Sidanius (1985) need not detain us long. His summary of results is misleading. When we read what his results actually were, we find that his work is in fact strong support for the irrelevance of cognitive style. We read (p. 650): "The trend analyses showed no statistically significant relationships between political party preferences and the indices of cognitive functioning." We further read: "Political-economic conservatism, or what can he called a pure Socialism-Capitalism dimension, showed no significant relationship to any of the indices of cognitive functioning" (p. 654).

How, then, can Sidanius view his results as support for the Jaensch/Adorno theory? It appears that his overall measure of conservative attitudes does correlate weakly with two of his six cognitive style measures. Even this, however, is explained by Sidanius himself as due to the fact that the overall conservatism measure contains some items expressing racism. When the effect of the racism items is controlled for, no cognitive style measure correlates with any measure of conservatism.

It should also be noted that even the correlations between cognitive complexity and racism are, respectively, 0.02, 0.07, 0.13, 0.04, 0.15, and 0.16. One might have thought that this was as good a picture of non-relationship as one was likely to get but, due to the fairly large sample size used (N = 195), the last two correlations are in fact significant at the 0.05 level.

Correlations explaining a maximum of 2% of the variance are, however, surely trivial. Even if taken account of, they indicate that there are a lot of cognitively complex racists about among the 18-year-old Swedish students Sidanius studied. It might also be noted that Sidanius did use the Budner (1962) Intolerance of Ambiguity scale in his study and gave many results derived from it. He does not, however, mention its correlations with conservatism and racism. Given the eagerness with which he seizes on weak relationships, one must infer that the correlations between the Budner scale and the measures of conservatism and racism were very low indeed.

Since Sidanius (1985) and Rigby and Rump (1982) place some reliance on the Budner scale, some of its characteristics should be noted here. Even in its initial scale construction study (Budner, 1962), the scale showed an internal reliability of 0.49 and subsequent experience with it has not been much better (Dollinger, 1983). This compares with the 0.75 considered by Shaw and Wright (1967) to be the minimal reliability acceptable in a research instrument.

One reason for this low reliability can be seen in the finding by Ray (1981) to the effect that (in a general population sample) the positively and negatively scored halves of the scale are uncorrelated. Two subsets of items that supposedly measure the one thing are in fact measuring entirely unrelated things! If there is such a thing as a general trait of intolerance of ambiguity, then at least half of the Budner items clearly do not measure it. All this is, in fact, support for the initial contention set out above that intolerance of ambiguity does not exist as such.

What we have is a whole set of behaviors called intolerant of ambiguity which do not in fact correlate with one another. Intolerance of ambiguity, then, is not a trait but may be a situational response. Such an interpretation also serves to explain findings such as those by Tom et al. (1984) to the effect that people scoring as intolerant of ambiguity on the Budner scale are not more likely to use stereotypes. If cognitive style were as monolithic as the Jaensch/Adorno theory supposes, this would be a very surprising finding, indeed. As it is, it is simply yet another nail in the coffin of the Budner scale as a valid measure of an intolerance of ambiguity trait.

Given this information about the Budner scale, one hardly knows what to conclude from the finding by Sidanius that the two complexity measures which predicted racism did not correlate with the Budner scale. The only sort of validation offered by Sidanius for his cognitive complexity measures was their correlation with the Budner scale. We are left to sort out the situation where a measure of complexity that was invalid by an invalid criterion predicted racism!

The work by Rump is little better. Rigby and Rump (1982) showed that a series of cognitive style measures correlated with measures of conservatism and acceptance of authority. Ray (1984) presented a critique of that work which again questioned the validity of the measures used. It would be inappropriate to go over the same ground again here, but in summary it might be mentioned that Rump, too, does seem to have some penchant for constructing new cognitive style measures of unknown validity and reliability. Additionally, most of the cognitive style measures Rump used appeared, to varying degrees, to be measuring conservatism. Such items as "Politically, I am something of a Radical" were used to measure complexity! No wonder they predicted conservatism! The dependent and independent variables were inextricably confounded.

Correlations between cognitive style and other variables looked, in short, highly artifactual.

Rump (1985), however, took these criticisms to heart and presented three new studies in an attempt to provide better proof of his contentions. The first study simply found that high scorers on the Rigby (1982) attitude to authority scale showed more religiosity and conservatism. As the strong association between conservatism and attitudes acceptant of authority is hardly disputable (Ray, 1973), this is a most unsurprising finding which tells us nothing about cognitive style.

Rump's second study showed a correlation of 0.33 between intolerance of ambiguity and attitude to authority. The reliability of the intolerance of ambiguity scale was, however, below the level generally considered acceptable in even the preliminary version of a research instrument (Shaw and Wright, 1967) so what was being measured by it is not at all clear. The low reliability, in fact, is supportive of the view that tolerance of ambiguity is multidimensional rather than unidimensional.

Rump's third study used two new intolerance of ambiguity tests of no known validity. The reliability of one of them was given (0.55) but this again suggests multidimensionality rather than unidimensionality. The correlation between the two tests was not given so one might be forgiven for suspecting that this too would indicate multidimensionality rather than unidimensionality. There is, then, nothing in Rump's work which need disturb our skepticism about the Jaensch/Adorno hypothesis.

A final point that seems to be much overlooked is the relationship between cognitive complexity and intelligence (Panek et al., 1983). There would appear to be an obvious relationship between the two concepts, and Raphael et al. (1978) have in fact demonstrated that the Budner scale does correlate strongly with intelligence. What little internal consistency intolerance of ambiguity measures do have, therefore, is probably an effect of their having a common component of intelligence.

This is also true of cognitive style measures more broadly conceived. A recent exchange between Dor-Shav (1986) and Morrison (1986) is enlightening here. Dor-Shav maintains that embedded figures tests and field dependence/in dependence tests have a strong loading on verbal intelligence. Morrison favors the view that nonverbal intelligence is the confounding variable. Even Morrison, however, states: "Indeed, some evidence indicates that removal of the variance attributable to spatial or general ability from FDI measures reduces correlations between FDI measures to nonsignificant levels" (Morrison, 1986. p. 264). Once again, we find cognitive style to be highly multidimensional rather than monolithic.

Despite rearguard actions by writers such as Sidanius and Rump, then, we must surely now conclude that the Jaensch/Adorno theory is wholly mistaken.


{Articles below by J.J. Ray can generally be accessed simply by clicking on the name of the article. I am however also gradually putting online a lot of abstracts, extracts and summaries from older articles by other authors so if an article not highlighted below seems of particular interest, clicking here or here might just save you a trip to the library}

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

Bochner, S. (1965). Defining intolerance of ambiguity. Psychological Record 15: 393-400.

Brown, R. (1965). Social Psychology, Free Press, New York.

Budner, S. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personal variable. J. Personal. 30: 29-50.

Davidson, G., Hansford, B., and Moriarty, B. (1983). Interpersonal apprehension and cultural majority-minority communication. Aust. Psychologist 18: 97-105.

Dollinger, M. J. (1983). Use of Budner's intolerance of ambiguity measure for entrepreneurial research. Psychol. Rep. 53: 1019-1021.

Dor-Shav, Z. (1986). Jewish culture and sex differences in psychological differentiation: A response. J. Social Psychol. 126: 267-268.

Hageseth, J. A. (1983). Relationships among cognitive complexity variables. Psychol. Rep. 52: 473-474.

Jaensch, E. R. (1938). Der Gegentypus, Barth, Leipzig.

Morrison, P. R. (1986). Jewish culture and sex differences in psychological differentiation: A criticism. J. Social Psychol. 126: 263-266.

Panek, P. E., Stoner, S. B., and Beystehner, K. M. (1983). Behavioral rigidity in young and old adults. J. Psychol. 114: 199-206.

Raphael, D., Moss, S., and Cross, W. (1978). Budner's intolerance of ambiguity: a note concerning intelligence. Psychol. Rep. 43: 624-626.

Ray, J.J. (1972) Non-ethnocentric authoritarianism. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Sociology 8(June), 96-102.

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. (1981) Explaining Australian attitudes towards Aborigines Ethnic & Racial Studies 4, 348-352.

Ray, J.J. (1984). Cognitive styles and authoritarianism: A comment on Rigby Rump. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 283-284.

Rigby, K. (1982). A concise scale for the assessment of attitudes towards institutional authority. Aust. J. Psychol. 34: 195-204.

Rigby, K., and Rump, E. E. (1982). Attitudes towards authority and authoritarian personality characteristics. J. Social Psychol. 116: 61-72.

Rump, E. E. (1985). Personality ramifications of attitude to authority: Studies in Australia and Italy. High School J. 68: 287-292.

Shaw, M. E., and Wright, J. M. (1967). Scales for the Measurement of Attitudes, McGraw Hill, New York.

Sidanius, J. (1985). Cognitive functioning and sociopolitical ideology revisited. Polit. Psychol. 6: 637-662.

Stewin, L. (1983). The concept of rigidity: An enigma. Int. J. Advan. Counsel. 6: 227-232.

Tom, D. Y., Cooper, H., and McGraw, M. (1984). Influences of student background and teacher authoritarianism on teacher expectations. J. Ed. Psychol. 76: 259-265.

(1) School of Sociology, University of N.S.W., Australia, P.O. Box 1, Kensington, 2033, New South Wales, Australia.


1). Sidanius wrote a rather hysterical reply to the above article and I was for once allowed to write a rejoinder to the reply -- as under:

Ray, J.J. (1990) Politics and cognitive style: A rejoinder to Sidanius and Ward. Political Psychology 11, 441-444.

2). A demolition of the latest Sidanius ideas about conservatism can be found as under:

Social dominance orientation: Theory or artifact?

3). Another article of some relevance to the points made above is by Higgins & McCann (1984) -- who showed that high F scale scorers were more FLEXIBLE in response to their audience -- a finding reminiscent of my 1972 finding with the Kelley repertory grid mentioned above. See below:

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 and Social Psychology, 1984, vol. 47, No. 1, 26-39.

4). And when Sutherland and Tanenbaum (1980) looked at the political attitudes of high and low authoritarians in a large random community sample of Canadians they found: "The only difference is with regard to civil disobedience, with the authoritarian followers adhering to the letter of the law less rigidly."

Sutherland, S.L. & Tanenbaum, E.J. (1980) Submissive authoritarians: Need we fear the fearful toadie? Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology, 17 (1), 1-23.

5). And if authoritarians are rigid, black-and-white thinkers, how come Wright & Phillips (1979) found that both high and low authoritarians were equally capable of probabilistic thinking?

Wright, G.N. & Phillips, L.D. (1979) Personality and probabilistic thinking: An exploratory study. British J. Psychology, 70, 295-303.

6).And, of course, a major element of the Adorno account was that authoritarian/conservative thinking was paranoid and defensive. Yet in Alker's (1971) study of paranoid defensiveness among college students, it was found that "paranoid-like functioning was most prevalent in those on the extreme "left""

Alker, H.A. (1971) A quasi-paranoid feature of students' extreme attitudes against colonialism. Behavioral Science, 16, 218-227.

7). And many mock-jury or punitiveness studies have found that high authoritarians in fact make more careful distinctions about different types of crime rather than treating all crime generically and simplistically. Garcia & Griffitt (1978), for instance reported more distinctions being made by authoritarian mock-jurors than by others. No all-or-nothing thinking there.

Garcia, L.T. & Griffitt, W. (1978) Authoritarianism-Situation Interactions in the Determination of Punitiveness: Engaging Authoritarian Ideology. J. Research in Personality 12, 469-478

Similarly, Ryckman, Burns & Robbins (1986) found that high authoritarians gave harsher sentences for more severe crime but for less severe crime high and low authoritarians did not differ.

Ryckman, R.M., Burns, M.J. & Robbins, M.A. (1986) Authoritarianism and sentencing strategies for low and high severity crimes. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 12 (2), 227-235.

8). And if police are not authoritarian who are? Yet Lester et al. (1980) found that in his study of six police samples, "Five of the six samples were low in the need for order and high in the need for dominance". High dominance went with LOW need for order -- not the high need for order postulated by the Adorno theory.

Lester, D.S., Babcock, D., Cassisi, J.P., Genz, J.L. & Butler, A.J.P. (1980) J. Social psychology, 111, 153-154.

9). And what could be more authoritarian than the German army of the two world wars and its Prussian predecessors? So, according to Adorno, they would have to be super-rigid in everything they did, would they not? As any student of Clausewitz would know, the opposite is the case. As it says here: "Improvisation was the key to the Prussian-German approach which regarded the conduct of war as an art -- a free, creative activity with scientific foundations. Accordingly, the Prussian-German army saw war as a unique activity lacking firm rules, lists of precepts, facile slogans or any kind of rigid structure. The old German army never adopted a set of principles of war" (Hughes, 1986).

Hughes, D.J. (1986) Abuses of German military history. Military Review, 66 (12), 67-76.

10). And Suedfeld et al. (1986) show that Confederate general Robert E. Lee owed most of his success against superior forces to his great complexity of thinking. But if the leader of an army is not authoritarian, who is? And it was a naughty, conservative, racist army too!

Suedfeld, P., Corteen, R.S. & McCormick, C. (1986) The Role of Integrative Complexity in Military Leadership: Robert E. Lee and His Opponents. J. Applied Social Psychology, 16, 498-507.

11). And getting back to Germany again, if anybody would have to be a rigid and inflexible authoritarian it wouild have to be Hitler's right-hand man and minister for armaments, would it not? Yet Albert Speer's theory (and practice) of management is described by Singer & Wooton (1976) thus: "This theory, labeled by him as "organized improvisation, represents an attempt to debureaucratize the armaments industry in order to make it "results" oriented rather than authority oriented. The theory, which is discussed in detail in Chapter 15 of his memoirs, consists essentially of four major components: collegial decision making, fluidity of organizational structures, temporary organizational structures, and industrial self-responsibility". Hard to find the rigidity there!

Singer, E.A. & Wooton, L.M. (1976) The Triumph and Failure of Albert Speer's Administrative Genius: Implications for Current Management Theory and Practice. J. Applied Behavioral Science, 12 (1), 79-103.

12). The facts are REALLY inconvenient, aren't they? And how did the facts get so inconvenient? Because flexibility and tendency to differentiate is primarily a response rather than a trait. If something is important to you, you will be flexible and careful and differentiating about it. If it is unimportant to you, you will tend to be simplistic and careless about it. So all we should expect is that authoritarians and non-authoritiarians will be flexible and careful and differentiating and non-simplistic about different things, and that is indeed what we generally find. Exceptions: 1). If anybody would be expected to be GENERALLY flexible it would be the authoritarian submitter -- You have to be VERY flexible to do whatever you are told; 2). Being highly intelligent should mean that you differentiate more in general; 3). If a belief is important to you for non-rational reasons, and there is much to call that belief into question, you may be rigid and defensive about that belief in order to retain it at all -- as with the far-Left students tested by Alker (see addendum 6 above).

Go to Index page for this site

Go to John Ray's "Tongue Tied" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Dissecting Leftism" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Australian Politics" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Gun Watch" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Education Watch" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Socialized Medicine" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Political Correctness Watch" blog (Backup here)
Go to John Ray's "Greenie Watch" blog (Backup 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)
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)
Go to John Ray's recipe blog (Not now regularly updated -- Backup 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)