Article written for the academic journals in 1990 but not accepted for publication


J.J. Ray

University of N.S.W., Australia


Authoritarian personality theory condemns intolerance of ambiguity yet authoritarian personality theory itself represents a vast oversimplification of the data. It has long been known that the principal measure of authoritarianism (the F scale) provides very little prediction of actual behaviour and critical reviews of both the scale and the theory have been frequent. It is shown that recent findings also fail to support central aspects of the theory. When they use the F scale or refer to the theory, however, large numbers of psychologists write as if no or few criticisms of either had ever been made. It is suggested that many psychologists themselves must be intolerant of ambiguity to ignore or reject so much that is unfavourable to authoritarian personality theory.

"Authoritarianism" as a personality theory

The authoritarian personality theory of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford (1950) was originally devised as an explanation of German antisemitism but does not appear to figure much in modern-day accounts of the aetiology of racial attitudes (e.g. Brewer & Kramer, 1985; Tajfel, 1982; Messick & Mackie, 1989). This is probably because ethnocentrism and stereotyping are now generally among psychologists seen as "universal ineradicable psychological processes" (Brown, 1986. See also Tajfel & Fraser, 1978 and Park, 1950) rather than as the attributes of deviants only. The Adorno theory does, however, seem to have considerable continued acceptance as a personality theory per se and books and papers on it continue to appear (e.g. Altemeyer, 1981; Browning, 1983; Van Ijzendoorn, 1989; Witt, 1989; Meloen, Raaijmakers, Hagendoorn & Visser, 1988; Fisher et al, 1988; Mercer & Kohn, 1980; Kelley, 1985; Maier & Lavrakas, 1984). Many of these are even quite laudatory towards the theory (e.g. Browning, 1983 and Meloen et al, 1988).

Nazi origins

The entire "career" of this theory is, however, filled with improbabilities. As many psychologists are now probably aware, the theory was largely borrowed by Adorno et al (1950) from the work of the Nazi psychologist, Jaensch (1938). See Brown (1965). Jaensch seems to have been the first to offer a systematic theory wherein variables from the psychology of perception could be used to explain variations in personality. Jaensch felt that the ideal Nazi type (the 'J' type) was a person who had strong, clear and unambiguous perceptions. That a version of this theory should tend to have lasting attraction to modern-day psychologists of the English-speaking world seems in some need of explanation.

Value judgments

The changes made in later versions of the theory would however appear to be crucial here. Adorno et al did make one major change to the Jaensch theory: They reversed the value judgments. Where Jaensch had thought it obvious that unambiguous perceptions were desirable, Adorno et al disagreed. They thought that "intolerance of ambiguity" was a fault. They saw it as an inability to deal with the complexity of the real world. They saw it as synonymous with "rigid" (Brown, 1965, p. 506). They saw it as the outcome of a desire for an oversimplified conceptual world.

When is "simplified" oversimplified?

The word "oversimplified" is crucial here. When does simplification slide into oversimplification? The scientific principle known as Occam's razor is of course a very strong statement of preference for the simplest possible conceptual world. Science involves a search for conceptual simplicity. The search by Einstein for a "unified field theory" is one example of such a search and his now lauded formula e=m*c*c is an example of such a search being rewarded. But when physicists want to simplify their account of all the forces in the universe into a single theory are they being intolerant of ambiguity? Surely not. As Welsh (1981) recognizes, simplification and order can be proper, useful and desirable. So at what point does it become undesirable? No-one seems to say. One might propose that the break occurs when you start to leave out part of the data but that would surely be too demanding. What theory does explain all the data? Einstein's theories do not. There are always a few cases that do not quite fit. Should that prevent us from using theories? Obviously, it is all a matter of degree and the point when a search for simplicity in our conceptual world is "excessive" can never be very well specified. To my knowledge, no-one in psychology has ever attempted to specify it. Various scales to measure intolerance of ambiguity and related cognitive style constructs have been devised but behind such scales always seems to lie an assumption that any desire for simplicity revealed by such measures is an excessive desire for simplicity. This is a rather mystifying assumption for any scientist to make.

Empirical disconfirmations

Even from what has been said so far, then, it seems obvious that authoritarian personality theory does have considerable theoretical difficulties. In addition to these, however, there are also formidable empirical difficulties. The great popularity of the theory for the last 35 years or more has meant that very many tests of predictions derived from it have been made. It took a very long paper to summarize just the first five years of such research (Titus & Hollander, 1957). Even at that early stage, however, the findings were not very favourable. Titus & Hollander (1957) concluded that the F scale (the main index of the authoritarian personality) correlated with other pencil-and-paper tests but with not much else. The theory had little power to predict behaviour. Since the prediction of behaviour would seem to be at least a very large part of what psychology is about, this is not an encouraging conclusion.

Although there have been many critical reviews of authoritarian personality theory since the early ones by Christie & Jahoda (1954) and Titus & Hollander (1957) -- e.g. Brown, 1965; McKinney, 1973 -- perhaps for our present purposes it will suffice to allude to the work of Altemeyer (1981). Altemeyer devotes the first half of his book to reviewing the evidence about authoritarianism up to around 1972 or 1973. His conclusion is that the case for the Adorno et al theory is still "not proven". Considering the amount of testing the theory has had, this is, and was meant to be, a fairly damning conclusion. Altemeyer's work is particularly valuable for the way in which he shows that results apparently supportive of authoritarian personality theory often have alternative or even trivial explanations.

To take an instance of this from more recent research than that surveyed by Altemeyer, various studies can be found (e.g. Higgins & McCann, 1984; Erthal, 1984) to show that high scorers on the F scale among certain populations (usually students) have a slight tendency to be more attentive and deferential to authoritative and prestigious figures. Since the F scale contains many admiring references to authority, this is, however, surely no surprise. It shows that there is occasionally some slight consistency between attitudes and behaviour. What it does not and cannot show is that this deference to authority is in some way pathological -- which is what would be needed for a test of the Adorno theory. Such findings "support" the Adorno theory only insofar as they show that the Adorno F scale has some slight validity in its most transparent area -- i.e. it is confirmed that the F scale does tend to express pro-authority sentiments. This may be a useful starting point but getting beyond that starting point has long been and still is the problem. Confirmation for the less obvious and more complex parts of the Adorno theory is what is lacking.

It would also seem that the theory is greatly mistaken even in explaining the phenomena it was most explicitly devised to explain: It gives a quite untrue picture of German Nazis. Far from the Nazi military and domestic organizations of World War II being rigid, inflexible and formal, there is now ample evidence that the Nazi armies and the home industries which supported them were so extraordinary effective in carrying out their assigned tasks (until they were eventually overwhelmed by sheer weight of vastly superior numbers) precisely because they were so flexible, innovative and improvisational (Dupuy, 1986; Singer & Wootton, 1976; Hughes, 1986). The Hollywood image of the Nazi forces as bumbling German blockheads should be seen for what it is: A survival of Allied wartime propaganda that is in fact the reverse of the truth. The bumbling blockheads were in fact overwhelmingly to be found on the Allied side. For instance, as Kirkland (1986) points out, at the time the Blitzkrieg against France began, the French airforce had planes on the ground that were the equal of the Luftwaffe in both quality and quantity but the French authorities had provided crews for only a quarter of them! The Adorno et al version of what Nazis are like is, then, a Hollywood one. Since the studies of Nazi military and domestic effectiveness in World War II are studies of real-life behavior rather than of some laboratory simulation or attitude study, they should be particularly persuasive.

In fact, of course, the flexible and improvisatory approach to war among the German forces goes right back to Prussia's founding and still most influential military theorist, the 150 years dead Von Clausewitz -- and there cannot be any doubt about how much he distrusted formulae and admired improvisation.

To revert to modern-day psychological research, however, perhaps another example of what is emerging may be in order. Kline & Cooper (1984) found that high scorers on a balanced version of the F scale are not particularly dogmatic, machiavellian, mentally ill, maladjusted, dishonest, unsociable, weak in ego, submissive, unhappy, unadventurous, tough-minded, suspicious, guilty or tense. That is surely a far cry from the character Adorno et al describe. Kline & Cooper themselves seemed rather troubled by this and made some attempt to reconcile their findings with the Adorno et al theory but the findings by themselves speak clearly enough.


The weight of the evidence also seems to favour the view that, far from being consistent personality traits across measures and across situations, cognitive styles such as rigidity and intolerance of ambiguity seem to be measure-specific and even situation-specific (e.g. Stewin, 1983; Reardon & Rosen, 1984; Goldsmith & Nugent, 1984; Tiedemann, 1984; Kline & Cooper, 1985; Ray, 1972; Hageseth, 1983; Bochner, 1965; Widiger, Knudson & Rorer, 1980; Chen & Olson, 1989; Kenny & Ginsberg, 1958; Muhar, 1974). Insofar as measures of cognitive style do show generalizability, it seems likely that this could be due to the fact that they are strongly loaded with a factor of general intelligence (Morrison, 1968; Panek, Stoner & Beystehner, 1983; Raphael, Moss & Cross, 1978; McKenna, 1983). This is reminiscent of the work by Goossen (1950) -- who deliberately set out to measure intelligence without using any obvious "test-like" items. Goossen might have been helped in his work had he known of the later findings to the effect that items written by intelligent people to reflect intolerance of ambiguity tend not to be assented to by intelligent people.

Perhaps one final finding in this area deserves separate mention: Foley (1977) found that, true to prediction, simplicity of cognitive structure predicted racial prejudice in whites. Contrary to prediction, however, simplicity of cognitive structure predicted racial tolerance among blacks. The nature and effects of complex cognitive structure can therefore only adequately be described with one word: complex. The simplistic correlations proposed by Adorno et al (1950) are just not there.

Authoritarian complexity and flexibility

It has in fact been shown that authoritarians can show high flexibility and complexity if the situation is conducive to it. Ray (1972), for instance, found that high scorers on a balanced scale of attitude to authority (that expressed admiration for Mussolini, war etc.) were seen by their peers as unusually flexible and they also showed more cognitive complexity on an adaptation of the Kelley repertory-grid task. The adaptation of the task, however, consisted principally of the fact that respondents had to rate a number of words that were authority-related. When dealing with something they thought important, relevant or interesting to them, authoritarians approached the task in highly complex and differentiating ways.

Similarly, Erthal (1984) found that highly authoritarian Ss changed their attitudes significantly more than did Ss low on authoritarianism. When did they do that? After hearing a communication of a persuasive character from a high-status person. In other words, in response to authority authoritarians are flexible, not rigid. This in retrospect probably seems a fairly common-sense finding but it was contrary to prediction and does serve to highlight the fact that cognitive styles seem to be situation-specific responses rather than stable and general personality traits.

There has been some dissent from this conclusion (e.g. Rigby & Rump, 1982; Sidanius, 1985; Rump, 1985) but various artifacts and other problems in the data used by these authors have been pointed out (Ray, 1984a & 1988). Sidanius (1988) has defended his work but in so doing continues to rely heavily on the validity of the Budner (1962) intolerance of ambiguity scale despite its known problems with deficient internal inconsistency and contamination by intelligence (See Ray, 1988). A full refutation of Sidanius's defence is given in Ray (1990) so let it here be simply noted that he advances propositions of the form: If X is uncorrelated with the Budner scale but X does correlate with one or two Budner items then X is intolerant of ambiguity. Such propositions would seem to represent faith of a high order.

Sidanius, is however, merely following fairly common practice (cf Rump, 1985) in inventing new measures of cognitive style and then being fairly cavalier about validating them. Why this should be common is hard to understand, however. Writers such as O'Keefe & Sypher (1981) find deficient validity for even commonly-used measures of cognitive complexity.

It may be of some relevance to note that Sidanius (1985) found no correlation between conservatism and any measure of cognitive style. Further, of the six out of seven correlations between racism and cognitive style that he gives, only two were statistically significant. At .15 and .16 they were however negligible in magnitude and were in any case derived from the two measures of cognitive style that were shown to be invalid on Sidanius's own validity criterion (correlation with the Budner scale score)! With supporters like that, Adorno et al need no enemies.

Several studies were referred to above in which authoritarians were found to be on at least some occasions flexible rather than rigid. No attempt has been made to provide an exhaustive catalog of such studies but other studies with similar conclusions include Tiwari & Singh (1963) and Lamberth, Krieger & Shay (1982). There are also, of course, studies that show F scale score to be, on occasions, unrelated to rigidity (e.g. Muhar, 1974). The study by Muhar is also interesting for its corroboration of the finding by Brown (1965) to the effect that rigidity measures are almost completely uncorrelated. This contrasts starkly with the monolithic and highly generalizable interrelationship required by the theory of Adorno et al (1950). There are, of course, many other ways that this monolith breaks down but perhaps only one more example can be accommodated here: To Adorno et al (1950) authoritarianism included both punitiveness and cognitive simplicity. Cognitively complex people should therefore tend to be less punitive and reject things like the death penalty for serious crime. In fact, conceptual complexity is unrelated to support for the death penalty (DeVries & Walker, 1987).

Explaining racism

The main point of authoritarian personality theory is, of course, the explanation it offers for racism. Ethnocentrism is presented as an outcome of generalized hostility in just some particular people rather than as a universal human folly. If this were so, racism should be highly monolithic and undifferentiated. All people who differ from the ingroup should be similarly disliked. This does not seem to be so. Ethnic attitudes seem to have considerable multidimensionality (Trlin & Johnston, 1973; Paulsen & Balch, 1984; Kippax & Brigden, 1977; Ray, 1974 Ch. 46; Ray & Lovejoy, 1986; Newman, Liss & Sherman, 1983; Heaven & Bezuidenhoudt, 1978) and the finding from the stereotyping literature is almost universally that they are highly differentiated. (e.g. Kippax & Brigden, 1977; Newman, Liss & Sherman, 1983). Reminiscent of the findings with authoritarianism by Erthal (1984) and Ray (1972) mentioned above, Gallois, Callan & Parslow (1982) found that ethnocentric people make racial judgments in a more differentiated way than do tolerant people. None of this is as one would predict from authoritarian personality theory. Further, dislike of other groups is not related to type of upbringing (Sidanius, Ekehammar & Brewer, 1986) and it can be rational (Banton, 1983; Wellman, 1977; Hechter, 1986; Moreh, 1986; McClendon, 1985; Brown, 1985). It can be caused by perceived threat (Shamir & Sullivan, 1985; Ray, 1980 & 1988; Duckitt, 1985; Padgett & Jorgenson, 1986) and modern-day Jews are quite prone to it (Ginsberg, 1981; Shamir & Sullivan, 1985; Kraus, 1984; Eisenstadt, 1983). Given that Jews have been such victims of racial antagonism, the latter finding is perhaps the most unsettling of all. What would it need for racism to be unlearned? Can it be unlearned? If not, was it a learned response to begin with?

Sociological theories of racism

The failure of the Adorno theory does not, however, mean that there are no remaining social factors to be considered as possible causes of racism. A recent study of racism among a large general population sample in England by Studlar (1979) is very interesting in this respect. Studlar considered that his data enabled him to test "most of the prevalent hypotheses in the literature of British race relations" (p. 117). What he found, however, was that, using all his "predictors", he could still overall predict no more than 8% of the variance in racial attitudes. This is hardly a satisfactory result.

"Culture clash" or liking for similarity

Yet there does exist one theory with very great potential for explaining intergroup conflict. This is the "culture clash" or "liking for similarity" theory. This is both a popular lay theory of racial conflict (See Vinsonneau, 1981; Fuzeng, 1986; Eisenstadt, 1983) and one that has, in various guises, received extensive academic study over the years (e.g. Park, 1950; Manheim, 1960; Rokeach, 1960; Stein, Hardyck & Smith, 1965; LeVine & Campbell, 1972; Liebowitz & Lombardo, 1980; Taylor & Guimond, 1978; Byrne, Clore & Smeaton, 1986: Marin & Salazar, 1985; Ray, 1983; Furnham & Bochner, 1986). The idea underlying the various versions of this theory is that what is normal and acceptable in one ethnic group may be abnormal and decried in another ethnic group. Members of the second ethnic group will therefore inevitably look down on members of the first ethnic group while at the same time preferring members of their own group (i.e. people similar to themselves). Prejudice should therefore increase as an outcome of increased contact between different ethnic groups (given that the different groups are in fact culturally different). Increased contact will highlight real differences in customs, values, beliefs etc.

The "contact hypothesis"

This latter conclusion may be particularly troubling to some American readers. It runs directly counter to the well-known American "contact hypothesis" -- which broadly says that whites who get to know blacks better thereby get to like blacks better. As has been pointed out at some length elsewhere (Ray, 1983), the British version of this hypothesis seems to be as pessimistic as the American version is optimistic. The problem, of course, is that the American version of the contact hypothesis is not in fact as crass as the description given above. The favourable outcome of contact is said to arise only in severely circumscribed situations -- situations of "equal-status co-operation". It is doubtful that such circumstances very often prevail in real life. Any time contact fails to produce a favourable outcome one can therefore say that the conditions were not right. At any event, the findings in the literature seldom show much support for the American hypothesis and those confirmatory findings that do exist tend to have serious problems (See the reviews in Ray, 1983a and Ford, 1986).

What does abound in the literature, however, are findings very much in accord with the culture-conflict theory -- i.e. findings that contact with culturally different minorities tends to engender dislike of or discomfort with those minorities (Ginsberg, 1981; Stephan & Stephan, 1985; Marin & Salazar, 1985; Shamir & Sullivan, 1985; Kraus, 1984; Oliver, 1981; Marjoribanks & Jordan, 1986; Mitchell, 1968; Suzuki, 1976).

Culture conflict and Australian blacks

The study by Mitchell (1968) is particularly impressive in this connection. It is one of the few studies in the social science literature that used not a sample but an entire population. In 1967 Australia held a referendum designed to give Australia's native blacks (the Aborigines) citizenship of the country. They had previously been denied it. Two thirds of Australians voted "Yes" and citizenship was granted. The percentage who voted "No", however, was not nearly as insubstantial as one might perhaps have expected and Mitchell endeavoured to isolate who the "No" voters ("racists"?) were. Using official population statistics, he found that the "No" vote almost all came from areas where there were high concentrations of Aborigines -- in other words, from areas where the opportunity for contact with Aborigines was high. The correlation between the size of the "No" vote and opportunities for contact with Aborigines was in fact a remarkable .9. Stronger support for the culture-conflict theory could hardly be imagined. The finding stands out from other work on the subject for four reasons: 1). The size of the effect (.9); 2). The fact that a whole population provided the data rather than a sample of uncertain representativeness; 3). What was measured was a significant behaviour (vote) rather than an expression of attitude; 4). The behaviour could be emitted in the privacy of the ballot box free from immediate social pressures and so had maximum opportunity to represent the real wishes of the voter. With such a strong finding from such strong data, it seems that there really is little left to explain in racial attitudes. We like most those who are most similar to ourselves and dislike most those who are most dissimilar to ourselves. Most Australian Aborigines still live in literally primitive conditions and make little visible attempt to better themselves (Cowlishaw, 1986). Most white Australians who encountered white people like that would disapprove of them. Precisely because they do NOT discriminate racially, then, most white Australians also disapprove of black people who are like that.

It could be maintained that the correlations obtained by Mitchell were "ecological" ones in Robinson's (1950) sense and that such correlations tend to be high generally, particularly where the units for analysis are large and hence few. Mitchell, however, analyzed his data using both large and small units of analysis and got the same result both times so it seems unlikely that the unit of analysis was of any importance. See also Menzel (1950).

It seems regrettable that this remarkable finding by Mitchell is virtually unknown. It seems to be cited only by the present author. This stands in some contrast with the Adorno et al work. The Adorno work has repeatedly been shown to explain nothing and yet it is easy to find publication after publication wherein the Adorno theory is not only cited but is referred to as if no substantial criticism of it had ever been made (e.g. Kinloch, 1986; Maier & Lavrakas, 1984; Miller, Slomczynski & Kohn, 1985). This is a very paradoxical contrast. Erroneous speculation is more influential than hard evidence.

Why is the "authoritarianism" theory so popular?

This general unawareness of both Mitchell's work and the problems with the Adorno et al theory surely stands in some need of explanation. What is there about authoritarian personality theory that gives it such paradoxical acceptance among psychologists? I would like to submit that a major reason could be that many psychologists are intolerant of ambiguity. Despite the fact that authoritarian personality theory condemns intolerance of ambiguity and its attendant oversimplifications, a major irony is that authoritarian personality theory itself is very intolerant of ambiguity and might well be described as itself being one vast oversimplification. Despite the prominence of extremely authoritarian governments of both Left and Right on the world stage, to Adorno et al authoritarianism is characteristically Rightist. Despite such obvious instances of racism on the Left as the antisemitism of Karl Marx himself (Blanchard, 1984) and the "anti-Zionism" of the early Fabian Socialists (Himmelfarb, 1989), to Adorno et al racism is characteristically Rightist. Despite the fact that the most unrelenting foe of Hitler was the arch-Conservative Winston Churchill (Stalin was an ally of Hitler until the Wehrmacht invaded Russia), to Adorno et al it is conservatives and Nazis who are alike rather than Nazis and Communists.

So authoritarian personality theory provides the invaluable service of lumping into one category many people whom psychologists might tend to criticize (Racists, antisemites, authoritarians, conservatives, punitive people, rigid people, hostile people etc.). Particularly when we see that the application of valid measures to general population samples shows that both racism and authoritarianism are just as likely to be Left-wing as Right-wing (Ray, 1973, 1983b & 1984b), we must conclude that the simplifications offered by authoritarian personality theory are positively Mephistophelian. But psychologists aspire to be scientists and simplification is what scientists seek. So the attraction of the ersatz simplifications that Adorno et al proffer can be understood.

There is nothing wrong with seeking conceptual simplification per se. Where the search for conceptual simplicity slides into intolerance of ambiguity, however, is when simplifications are accepted that leave out, fail to account for, or fly in the face of large chunks of the data. This transition to intolerance of ambiguity can be hard to specify in many instances but I submit that what psychologists do when they accept authoritarian personality theory is ignore virtually all the evidence. That has got to be intolerance of ambiguity. Perhaps because of the poor development of their science, therefore, such psychologists are very intolerant of ambiguity and authoritarian personality theory ideally meets the needs of people who are intolerant of ambiguity. Erroneous speculation is preferred to hard data. Whether any advancement of scientific knowledge can take place where such an orientation prevails must however be seen as unlikely.


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Some 2007 research by Haidt would seem to be of considerable interest in connection with the above. Haidt argues that the basis of morality is instinctive but that conservatives display greater cognitive complexity in dealing with moral questions. Given the frequent Leftist assertion that "there is no such thing as right and wrong", that is not inherently surprising. Although they often use moral talk in an attempt to influence others, Leftists would seem, on their own admission, to have no serious interest in or committment to morality of any kind. That does make the invariable brutalities of Communist regimes rather understandable.

Part of a summary of Haidt's review:

"Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of -- and constrained by -- a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity."

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