(Article written in 1991 for the academic journals but not accepted for publication)


J.J. Ray

University of N.S.W., Australia


Shively & Larsen (1990) report a study in which a scale of social conservatism was shown to predict attitudes towards various conventional authorities in society. The authors interpret their findings as showing that people's attitudes to authority generalize from the authoritarian nature of their families. They appear, however, to have overlooked most of the previous research on the question. A fuller review is offered which shows that family background has a far more complex and problematical influence on later attitudes and behaviour.

On critiques

Snizek (1984) points out that leading sociology journals publish a large volume of critiques of the papers they publish. He regards this as a sign of a healthy discipline. It may therefore be appropriate that papers in psychology journals too be subjected to some occasional critical scrutiny.

Socialization or Conservatism?

A paper by Shively & Larsen (1990) would appear to be rather in need of such critical attention: The authors devised (but did not validate) a scale of "Socialization" which reads remarkably like an ordinary social conservatism scale (Cf. Ray, 1985b) and proceeded to show that it correlated moderately with attitudes to various social authorities. In other words, social conservatives showed more respect for the Police, for physicians, for their parents etc.

Such findings are of course completely unremarkable, have much precedent and may even be true by definition (Ray, 1973; Rigby & Rump, 1979).

The interpretation given by Shively & Larsen to their findings, however, is remarkable. They conclude that a favourable attitude to authority is the outcome of strict socialization by the parents during childhood and that such socialization can also lead to ethnocentrism. This is, of course, also very much the thesis of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford (1950). Shively & Larsen seem to have learned nothing from the vast volume of criticism that has over the years been directed at the Adorno et al theory (e.g. Christie & Jahoda, 1954; Titus & Hollander, 1957; Rokeach, 1960; Titus, 1968; McKinney, 1973; Ray, 1976; Altemeyer, 1981).

Below is presented a brief look at some of the relevant findings that these authors appear to have been unaware of.

Initially, however, some comment seems needed on the one reference they did cite in support of their contentions. They cited the findings of Larsen & Schwendimann (1970) to the effect that Mormon college students who described their parents as behaving aggressively towards them during childhood also showed a slight tendency to get higher scores on the Rokeach (1960) Dogmatism scale and a moderate tendency to get higher scores on an unpublished scale of "Chauvinistic nationalism". Such findings are of course capable of being interpreted in the way that Shively & Larsen (1990) do interpret them but a more parsimonious interpretation of them might be that people who describe the virtues of their mother country in aggressive and dogmatic ways also tend to see aggression in others. More evidence is needed before any safe conclusion can be drawn. Let us therefore look at the other evidence which is available.

Findings with the "A" and "AA" scales

Shively & Larsen (1990) deserve some credit for not continuing to use the much-criticized (Altemeyer, 1981; Ray, 1973; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983) California 'F' scale as their measure of attitude to authority. They devise new scales of their own to measure attitudes towards specific authorities. They are, however, far from being the first to do this (Ray, 1971 & 1972; Rigby & Rump, 1979; Altemeyer, 1981) and their findings have many precedents and implications that they seem unaware of. For instance, the "A" (Authoritarianism) scale (Ray, 1972 & 1984) has been extensively validated and does show a modest (r = .29, p <.01) correlation with tendency to vote Right-wing. It could be maintained that this correlation is due only to the largely "Rightist" character of the scale items but, against that, there was also included in the same study a derivative of the "A" scale called the "AA" (Attitude to authority) scale (Ray, 1971) wherein an attempt was made to have no overt party political content. This scale was in fact an even better predictor of vote (r = .32). This is in line with the view set out at some length elsewhere (Ray, 1973) to the effect that some recognition of the need for certain types of carefully limited authority has always through history been part and parcel of "conservative" thought and therefore suggests that correlations between conservatism and approval for authority (as in the Shively & Larsen results) may be simply true by definition and are not therefore really empirical statements.

It must not be assumed, however, that the Adorno et al. view of attitude to authority as highly generalizable is here being conceded. That attitudes to various authorities are far from unitary became evident in the construction of the "AA" scale (Ray, 1971) and can also be seen in the work of Rigby and his associates:

Rigby's work

Rigby & Rump (1979) constructed a scale of attitude to authority which would seem highly relevant to the Shively & Larsen (1990) work but Shively & Larsen do not mention it. The Rigby & Rump scale comprised four balanced sub-scales of attitude to the Law, to teachers, to the Police and to the Army. Later, a sub-scale of attitude to medical practitioners was added. This scale was also found to be highly related to conservatism -- as measured by the Wilson (1973) 'C' scale.

Much more importantly, however, Rigby & Rump (1981) found that respect for one's parents generalized to respect for other authorities only in early adolescence. By late adolescence, the relationship had vanished entirely. Since it is a central claim of both Shively & Larsen (1990) and Adorno et al (1950) that a rigid, pro-authority attitude was the outcome of authoritarian parenting (i.e. parental insistence on parental authority in the form of heavy discipline), this seems an important disconfirmatory finding.

Other disconfirmations

Such disconfirmations are far from isolated. For instance:
1). Arap-Maritim (1984) found parental strictness to produce competitiveness in children rather than submissiveness;
2). Elms & Milgram (1966. See their "Results" section) found that it was rebellious rather than submissive children who came from strict parenting;
3). Baumrind (1983) found that children who had experienced firm parental control developed with better competencies than did children who had experienced less parental control;
4). Di Maria & Di Nuovo (1986) found that authoritative training and parental behaviour had very little influence in determining the dogmatic attitudes of children;
5). Braungart & Braungart (1979) found that attitudes were most regimented in far-Left political groups;
6). Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen (1980) found that it was Leftists rather than conservatives who reported more conflict with their parents; and
7). Sidanius, Ekehammar & Brewer (1986) found that racism was unrelated to type of upbringing.

Do authority attitudes generalize?

These disconfirmatory findings do not exhaust the list, however. Rigby, Schofield & Slee (1987) have recently extended their work further. They noted that Johnson, Hogan, Londerman, Callens and Rogolsky (1981), in a study of college students, found that ratings of "father" and "mother" loaded on a factor different from that loading "police" and "government". They also noted that, using a younger sample, Lapsley, Harwell, Olson, Flannery and Quintana (1984) reported some correlation between ratings of "father" and ratings of "police" and "government" but no prediction at all from ratings of "mother". Rigby et al (1987) then went on to report more data of their own which they viewed as generally supporting the view that attitudes to authority do generalize.

In arriving at this conclusion, however, Rigby et al (1987) relied fairly heavily on factor analysis and reported very few of their zero-order correlations. Those they do report, however, are instructive. From their table 5 we can calculate that the average correlation between rebellion/submission to parents and attitudes to the Police and the law was less than .20. This is very close to orthogonality indeed. Rebellion/submission to teachers, however, was a more substantial predictor of attitude to the Police and the law -- with a mean correlation of over .40. If, then, parents are an example of authority (as both Shively & Larsen and Adorno et al contend), they seem to be a very special case of it.

Perhaps more decisive in evaluating the generalizability of attitudes to authority, however, was the finding that, among High-School students, one of the three proposed components of the "AA" scale did not correlate with the other two (Ray, 1971). The body of items devised to measure "View of the leader as an executive versus a decision-maker" did not correlate with the bodies of items concerned with "Freedom versus regulation" or "Evaluation of authoritarian institutions". The latter two clusters did, however, correlate. The first cluster, therefore has to be discarded, leaving an "AA" scale that is thematically rather limited. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was the finding that none of this applied when the items were administered to an Army conscript sample. There all three elements intercorrelated highly. The degree of generalizability of attitude to authority is, therefore, not only limited but also variable.

A recent replication among adults of the relationships (between components of the AA scale) found among the High School students can be found in Byrne, Reinhart & Heaven (1989, Table 2) so it cannot be maintained that the High School students were a "special case"

A final finding of failure to generalize in this area also comes from Ray (1971). It was found that the "AA" scale showed a correlation (.19) of only borderline significance with a scale of Social Deference. The study reported in Ray (1971) was carried out in Australia and Social Deference is an explanation that is sometimes used in Britain and Australia (See Ray, 1972b) for the fact that around a quarter of the working class vote Tory (i.e. for Rightists). British and Australian politics tend to be class-polarized with the Left being represented by a "Labor" party. It is therefore seen as requiring explanation that some workers do not vote for "their" party.

An attitude of Social Deference is one where the voter feels that he would be best represented in Parliament by a person of "standing" -- i.e. an upper-class, educated or accomplished person. Since Tory (conservative) politicians in Britain and Australia tend to qualify in that way, a deferent person would vote for them even though the voter himself is very humbly situated.

It would seem therefore that a deferent attitude is a strong form of authoritarian submission. That it does not in fact correlate with other pro-authority attitudes must therefore be seen as considerably disturbing to any belief that there is such a thing as a generalized attitude to authority. More inclusive concepts such as "authoritarianism" are also therefore shown as of doubtful viability.

Remmers (1959, p. 55) argues for the value and generalizability of results derived from High-School student surveys but it might nonetheless be held that a finding among a group of 110 Australian High School Students could well be a "one-off" event that should not be taken too seriously. As it happens, however, the finding just discussed has been replicated among a general community sample of Australians (Ray, 1985a, Table 2). How much evidence can we afford to ignore?

Personality scales

The discussion so far has concerned authoritarian attitudes. Adorno et al (1950), however, have argued that underlying authoritarian attitudes is an authoritarian personality. So strongly did they believe this that they even purported to measure personality via attitudes. Since their F scale proved non-predictive of behaviour, however (Titus, 1968; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983), it seemed desirable to construct a measure of authoritarianism in personality scale format (i.e. a behavior inventory). When this was done, the personality scale concerned (the Directiveness scale) was found to correlate with neither authoritarian attitudes nor with political party preference (Ray, 1976 & 1983). Domineering, directing, authoritarian personalities are, then, equally likely to be found on both sides of politics but such personalities tell us nothing about the policy choices that will be made. Adorno et al were simply mistaken in their view about the influence of personality. See also Heaven & Connors (1988).

The pro-authority nature of conservative thought turned out then to be simply unimportant. Both Leftists and Rightists have been shown to be equally likely to exhibit authoritarian behavior-tendencies in their own everyday lives.

Finally, it might be noted that, in one of the very few such studies, Rokeach (1960) did manage to obtain a sample of English Communists. Despite the Adorno et al characterization of such people in generally favourable terms, (Adorno was, after all, a prominent Marxist theoretician) these must surely have been very authoritarian people and, in confirmation of that, the English Communists showed the highest scores on both Dogmatism and opinionation of any group that Rokeach surveyed.


In conclusion, then, the degree to which attitudes to particular authorities will generalize is highly unpredictable, particularly where parents are the authority concerned (Rigby & Rump, 1981; Johnson et al., 1981). Approval for some conventional types of authority does, however, seem to be part and parcel of conservative thought (Ray, 1971, 1972 & 1973; Rigby & Rump, 1979). Having favourable attitudes towards some conventional types of authority does not however lead to authoritarian (aggressive, domineering) behaviour or racist views (Ray, 1976, 1984 & 1988) and authoritarian personal behaviour is equally to be found among people on both the Right and Left of politics (Ray, 1983). Further, the experience of childhood discipline does not seem to promote conformity, racism or conservatism (Arap-Maritim, 1984; Elms & Milgram, 1966; Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen, 1980; Sidanius, Ekehammar & Brewer, 1986). These conclusions are roughly the opposite of those drawn by Shively & Larsen (1990).


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