Personality & Individual Differences Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 60I-602, 1984

Authoritarianism and interpersonal spacing behavior


Sociology Department, University of New South Wales, P.O. Box 1, Kensington, Sydney, N.S.W. 2033, Australia

(Received 3 February 1984)

Summary -- When the relationship between interpersonal distance and authoritarianism was examined by Frankel and Barrett (1971), they failed to mention that their main effect for authoritarianism was not significant. Adorno et al. (1950), however, claim that authoritarians like greater interpersonal space. As the measure of authoritarianism concerned (the F scale) has been shown to be largely a measure of conservatism, any relationship observed could have wide applicability. Methodological weaknesses in the Frankel and Barrett paper are noted and a further experiment with 25 student Ss is reported. Correlations of 0.41 and 0.-13 between F-scale score and distance adopted from two target persons (confederates) were found. Extensive controls for possibly confounding variables did not alter this result by any more than a minor amount.


Most of us probably have some awareness that there is a 'proper' distance to be kept between ourselves and others during various kinds of interaction. Although this distance appears normally to be regulated largely at the unconscious level, most of us have surely had it brought to the level of our conscious awareness from time to time by the unpleasant phenomenon of the 'person who stands too close'. Hall (1959) relates a number of amusing anecdotes about what happens when this occurs.

Why physical distance should be so important and what influences affect it have become the subject of a very large academic literature (Slane, Petrushka and Cheyfitz, 1981; Vine, 1973). One potential influence on spacing, however, has been very little studied. Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford (1950) note in passing, apparently on the basis of clinical observations, that authoritarians (in their sense) like to maintain a greater distance than others. It is non-authoritarians who like to 'get close'.

An experimental test of this hypothesis was carried out by Frankel and Barrett (1971). They selected 40 of their students who scored in the top or bottom 20% on F-scale score, put them one by one m the middle of a room with distance markers on the floor, led confederates up to them and told the students to report when the confederate got too close. Levels of self-esteem were also manipulated, as was race of the confederate. Analyses of variance were used to test the three potential effects and their interactions. As it happens, the only effect for which Frankel and Barrett (1971) fail to report an F statistic is the main effect due to authoritarianism. They do, however, say in their abstract: "It was hypothesized that..... the largest areas of personal space would be used Ss who are high in authoritarianism and low in self-esteem ..... The hypotheses were supported." From this, one might be forgiven for inferring that there was a significant main effect due to authoritarianism. A perusal of the cell means in their Table 1, however, reveals that the grand means for the high and low authoritarian groups overall are virtually identical. This very strongly suggests that there was no significant main effect due to authoritarianism and that the abstract can only have been referring to a significant interaction.

This failure to confirm the Adorno et al. observation, however, need not be final. using only extreme scorers on the F scale is not necessarily the most informative strategy (the very high scorers might, for instance, have simply been acquiescers rather than ideological rightists) and the experimental procedure was a highly artificial one that required Ss to make conscious and public judgments about preferred distance. Since distance seems normally to be adopted largely at the unconscious level, this could be a considerable distortion, Slane et al. (1981) report that distance so measured has little relationship to distance measured by other means. An experiment is reported below that hopefully overcomes to at least some extent these two limitations of the Frankel and Barrett (1971) study.


The Ss were 25 undergraduate psychology students from the University of Queensland, Australia. They were given several pencil-and-paper tests as a group and then, at different times, took part one by one in the experiment proper. The pencil-and-paper tests included the California F scale and several other measures designed to enable control for potentially confounding variables. These were: Harwood's revision of the Allport-Vernon-Lindzey scale of values (Harwood, 1956), the verbal fluency scale of the Thurstone Primary Mental Abilities Battery and an ad hoc scale requesting ratings of how much the Ss like and how much they knew two particular people -- namely one of their tutors and one of their fellow students.

The two people rated were confederates in the experiment proper, which was disguised to the Ss as concerned with verbal fluency. The experiment was carried out in a room floored with square vinyl tiles-which were used to enable estimates of how far apart any two people were at any one time. Ss were brought into the room singly and were told to discuss with each of the confederates in turn a topic specified on a card handed to them. There were seven topics chosen to represent the central theme of each of the values on the revised Allport scale. Some Ss got a topic that was a high positive value for them, some got a highly negatively valued topic and some got a topic of intermediate value. The 'value centrality' of a topic was, of course, judged by reference to the S's score on the Allport scale.

The possible confounding variables allowed for in the experiment were, then, as follows: it was felt that people with a topic to discuss that concerned them greatly might stand closer or further off; it was felt that people might stand nearer to someone they knew well or liked more; it was felt that verbally fluent people might stand closer or further away; it was felt that Ss might stand closer to a fellow student than to a tutor. The theoretical background to these supplementary hypotheses is discussed elsewhere (Ray, 1967).

When the Ss entered the room, they found the confederate with a tape recorder beside him and were told that the tape recorder was there to obtain a sample of their speech. They were told that this would help validate the PMA verbal fluency scale and that this was the purpose of the experiment. The conversational distance adopted by the Ss (while the confederates remained in a fixed position) was therefore completely unremarked but was recorded by the experimenter covertly. The conversation was allowed to proceed for 5 minutes (to allow the distance adopted to stabilize) before distance was recorded.


The distance adopted from both high- and low-status confederates correlated significantly (0.44 and 0.41) with the California F-scale score. An analysis of variance revealed that the Ss did stand further away from the high-status person but that the authoritarianism x status interaction was not significant. Authoritarianism independently, then, predisposed Ss to adopt a greater conversational distance. Given the small N for the experiment, it must be noted that only quite strong effects will be shown as significant. As it happened, however, all the non-significant relationships were (with one exception) quite weak -- suggesting that even with a larger n, much the same picture would have been revealed. The exception was a correlation of -0.32 between verbal fluency and distance adopted from the fellow student. If significant, such a correlation would have shown that less fluent persons tend to stand closer.

A correlation of some interest was a significant correlation (r = 0.36) between verbal fluency and F-scale score. This means that verbally fluent people got higher F-scale scores. As the usual picture of the authoritarian is of some one rather ill-educated and inarticulate (Brown, 1965), this is an unexpected finding. It may, however, have something to do with the finding (Ray. 1971) that pro-authority people are socially adaptable. Fluency may be one aspect of social adaptability. Partial correlation was used to remove the influence of all other variables both singly and in combination from the correlations between distance and authoritarianism. Only minor variations in the two coefficients resulted. Full details of all analyses are given elsewhere (Ray, 1967).


It has been shown elsewhere (Ray. 1973; Suziedelis and Lorr, 1973) that the California F scale may be nothing more than a measure of general social conservatism. It certainly is not valid as a predictor of authoritarian behavior (Titus, 1968; Ray and Lovejoy, 1983). This being so, any correlations with the F scale could have wide community relevance. The findings of the present study could be taken as showing that conservatives generally tend to stand further away from others during conversation. Much more representative sampling would, however, be needed before such a conclusion could be finally accepted.

A relationship between distance and conservatism would however fit in quite well theoretically. Interpersonal distance is thought by at least some authors (McBride, 1964) to be a similar phenomenon to `flight distance' in animals and, as such, presumably represents some sort of safety precaution or wariness about the other person. Since conservatives are, however, almost by definition more wary than others about their fellow man (Ray, 1981/82). they should stand further off.


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

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

Frankel A. S. and Barrett J. (1971) Variations in personal space as a function of authoritarianism, self-esteem and racial characteristics of a stimulus situation. J. Consulting & Clinical Psychology 37, 95-98.

Hall E. T. (1959) The Silent Language. Doubleday. Garden City, N.Y.

Harwood E. (1956) Social development in adolescence: a study of adult role and position and value formation in a group of adolescents in south east Queensland. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

McBride G. (1964) A general theory of social organization and behaviour. University of Queensland Papers, Faculty of Veterinary Science 1, 75-110.

Ray J. J. (1967) Determinants of interpersonal distance. Unpublished B.A. Dissertation, Department of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Ray, J.J. (1971) An "Attitude to Authority" scale. Australian Psychologist, 6, 31-50.

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) Conservatism and misanthropy. Political Psychology 3(1/2), 158-172.

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

Slane S., Petrushka R. and Cheyfitz S. (1981) Personal space measurement: a validational comparison. Psychological Record 31, 145-151.

Suziedelis A. and Lorr M. (1973) Conservative attitudes and authoritarian values. J. Psychology 83, 287-294.

Titus H. E. (1968) F scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psychological Record 18, 395-403.

Vine I. (1973) Social spacing in animals and man. Social Science Information 12(5), 7-50.

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