Political Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1988, Pp. 671-679.


John J. Ray (1)

This paper points out the paradox that although there is now a considerable accumulation of evidence against almost every single aspect of authoritarian personality theory, the F scale still continues to predict racism - even after the methodological criticisms of the original work by Adorno, et al. (1950) are allowed for. Aspects of the F scale that might be involved in this prediction are considered. Major themes in the F scale are identified as insecurity, authoritarian submission, general intolerance, and old-fashioned outlook. Reasons are given for attributing the correlation with racism entirely to the old-fashioned nature of the F scale items. It is shown that authoritarians are not racists.

KEY WORDS: F scale; racism; authoritarian.


Although the explanation of racism in terms of authoritarian personality theory (Adorno et al., 1950) was clearly the dominant one among psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s, its influence would now seem to have run its course. Recent reviews of the psychological literature on intergroup relations (e.g., Tajfel, 1982; Brewer and Kramer, 1985) hardly mention it. Instead, current explanations of racism tend to be in terms of group processes -- explanations which owe more to the work of Sherif (1966) than to Adorno et al., (1950). One could be tempted to believe that younger psychologists today have never heard of authoritarian personality theory.

A more likely explanation for the way the theory tends to be treated nowadays, however, is simply that the torrent of criticism directed at it over the years (e.g., Christie and Jahoda, 1954; Titus and Hollander, 1957; Rokeach, 1960; Brown, 1965; McKinney, 1973; Ray, 1976; Altemeyer, 1981) has finally tended to undermine people's faith in it. While the theory's simplifications were seductive (suggesting that racism, Fascism, conservatism, punitiveness, hostility, etc. were all only slightly different manifestations of a single inadequate type of personality), it eventually became obvious that these were great oversimplifications and, as such, very intolerant of the ambiguity and complexity that exist in the real world. The theory just did not fit the facts. To give some flavor of the criticisms, let us take a fairly random sampling of a few of the difficulties the theory faces:

1. Far from being deviant, at least some degree of racism is in fact normal and may even be universal (Studlar, 1979; Tajfel and Fraser, 1978). The most vivid evidence of this may be the fact that, despite their recent history, even Jews are still quite prone to racism (Kraus, 1984; Ginsberg, 1981; Eisenstadt, 1983).

2. Variations in degree of racism have been shown to be unrelated to type of upbringing (Sidanius, et al., 1986).

3. Attitudes to one's parents as authorities generalize to acceptance of other authorities only in early adolescence. By late adolescence the relationship has vanished (Rigby and Rump, 1981).

4. Punitiveness is highly multidimensional. Types of punitiveness which, according to the Adorno et al. (1950) theory should be highly related turn out to be only weakly related (Ray, 1985a). There is thus no basis for infer ring that people who secretly want to punish their fathers will also thereby want to punish ethnic outgroups.

5. Intolerance of ambiguity and rigidity [Brown (1965 p. 506) shows that Adorno et al. used these terms synonymously] is also multidimensional (Goldsmith and Nugent, 1984; Stewin, 1983; Brown, 1965, p. 509; Kline and Cooper, 1985; Hageseth, 1983). It appears, in fact, to be a situation-specific response rather than a personality trait. A person who is rigid on one occasion and on one criterion will therefore be quite flexible on another occasion and on another criterion. "Rigid" personalities do not exist as such.

6. The Adorno et al. "F" scale predicts best pencil and paper responses of college students and is a poor predictor of any sort of behavior -- particularly among the general population (Titus and Hollander, 1957; Titus, 1968; Ray, 1976; Ray and Lovejoy, 1983).

One could extend this list much further but perhaps enough has been said at this point to make it clear why the theories of Adorno et al. can no longer be accepted by those who are concerned about evidence. For those who wish to study the evidence further, a good summary of the work up to about 1972 is to be found in Altemeyer (1981).

Yet despite this record of predictive failure, the F scale produced by Adorno et al. has also had some successes. In particular, it is a good predictor of racist attitudes and also tends to give some prediction of authoritarian submission -- particularly among students. As evidence of the former it may be noted that even when the various methodological problems associated with the original Adorno et al. (1950) had been allowed for (one-way-worded scales and biased sampling) a correlation of 0.44 (p < 0.01) between the F scale and the racism scale was found by Ray (1980). As evidence of the latter, work by Erthal (1984) and Higgins and McCann (1984) seems typical. Erthal found that high-F scorers who had heard a persuasive communication from a higher-prestige person changed their attitudes in response to the communication more than did low-F scorers. Higgins and McCann found that high-F scorers were more likely than low-F scorers to change their description of a stimulus to suit their audience's attitude when the audience had higher status. In both studies, high-F scorers could be said to have submitted to authority. Since about a third of the original F scale items contained favorable mentions of authority, however, this result is not terribly surprising or much in need of explanation.

The correlation between the F scale and racism scales is, however, in need of some explanation. The correlation could well be described as one of the most enduring in the social science literature and yet it is not obviously artifactual in that there is no mention of racial issues among the F scale items. Despite all the other failures of their theory, Adorno et al. (1950) would appear to have succeeded in at least one of their basic aims -- to find something that would predict who is racist and who is not. It seems appropriate to ask, therefore, whether modern-day psychologists might not have thrown out the baby with the bathwater in giving so little heed to the Adorno et al. work. While their own theory of what was going on in the relationship between the F scale and racism may have to be discounted, perhaps other theories could be devised to account for what is undoubtedly a very solid and interesting empirical relationship. Even if the Adorno et al. theory is wrong, surely the evidence associated with it cannot simply be ignored. Some explanation for it needs to be given. Can the finding be reconciled with the modern-day emphasis on group processes as the prime cause of racism? As some contribution towards this, a new look at the F scale is attempted below.

For a start, it must be conceded that the relationship between the F scale and the racism scales does contain some element of artifact. Its items are ones that were picked out by Adorno et al. because of their correlation with other items expressing racism. This was because the F scale was from the beginning intended as a covert measure of racism. The interesting question, however, is why the items collected into the F scale predict racism. What element or elements do these items have in common that lead to the prediction? The explanation given by Adorno et al. (that the items express rigidity, punitiveness and other things that are also involved in racism) cannot now be accepted in the light of the evidence already mentioned. So what alternative explanation is there?

Perhaps the most interesting alternative theory springs from a consideration of a little-known paper by Pflaum (1964). Pflaum found that he was able to construct a parallel form of the F scale by using items collected as popular beliefs and myths in the 1920s. This very strongly suggests that, even at the time it was constructed, the F scale was simply a scale of old-fashioned attitudes. Hartmann (1977) goes even further in referring to the scale as a collection of "Victorian" values. In either case, it seems clear that a high F score betokens a person who is old-fashioned in his views and outlook. This of course fits in very well with such a person's willingness also to acknowledge racist attitudes. Before Hitler, racist attitudes were respectable. It should never be forgotten that Hitler's initial policy for the Jews was merely to expel them from Germany. This policy failed because no one else would have the Jews whom he wished to expel. Had the pre-war world not been so racist, there might have been no holocaust. A high-F scale scorer, then, is simply someone who is lost in the culture of the past.

But is this all there is to the F scale? Are there not other elements in it that could cause the correlation with racism? One possibility that springs to mind is that the scale is a measure of general intolerance. Perhaps it predicts racial intolerance because racial intolerance is a subset of general intolerance. Thus it could be held that the F scale item "No sane, normal, decent person would ever think of hurting a close friend or relative" expresses intolerance of people who hurt close friends or relatives. Similarly, "Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas but as they grow up, they ought to get over them and settle down" could be seen as intolerant of the new ideas of young people. Such an interpretation of what the F scale measures, however, runs against the general finding that has pervaded the literature on this subject to the effect that most apparently unitary variables tend, on examination, not to be unidimensional at all. Multidimensionality seems to be the norm. (See the observations already made on punitiveness and rigidity.) The idea that intolerance should be the exception and prove monolithic is not therefore a very promising one. Further, it has been shown that even different types of racial intolerance are not very highly correlated when adequately measured (Ray, 1975; Ray and Lovejoy, 1986), so the prospect of racial intolerance generalizing to other forms of intolerance would appear slight. Only further research could settle the question, however.

There is, to be sure, one aspect of the F scale which has quite a good claim on contributing to the prediction of racism. This is the one-way-worded format of the original F scale. Rorer (1965) has offered the view that this aspect of the F scale is of negligible predictive importance, but the initial response to Rorer's claims was very negative and subsequent research has also not been supportive (see Ray, 1983, 1985b). Heaven (1983) has, in fact, shown that a measure of pure acquiescence (a balanced version of the F scale scored without any reverse-scoring) correlates 0.32 with a balanced scale of racist attitudes. A large part of the original prediction of racism furnished by the F scale was thus directly attributable to the format rather than the content of the scale. Such a criticism is not, however, applicable to any of the several balanced forms of the F scale that are now available (e.g., Ray, 1972c, 1979). Since such balanced scales also predict racism (Ray, 198Q), it is evident that acquiescence was never the whole story as far as what the F scale predicts is concerned.

In considering what other elements in the F scale might make a contribution to its prediction of racism, it is tempting to look at the results of the various F scale factor-analyses for ideas. A notable feature of such analyses, however, is the diversity of their results. The factor structures they find are all quite different (e.g., Krug, 1961; Camillieri, 1959; Struening, 1965). One major reason for this is that Adorno et al. explicitly designed each of their F scale items to do a number of jobs. Most items were designed to express more than one of the themes thought important for predicting racism. This being so, it must not be too surprising if from time to time different parts of the same item seem salient to different respondents. This alone could cause the factor structure to vary. Basically, however, factor analysis is just not well suited to deal with items that are deliberately multifaceted. While factor analysis has facilities for dealing with similarities and differences between items as wholes, it has no facilities for dealing with parts of items. In deciding what the major themes in the F scale are, therefore, we may just have to rely on conceptual analysis without any aid from statistical crutches. We certainly cannot turn to factor analysis to find out what the structure of the F scale is.

At the conceptual level, then, there would seem to be two more possible aspects of the F scale that could be involved in the prediction of racism: the fact that many F scale items convey a sense of apprehension or perceived threat -- and something that Adorno et al. themselves saw as central -- the fact that the F scale does to some extent measure authoritarian submission.

F scale items like "Most people don't realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places" and "Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching an infection or disease from them" do clearly seem to be expressing considerable insecurity. Could such insecurity lead to racism? Do insecure people tend to want to attack scapegoats? The simple answer is, No. There is ample evidence (e.g., Ray and Heaven, 1984; Duckitt, 1985) to show that anxiety and insecurity are not correlates of racism. Furthermore, as part of the item analyses conducted for the purpose of constructing the short balanced (BF) F scale (Ray, 1972c, 1979), the "apprehensive" items of the original F scale were comprehensively eliminated. This indicates that they were peripheral to what the F scale is measuring. The core of F scale meaning measured by the short BF scale, however, still does give a strong prediction of racist attitudes, so the apprehensive items cannot have been central to that prediction. (See the items of the short BF scale as given in the Appendix.)

It only remains, therefore, to consider the role of authoritarian submission. The F scale clearly does in part measure this and even predicts submissive behavior (Titus, 1968) to some extent. Adorno et al. indubitably saw this aspect of the F scale as involved in the prediction of racism, but is it? It would be no trouble at all to answer this question if the submissive items could be separated out from the other F scale items and examined by themselves. Unfortunately, that we cannot do. The reason is again that all the items in the scale were designed to do more than one job.

In the present case the difficulty is that those items expressing authoritarian submission tend to do so in a very old-fashioned way. Items such as "The most important virtue children should learn is obedience and respect for authority" certainly advocate authoritarian submission but they are also hopelessly old-fashioned in the age of Dr. Spock. Any correlation they showed with racism could therefore be due solely to the old-fashioned aspect rather than to their pro-authority aspect.

To advance our knowledge of the role of authority-acceptance, we have to turn to more modern scales of authority acceptance. On no occasion when modern, balanced scales of authority acceptance have been administered along with balanced racism scales, however, have any positive correlations between attitude to authority and racism been observed. Indeed, on one occasion pro-authority attitudes were found to go with tolerance! (Ray, 1972a, b; Ray, 1984). Clearly, then, it is not the authoritarian aspect of the F scale that causes it to predict racism. Authoritarians are not, ipso facto, racists.

It would seem, then, that the only aspect of the F scale's content that could reasonably be responsible for its prediction of racism is its old-fashioned character. You have to be stuck in the culture of the past to avow racism. It should be noted that this is not equivalent to saying that you have to be conservative to avow racism. Modern-day conservatives do not appear to be particularly racist (Ray, 1984; Ray and Lovejoy, 1986; Ray and Furnham, 1984), though it is of course possible to word conservatism scales in such an old-fashioned way that they will show a correlation with racism (e.g., Weigel & Howes, 1985).

In general, then, the present conclusions comport fairly well with the conclusions of the current literature on symbolic racism. In this literature, too, the overt expression of systematically racist beliefs is seen as old-fashioned (again, see Weigel & Howes, 1985).

It could furthermore be argued that the type of explanation proposed here is an instance of explaining beliefs by reference to their social context. If so, the present account of one source of racist attitudes is also in no conflict with accounts of racism that are couched in terms of group processes. The present conclusions may simply serve to remind us how important it is to specify exactly what the reference group is on any given occasion.


The present paper has not so far touched on the vexed question of whether there should be a distinction between "Authoritarianism" and "attitude to authority". Is anyone with favorable attitudes to authority an authoritarian or does an authoritarian have to have some particular sub-set of attitudes favorable to authority? The Adorno et al. work could be seen as consistent with either view but it would perhaps be most cautious to say that they were in fact positing one particular type of authoritarianism. A wider search for new and different types of authoritarianism (pro-authority syndromes) might therefore be more attractive now that the failures of the Adorno et al. proposal are well-known.


The items of the short form of the Ray (I972c) Balanced F scale. The reversed items are given first.

1. Homosexuality between consenting adults may be distasteful but it should not be regarded as a crime. 2. Many of the radical ideas of today will be the accepted practices of tomorrow. 3. People who want to whip or imprison sex criminals are themselves sick. 4. It's allright for people to raise questions about even the most personal and private matters. 5. Insults to our honor are not always important enough to bother about. 6. Sex crimes such as rape and attacks on children are signs of mental illness; such people belong in hospitals rather than in prisons. 7. Most honest people admit to themselves that they have sometimes hated their parents. 8. No sane, normal, decent person would ever think of hurting a close friend or relative. 9. Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas but as they grow up, they ought to get over them and settle down. 10. Sex crimes such as rape and attacks on children deserve more than imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped or worse. 11. Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn. 12. What the young need most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country. 13. There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel great love, gratitude and respect for his parents. 14. Homosexuals are hardly better than sex criminals and ought to be severely punished.


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(1) University of N.S.W., Australia.

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