Monday, 9 April 2012

The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer

This is a very interesting and informative little book about the authoritarian personality.  Its author, an American psychology professor, has made it available free on the internet.

The title of the book is a little misleading.  It isn't about the people who generally get called "authoritarians" - dictators, generals, ayatollahs, autocratic bosses and the like.  They have a quite different personality type, namely that of the "social dominator".  No, the authoritarians are the rank-and-file footsoldiers who put the social dominators in power and then act as their apologists and cannon-fodder.  Think Dwight K. Shrute.

We know a lot about authoritarians.  They have been studied by psychologists for decades.  The pioneering work was done by Theodor Adorno in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), though Adorno's theories were far from perfect and have been refined considerably since he first advanced them.  Altemeyer presents here a fair and readable summary of what social psychologists have unearthed to date.

Authoritarians are often referred to by researchers (including Altemeyer) as "right-wing authoritarians", but this term is very misleading.  Authoritarians are not ordinary mainstream conservatives; indeed, they are sometimes very left-wing.  They tend to support - passionately and uncritically - whichever ideology is currently or has traditionally been in power, whether that means capitalism/conservatism (as in the United States), communism (in North Korea, Cuba or the Cold War-era USSR), Islamism (in Iran and Saudi Arabia), or something else.  On the other hand, they are sometimes violently hostile to the state authorities - think of the Nazi Party in the Weimar Republic and various neo-Nazi and Trotskyite factions today - and in such cases their authoritarianism is reflected in the fanatical, sectarian culture and dogmas of their own groups.  It should also be remembered that there are plenty of authoritarians who have zero interest in politics, and whose authoritarianism is manifested instead in their behaviour at work, in their religious life or in some other sphere.

Authoritarians are characterised by three qualities:
  • "a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society"
  • "high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities"
  • "a high level of conventionalism" - which means not merely that they are conventional themselves, but that they want everyone else to be conventional too.
They stand up for the law, except when their leaders break it.  Then they can be remarkably forgiving:
[Authoritarians] trusted President Nixon longer and stronger than most people did during the Watergate crisis.  Some of them still believed Nixon was innocent of criminal acts even after he accepted a pardon for them.  (Similarly the Allies found many Germans in 1945 refused to believe that Hitler... had ordered the murder of millions of Jews and others. “He was busy running the war,” Hitler’s apologists said. “The concentration camps were built and run by subordinates without his knowing it.”) To pick a more current example, authoritarian followers believed, more than most people did, President George W. Bush’s false claims that Saddam Hussein had extensive links to al-Qaida, and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And they supported the invasion of Iraq, whereas less authoritarian Americans tended to doubt the wisdom of that war from the start.
Authoritarians in America and the Soviet Union tended to be the most passionate supporters of their respective sides in the Cold War.  Rather worryingly, they continue to be the most militant supporters of the two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  When asked to play a political simulation called the Global Change Game, people who scored low on Altemeyer's authoritarian personality test held international summits and engaged in environmental co-operation while those who scored high wiped out the planet in a nuclear war.

Authoritarians tend to be more fearful of the world and to worry about the thin veneer of civilisation tipping over into chaos.  They also seem to be more self-righteous.  The evidence suggests that most of us, authoritarians and others, have a self-image of ourselves that is more moral than average (which obviously can't mathematically be true).  However, authoritarians seem to be especially prone to this delusion.  It is (Altemeyer suggests) the combination of fear of anarchy and conviction that right is on their side that gives authoritarians the reason and justification for their characteristic aggressiveness.

Authoritarians tend to suffer from unhelpful cognitive biases: sloppy reasoning, compartmentalised beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, ethnocentrism and dogmatism.  Of course, we all suffer from these things - the most enlightened and liberal of us still have to do our thinking with semi-evolved monkey brains - but there is empirical evidence that authoritarians suffer from them more than most.

Where do these people come from?  Authoritarians are made as well as born.  No doubt there is an inborn genetic component to the phenomenon, but individuals' authoritarian traits measurably vary over time.  Unsurprisingly, their score tends to drop during their time at university as they are exposed to new people and ideas.  Rather amusingly, it then tends to rise again when the same individual becomes a parent and discovers that maybe discipline and obedience aren't such bad ideas after all.

How many authoritarians are there in society?  A 2005 survey in the United States using Altemeyer's scale revealed that the average score was 90, significantly below the scale's mid-point of 100.  Altemeyer estimates that hardcore authoritarians comprise 20-25% of the American public, but it isn't clear how far he has tried to validate this figure experimentally (I suspect that the true figure is a little lower).  He rightly points out, however, that the famous Milgram electric shock experiments prove that most of us have some capacity for authoritarian-type behaviour contained within us.

I mentioned earlier that "right-wing" authoritarianism does not correlate neatly with political conservatism.  In the 1990s, Altemeyer conducted a large survey of state legislators in the United States.  He found that most authoritarians were Republicans, but there were many Democrats who scored high on his tests too, particularly in the southern states, and some Republicans who scored low.  In Canada, the correlation between authoritarianism and political conservatism was stronger, but this was in the context of a multi-party political system in which the parties had clearer and more distinctive ideologies.

As well as authoritarians, Altemeyer discusses social dominators - the Fuehrers who exploit the mass of rank-and-file authoritarians.  Authoritarians and social dominators are mostly different people, although the evidence suggests that both groups are unusually prone to prejudice against minorities and women.  Social dominators are less interested than authoritarians in group loyalty and much more interested in acquiring power for themselves, by fair means or foul.  They are also much less religious, although their manipulativeness can lead them to fake religiosity in order to impress their authoritarian followers.  Authoritarians genuinely believe that they're the good guys - the pure, the virtuous, the elect - but dominators have no use for such illusions.  Finally, dominators are less likely to suffer from the cognitive glitches mentioned above than authoritarians.  They have their heads screwed on.  Altemeyer suggests that there is a "whiff of the sociopath" about them, but there seems to be no research at present on the link with clinical sociopathy.

The toxic combination - the "lethal union", as researchers call it - is social dominators in positions of power and authoritarians as their followers.  In a few cases, the combination occurs in the same individual.  There are some unusually unlikeable individuals - "double highs" - who score highly on both authoritarian and social dominance metrics: these guys manage the unenviable feat of being both unusually ruthless and unusually self-righteous.  It seems to be these guys who, forming the "lethal union" with pure authoritarians, start the nuclear wars in the Global Change Game (when pure authoritarians play it by themselves, they just sit tight and maintain large armies without actually starting wars).

All in all, this is a very interesting and useful book.  Altemeyer is not only a bona fide expert in the field, he is a good writer too, with an easy, engaging, witty style.  If I had one criticism of the book, it is that Altemeyer uses it to tell us a little too much about his personal political opinions.  It is clear that he hugely dislikes the policies of the Republican Party.  As a liberal myself, I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but this is supposed to be a book about social psychology, not a political editorial.  His partisanship can be a bit much.  For example, he says that GW Bush is a "double high".  Maybe he is, but until Altemeyer gets out his crayons and administers one of his tests to the old bugger, this is nothing but politically motivated speculation.