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How Extreme Authoritarian Personalities Contribute to Terrorism.

Updated 22 Jan 2009

The basic causes of violence and war seem to arise from our genes. Most species will fight other species when threatened. They also fight among themselves over territory, food supplies, mates. Humans are not different in these tendencies. Civilization arose because humans finally figured out better ways to grow and store food, how to domesticate plants and animals. The rise of civilization carried with it all the genetic armor developed in the jungles and savannas. And this gave us a problem.

Our intellectual mastery over nature, was not accompanied by an equivalent mastery over ourselves.

Temperament is what we are born with--our nature. Personality is what temperament becomes after nurturing by family and society. Temperament is one result of evolution; within species differences are common among many animals--large and small--predators and browsers--walkers and fliers. Temperament is one of the tools nature provides in the never-ending struggle to survive. For example, stealthy aggressiveness assists in the survival of carnivores. Herding instinct provides defense to the herbivores. Together in any one species gives that species great survivability. That species is simply more fit for the evolutionary struggle.

In people, an Authoritarian propensity seems to have evolved from the jungle and savanna, because it has the elements, aggressiveness and herding, that so many animals do, including some of our closest relatives, the Hominids. Human Authoritarians tend to be dominant even as they require hierarchy. Not all Authoritarians become terrorists; only a very small extremist fraction do--the tail end of the bell curve so to speak. This tail appears to be created by the sociopathic fringe of society, those of us who have no conscience whatsoever.

Humans have upwards of two-dozen identifiable personality traits. To understand ourselves better, it makes sense to simplify their descriptions. Certain personality traits interact with or affect other traits to a more or less degree. This becomes apparent below.

Certain psychologists offer the following organization:

  • Agreeableness (Obedience, Counters Fierceness)
    • Altruism (Parenting, Counters Fierceness)
    • Cooperation (Herding Instinct)
    • Honesty
    • Modesty
    • Sympathy (Counters Fierceness)
    • Trust
  • Extroversion
    • Assertiveness (Aggression, Fierceness, Authoritarian)
    • Energy (Energizes Fierceness)
    • Enthusiasm (Energizes Fierceness)
    • Excitement Seeking (Energizes Fierceness)
    • Outgoing
    • Sociability
  • Neuroticism
    • Anxiety
    • Consciousness
    • Depression
    • Irritability (Energizes Fierceness)
    • Moodiness (Can Energize Fierceness)
    • Stress
  • Conscientiousness
    • Achievement Striving
    • Carefulness
    • Efficiency
    • Orderliness
    • Self Discipline (Counters Fierceness)
    • Sense of Duty (Counters Fierceness)
  • Openness
    • Artistic Ability
    • Breadth of Interest
    • Curiosity
    • Imagination
    • Interests
    • Unconventionality

Saints, sinners, war presidents and doves all share these codifications. Agreeableness, extroversion and neuroticism in particular seem to be shared with our animal friends. Birds exhibit certain human traits, yet our lineage diverged from theirs over 200 million years ago. It is remarkable what evolution can re-create, or allow to persist, as the case may be.

And how about Binta Jua, the lowland gorilla in the Chicago zoo that saved a 3-year old child who fell 18 feet into her habitat? Is that not akin to a sympathy and sense of duty? And if you believe that curiosity and imagination might have something to do with tool making, then we must include the chimpanzees and many birds in the list of nature's species that exhibit traits in the cluster we call openness. Elephants, monkeys and dogs can be made neurotic by mistreatment in youth--just like humans.

Our point in these illustrations is to show how much humanity is a product of nature. We embody what many other species had already evolved for our use and misuse by the time we came along. See Human History for more on this important issue.

According to Adorno, the Authoritarian personality is expressed essentially by:

  • Excessive conformity -- Conscientious agreeableness in the extreme; assertiveness; achievement striving
  • Intolerance -- Assertiveness; narrow interests; lack of sociability, sympathy, trust and cooperation
  • Insecurity -- Neuroticism, especially anxiety
  • Rigid, stereotyped thought patterns -- Assertiveness; lack of openness; narrow interests; achievement striving
  • Submissiveness to authority -- Conscientious agreeableness in the extreme
  • Superstition -- Anxiety; narrow interests

If these psychologists have it right, then the authoritarian personality is complex indeed. A more detailed characterization of the authoritarian personality follows:

  • Control and power -- Achievement striving; assertiveness; finds twofold pleasure in giving orders and pleasing the boss.
  • Cynicism and arrogance -- Achievement striving; assertiveness
  • Destructiveness -- Irritability, moodiness, lack of conscientiousness and openness
  • Fixed Ideas -- Lack of imagination
  • Lack of introspection and insight -- Anxiety
  • Narrow disciplined outlook -- Lack of openness
  • Never looking back -- Assertiveness; Lack of conscientiousness
  • Paranoid if they think we do not believe as they do -- anxiety; extreme lack of openness
  • Polarizing "either/or" thinking -- anxiety; extreme lack of openness
  • Religious fundamentalism, compulsive and punitive -- anxiety; extreme lack of openness
  • Sexual intolerance -- anxiety; extreme lack of openness;
  • Externalized personality that is not really integrated, to use Adorno's description.

While this picture is indeed complex, it seems to fit many well-known individuals we all know or read about. However, to allow complexity in social development is to ignore the very success many individuals, local societies, and nations have had in achieving peaceful living. Varshney and Mamdani and many others provide directions backed up with insight.

In terms of having a trait, or not having a trait, it seems possible to fit the recognized personality traits into the authoritarian behavior patterns. We welcome other interpretations, especially from clinical psychologists and researchers who deal with these issues in their professions. See: Authoritarian Personality for a modern update of Adorno's thesis that neglects the Milgram studies while still realizing Adorno was descriptively accurate. For the latest words see Altemeyer and Dean for the personality details and how they affect American politics of today.

Milgram's work, in particular, focuses on obedience, an instinct that plays into the hands of the extreme Authoritarian, also known as the sociopath, psychopath and narcissistic personality. All these share critical behaviors of the extreme Authoritarians. When such a person is charismatic, they can do great harm that escalates the level of their power from family and community, through corporation and church to the level of state itself. A hallmark they all share is a lack of conscience. Cruelty in any form to others or animals, is a serious red flag. These are the truly dangerous people. Some cultures handle them much better than others. Unfortunately, material wealth or power are no guarantees that the businessman, church leader, or politician will have conscience. It just might be the other way around if the anecdotes available mean anything. To research this for yourself, do word searches for sociopath, psychopath and narcissistic personality on this site and the Internet.

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