Identifying the Psychological Traits
Published 1996 Bob Altemeyer
Book Review with commentary: Updated 15 Jan 2008
Bob Altemeyer, is both daring and credible. He is an Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Manitoba. His professional focus is the social psychology of authoritarian personalities; it is his specialty. Unlike the Freudians and political pundits, his calling is to understand and define the personality itself in scientific terms. Toward that end he finds that three basic traits explain the behaviors authoritarians exhibit: Submission, Aggression, and Conventionalism. Readers should carefully note his definitions of each before drawing conclusions of their own.
Altemeyer's question was: Does a trait for authoritarianism exist? This is the scientific approach for it is common knowledge that the trait explains common experience with authoritarian figures in and out of politics. Altemeyer applies advanced inferential statistical analysis of expressed attitudes in various psychometric scales in searching for answers. A psychometric scale is essentially a list of questions the responses to which creates a picture of the personality responding. He goes to some length to explain how they work while discussing their shortcomings. Psychometric scales he employed among others include:
- Right-Wing Authoritarianism, RWA Scale
- Left-Wing Authoritarianism, LWA Scale
- The Manitoba Ethnocentrism Scale
- The Attitudes toward Homosexuals Scale
- The Posse against Radicals Scale
- Dogmatism, DOG Scale
- The Revised Christian Orthodox Scale
The RWA scale of just 30 scored questions has been replicated 33 times with cohorts of a hundred to a few thousand participants each. Thirty-two showed remarkable degrees of correlation (alpha=0.81-0.95). The problematic result came from 400 Xhosa-speaking Hort Hare U. students whose facility with English was not reported and is therefore suspect in dealing with English questions.
There is now no doubt remaining about authoritarianism being a trait. Altemeyer's approach was far more scientific than is ours, but we nevertheless come to his basic position that extremism, expressed by authoritarians, is a threat not only to democracy but to humankind as well.
Altemeyer makes a telling point in his notes to pages 9-17:
"Do you notice how seldom authoritarians aggress against others in a fair fight? The victim is usually already under control, as in a prison, or else caught unawares, outnumbered, or overwhelmingly out-weaponed. Women, children, and others unable to defend themselves are typical targets. Attacks occur at night by hooded men, or when the victim has been isolated or when his or her back is turned. Undoubtedly, authoritarians fear retaliation and legal punishment. But doesn't their behavior suggest an enjoyment of power per se? Something else is at work here, for authoritarian aggression is done in the name of some higher authority. This authority gives the attack legitimacy in the minds of the aggressors, and they will often say they are proud of what they did. Yet what they did was almost always extraordinarily cowardly."
This book was written six years before the war in Iraq with its Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and export-for-torture scandals.
Altemeyer's work did not end there. He developed scales of his own to widen his insights. One of these is a Left Wing Authoritarianism, LWA, scale. In comparing the RWA and LWA scales from the same groups, he was astonished to find they are not simple opposites; there is no negative correlation! Some folks scored high on both scales, others were mixed.
Some interesting features from his mix appear in the following table.
High RWA |
We would say those in the High-High group are people subject to radicalization and extremism. They are likely to often be sociopathic--according to the observations of Martha Stout. Extremism is extremism, whether politically right or left, whether secular, religious, or economic. Having said that, this singular result alone would not pass scientific muster. But it now does, having been repeated (replicated in statistical terms) numerous times. In any case, we must accept these results at face value. Altemeyer has filled in important blanks in the picture of terror being developed on this site. Perhaps its most important contribution lies in its contribution to understanding how the continuum of human personality finds expression socially and in governance.
For example, it would seem that RWA and LWA are polar opposites. Nominally they are. So how can both reside in a single person? For that answer, we need to understand both the LWA test and the authoritarian. As for the test, most items contain two phrases that combine Left leaning content on one hand together with an authoritarian execution on the other. Extremists accept the authoritarian means to an end regardless of political direction while moderates pay more attention to the direction than the means. The net result is that moderates lie at one pole while extremists lie at the other. In between lie the means by which moderation or extremism finds expression.
Altemeyer's suggestions along with our own research leads to a political landscape in two basic dimensions: Left vs Right politically and Moderate vs Extreme in execution. One such a rendition follows:
The green base in this figure represents the 15-35% of those who cut Milgram's "Teaching Experiment" short. The very top is the sociopathic/psychopathic fringe representing 1%-4% of all of us, depending on the source. These folks include Milgram's "Queer Ducks", Stout's Sociopaths, and Hare's Psychopaths. "What ever that fraction really is, it is large enough, when combined with charisma, to fill a hall of infamy, beginning with Hitler, etc. Those in the middle, are the harmless to helpful authoritarians who do yeoman duty as accountants, doctors, airline pilots, engineers armed service people and the like. They are the mild varieties of right and left wing authoritarians.
The above figure is schematic and not to scale, at least until a clearer, or more definitive, design comes along. In America, the moderates might be classed as the undecided or swing voters. The LWA and RWA comprise the progressive and regressive elements of American politics. The RWA is typically somewhat more authoritarian than are the LWA. The degree varies from time to time; recent history has tended toward the extreme, not just in the US, but the world. The extremists at the top are still a minority of the populace; never mind that a few dominate US government policy and propaganda at present. Their dominance is beginning to weaken largely because they overreached across the board, especially in Iraq and the economy.
John Dean observes that extreme authoritarians (Neocons) have co-opted the Republican party, and that it no longer resembles the party of Lincoln and Goldwater. That is certainly true, and it happened with little or no input from the average-American Republican.
Features distinguishing the Authoritarian Personality, AP, are that it exhibits:
- Hierarchical submission,
- Either / or conventionalism, and
An extremist AP simply wants total control and will use any left / right, secular / religious, military, or whatever means to reach his own ends. Once in control, the only agenda recognized is his / her own. It will be black and white demanding submission, conventionalism and aggression. Fierceness and herding instincts cloaked in social dogma might be the natural and human-social history interpretation. This description of Altemeyer's seems to require that dominance be added to the instincts left over from evolution that are acting in our times. Many animal societies are hierarchical and headed by a single leader that is typically male, but not always, or a mating pair. Fierceness, of course enables the alpha animal leader(s). The logic is clear, and Altemeyer's analysis fits evolutionary theory like a glove fits a hand.
One amazing aspect is that Altemeyer and his Soviet colleagues found their societies to be mirror images of each other in terms of Authoritarianism. The Cold-War rivals were led by similar kinds of people! Certain State legislators in America scored even higher in authoritarianism than did their national counterparts. This fact of course goes against their party line, otherwise known as propaganda. Negative votes on this page reflect the propagandist's views.
Corollary to this, Altemeyer also found scores of individuals who were so hard and fast in their belief of non-factual statements that one has to wonder if they belong to the human race. These people it seems only believe the propaganda and the preposterous. Holocaust denial is a favorite of one such group. Nazism is the belief of another. In fact, this reviewer has encountered a few individuals with similar hardened and irrational beliefs--they were just not organized.
For this work alone, and as an authority on the human condition that breeds violence, Altemeyer belongs up there alongside Adorno. Milgram, Zimbardo, and Stout. See also commentary on " Enemies of Freedom," by Voice of a Global Citizen for clarifying insight. See JJ Ray for a critique of Altemeyer's earlier works. The differences Ray has seem to be at least in part semantic. Conservatism by definition includes an authoritrian trait--conventionalism. The emphasis by the two authors certainly differs. In a paper dating from 1976, Ray misquotes Adorno et al. in "Do Authoritarians Hold Authoritarian Attitudes" when he writes:
"There is no doubt that the prototype of the authoritarian whom Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford (1950) had in mind was the German Nazi. Although carried out mostly in California, the work of these Jewish authors was directed explicitly toward finding an explanation for the rise of German Nazism. I will for my purposes, therefore, take it as given that by an authoritarian person we mean someone prone to behave as the Nazis did -- in an aggressive, domineering, and destructive way toward other people. "
Adrono did not define Authoritarianism this way. Ray changed Adorno's definition to suit his own purposes. Ray's paper's title also gives us a problem in that Adorno defined the personality in terms of attitudes. So Ray was not even on Adorno's wavelength.
In a professional paper, Ray makes a more telling point. Since Communist leaders, extreme leftists, scored high as RWAs, the label RWA must be incorrect. It is better defined as simple authoritarian. These folks employ whatever system is available to server their purpose. Ray further points out that The RWA scales is a measure of conservatism. See "Journal of Social Psychology" for the details. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1985. In our view, Altemeyer's insight was his simplification to three basic traits and their consilience with evolution--on the dominant and violent side. He did not dwell on the opposing traits of parenting, altruism, and cooperation, also part of our genome. These are needed to create a reasonable road-map out of violence which is so consuming of exchequer and destructive of our basic human potential.
We present the forgoing to illustrate how difficult it is sometimes to select the "most probable" interpretation of the data. In this case we go with Altemeyer for his neat reduction of Adorno's six and Migram's eight clustered traits to just three which fit our genetic instincts. That achievement is a first-order breakthrough whether or not there is a semantic or other type of problem with his interpretation. Moreover, Altemeyer's explanation fits the history of North American politics over the decade following his book publication with astonishing precision.
For the reality inclined, this book rates five stars; it is a classical demonstration of the power the scientific method can bring to bear in sorting out the terror equation. For the theoreticians, his effective use of factor analysis sets him apart from other authors cited on this web site.
This editor is grateful to a reader for suggesting this review.
As the commentary appended to this page attests, there are those who cannot accept Altemeyer's work. Austin Bramwell, a New York City lawyer is one and you can find his comments on "The American Conservative."
Altemeyer responded, and in a very professional way, agreed with, rebuted, or put into context the issues raised by Bramwell. Simply put, his RWA scale is as valid as the most valid IQ scale. It is predictive and has been replicated.
It appears that there are many out there who resist the idea that psychology can have something to do with our political leanings. We are surprised; if our individual political leaning does not come from our individual psychological make up, from where does it come?
Altemeyer was careful to describe his methodology. It is as sound as it gets in social science. Ignorance of the mathematics and sample validity aspects on the parts of his readers does not negate the value of Altemeyer's research. We urge our readers to research for themselves the techniques Altemeyer used and comment on any issues here.
For an on-line copy of this courageous book see: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/
For the activists, the web site: google.groups/theauthoritarians is a starter for making views known.
Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, September 08, 2006.