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Updated 7 April 2010

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 LWA
High RWA
High RWA
High LWA
(Social Liberal)
(Fiscal Conservative)
Left Wingers
(Fiscal/Social Liberal)
Right Wingers
(Fiscal/Social Conservative)

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
    • Aggression.

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:

For the activists, the web site: google.groups/theauthoritarians is a starter for making views known.


Editor's Note:
Every citizen would benefit in being able to understand a dozen or so basic math concepts and the pitfalls in gathering experimental evidence just to know what to believe or disbelieve. Altermeyer has lessons on every page, but it may heavy going for those of us not in the loop. So look for his summarizing paragraphs that have no mention of "r", pgs 255-257 for example.

Now, having said that, understanding "r" enables additional insights. "r" comes in various flavors. The Pearson "r" he mentions is the most rigorous and analytical. It is useful for assessing the degree of relatedness between two variables. It has values between 0 and 1. The higher r is the better the correlation and the more likely it is to be significant--or real in lay terms. But the significance question also depends on the number of samples or trials as the case may be.

To understand r requires the concept of variance. In English, variance is the mathematical description of ordinary variation, such as the height or weight of people, or the precision of a measurement. Any group of samples of anything measureble has an average value. Accuracy and presicion are neither absolute, so there is always some error between individual measurements and the overall average or mean. Those errors constitute scatter or variation. If we simply sum up all sample variations from the mean, they total up to zero since the negatives offset the positives. This is not a very useful thing to do--how do we use zero? So the clever mathematicians square each sample departure from the average, to get all positive values which do add up to something. That something they call sum of squares--the mathematical description of the variation.

Now if we divide the total variance by the number of samples or measures, we get an avwerage variance which mathematicians called the mean square -- - the average of all deviations squared. This mean square is the variance and is probably the single most important concept in statistics. You may have heard the terms standard deviation or standard error. The first is simply the square root of the variance. The standard error is the standard deviation of the mean. It is the standard error that is most usedful in works like this, for it tells how likely it is for the means of two or more populations to be "not different." The term "not different' is used because statistics can never prove anything, science does that. But of course if a correlation happens again and again it is easy to believe there is something to it, and we have a hypothesis if not quite a theory.

Altemeyer and others tested his hypothesis again and again; it still rings true in the large. That gives his findings power. Look up power in a book statistics and you get an obtuse interpretation, using normal distribution overlaps, that is hard to relate to the real world. It has thoretical use, but all we need to know is that more confirming samples, or repeats, makes the hypothesis more likely by giving it more power. Like global warming, how much evidence it takes to make beleivers out of people is an individual matter.

Whatever our individual comfort level, it has a mathematical description. So in our differences, we can still be on the same page in terms of statistical criteria. We can each choose our own level of comfort. Just remember Mark Twain's adage: "Statistics don't lie, statisticians do."

Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, September 09, 2006 at 15:27:44

Editor's note Continued:

Altemeyer seems to be writing to professors and amateurs like this commentator. But he also understands how difficult it is to teach students to use logic instead of emotions. He cites several hard cases even as he warns us of the effects of authoritarians on society.

Now to get back to "r." It is called the correlation coefficient, useful for assessing the usefulness of the data. Its practical usefulness gives rise to "significance," which again can only have values between 0 and 1. Altemeyer frequently mentions significance, but he also leaves it to you in many cases. When he writes "a correlation of 0.64" as he does in middle of his pg 35, he means r = 0.64.

A second use of "r" is perhaps even more useful. Now that you know variance describes variation in the real world, what do you think "r squared" might represent? If you guessed it is related to variance, you were right on. It has to be because it is calculated from the two or more variances involved. But it is more: "r squared" happens to represent the fraction of total variance explained by the correlation. Square 0.64 and you get 0.41. This means that his correlation "explains" some 41% of the observed variation. In other places he mentions r values of 0.9 which explain about 81% of the variation, and 0.3 which explain only 9%. A sigmificance can be high, but only explain only a small fraction of the overall variation. That significant social science results are so often in the 0.3 - 0.6 range speaks to at least two features: 1) nebulosity in what affects humanity and 2) difficulty in quantifying "soft" data such as opinions.

If you are still with me, and can remember only "'r squared represents the fraction of total variance explained by the correlation," you can now figure out perhaps 90% of what Altemeyer writes, and more deeply than otherwise. "r squared" provides perspective. It takes time before this type of thinking becomes second nature.

Remember also r=0.91 may or may not be significant. The same is true of 0.23. And significance itself depends on how sure we want to be and that governs the number of observations we need to make. Significance is our choice. Convention holds sig=0.05 as "significant," but we should all consider that level to be arbitrary while being useful. At sig=0.05, we will be wrong once in 20 trials on average. Altemeyer sees such exceptions because he has done many more than just 20 such studies. To his credit he lists them. A value of 0.01, even 0.0001 or less, would be more useful in situations where mistakes would be costly. Significance is also known as the Type I or alpha error.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Sunday, February 11, 2007 at 13:50:51

Altemeyer explicitly states that in North American politics (US & Canadian), Authoritarians are more numerous in the conservative wings of the political spectrum. There is no bell curve. Each seeks the political niche most in line with their personalities and goals. Altemeyer did not assume, he counted noses, and found significantly more on the right.

But yes, there are left-wing extremists in history, especially if you count Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot--if you label Communism left wing. The likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Amin, Pinochet and others represent the non-Communist wing. Seven examples do not represent a statistically valid sample in this business. Altemyer's sample size was more than a hundred times larger.

Altemeyer's results also resonate with evolution, the social-psychology studies of Adorno, Milgram, Zimbardo, and the actual history of the Neocon movement that captured the US government in 2000. His model will serve until something proving better comes along.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Wednesday, October 03, 2007 at 10:46:08

Altemeyer shows only that this feature varies. It need not be a bell curve; it may be skewed left or right, too flat topped, or too peaked.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Wednesday, November 07, 2007 at 21:34:52

We are on the lookout for reviews of any works we reference. When we find one that is valid we review it.

Go to Google Groups and type in Altemeyer for a group dedicated to your question.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, January 05, 2008 at 15:29:48

Part of the issue here may be that we make more of Alemeyer's book than he does himself. For example, he does not relate his findings to their genetic origins. We do. Until better evidence comes along we can live with that interpretation.

His use of factor analysis in reducing the possible behaviors to their lowest common denominators is not only refreshing but may be a key determinant in the future of humankind. Knowing ourselves must come before we can alter our violent behavior. On that score Altemeyer earns five stars.

Another part of this issue may be simply politics. While Adorno, Milgram, and Zimbardo, not to mention Hare, avoided the political aspects of the AP, Altemeyer tackles them head on. Of course the RWAs of the political world do not want to be exposed. Martha Stout explicitly realized the danger inherent in the most extreme elements of the AP when she wrote:

"Short of a sociopathic leader who diverts the course of an entire nation, leading it into genocide or unnecessary war, the psychopathic killer is surely the most terrifying example of a psyche without a conscience..."

A sociopath is an AP, but without conscience.

We are open to suggestions, comments and especially criticism of our approach. Critiques sharpen our thinking.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, January 05, 2008 at 15:52:40

RTP also knows of no valid peer reviews, only that his work has been replicated. Altemeyer's results are consistent with those of Adorno, Milgram, and Zimbardo. Why pick on Altmeyer? Find a peer review and we will post our evaluation. Why does John Dean go for his work? That Altemeyer included one negative result only lends credence to his results. This is to be expected because his test-wise error is not zero.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Sunday, January 06, 2008 at 23:46:33

There is always some error in social science. Altemeyer's cohorts, the people he sampled, hardly represent everyone. His samples were not random, a usual requirement, but he does not claim them to be. He also was careful to note that not all instruments mailed came back. But college students and politicians in North America compare well with their Russian counterparts. He makes no claim for validity beyond the populations he studied.

The RWA instrument he employed is the result of many years of experiments that finally reached an alpha equivalent to those associated with IQ scores. So he has validity in that sense. Calculating his correlation coefficients, once a tedious job, is done in a flash by computers in our days. So also for their analysis.

We have looked in vain for flaws and do not see any beyond the above, which Altemeyer himself discusses. What other flaws could there be?

Read Altemeyer's book. If you can find any flaw beyond the above, please post it here.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 00:19:22

Comments among those above have been withdrawn by their author.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Thursday, December 03, 2009 at 23:51:06

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