Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Authoritarians reviewed

Way back, Blake Stacey recommended to me The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. It is a free online book about the psychology of the authoritarian personality. I get the impression that Blake Stacey is in the habit of recommending this book to everyone. Allow me to echo this recommendation to you, my readers. It is a short, easy, and fun read. Bob is rather casual can chatty. He never gets bogged down with numbers, and yet he is clear about how all his conclusions are supported by scientific data. And did I mention it's available free?

The Authoritarians is one of those books that tries to answer the question, "What the hell is wrong with people?" The Bush administration, the religious right, the Creationist movements... Personally, I'm a moderate, an independent, but I won't touch the Republican party because it has gone to hell. Bob Altemeyer, I suspect is in the same position. But while I might advance few pet theories as to why this is, all I have to defend them is my super-humble rhetoric. Altemeyer's claims are not pet theories, but scientific findings. They could easily have been falsified, but instead they are strongly supported by a variety of surveys and studies.

His explanation? There is a certain kind of personality that is well-correlated with all these problems. Altemeyer calls it Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). First, I should clarify a few things. Authoritarianism does not refer to the authorities themselves, but the people who would obey those authorities. Also, "right-wing" is used in the sense of being lawful or proper, not in the sense of being political conservative. RWAs in the US tend to be very politically conservative, but those in soviet Russia would probably be socialists. (There is also such a thing as Left-Wing Authoritarianism but that is not covered by the book.) Right-Wing Authoritarians exhibit the following qualities: submission to the established authorities in society, aggression in the name of these authorities, and wanting to enforce conventionalism on the rest of society.

The study of authoritarianism famously traces back to the Milgram experiments. In these experiments, the subject is told to shock another person with increasing voltage as part of a learning and punishment study. Soon the other person (an actor) starts screaming, going unconscious, etc. Of course, the study isn't really about learning and punishment, but about how far people will go if an authority asks them to. Amazingly, ~60% would go through the entire experiment (though they certainly don't enjoy it). This shows how even the small amounts of authoritarianism in all of us can make us do crazy things.

RWA is measured through a 22 question survey that scores people from 20 to 180. People who score higher, the "high RWAs", are correlated with the following:
  • Being soft on the crimes of the authorities themselves.
  • Religious fundamentalism and evangelicalism (which, incidentally, are very well-correlated with each other)
  • Ethnocentrism (which is in turn correlated with prejudice)
  • Fear of a dangerous world.
  • Self-righteousness
  • Illogical thinking and compartmentalization
There's a lot more detailed discussion of these and more in the book. There is also a similar discussion of the authoritarian leader's personality, which also looks bad but in different ways.

Now, if you're like me, you're skeptical of the efficacy of any such survey. But it turns out that there is a very rigorous way to create a valid survey that involves testing many possible questions and measuring their correlations. He briefly mentioned a similar survey developed in the 1940s that was discredited because of its poor design. The new one is scientifically tested. You might ask, "How do we know that this is all related to authoritarianism as opposed to religious fundamentalism?" We know because the RWA scale correlates with the above qualities better than any fundamentalist scale does. Altemeyer deserves lots of skeptical points for carefully explaining all this.

The most interesting part might be where Altemeyer suggests solutions to the problem. According to him, it would probably be ineffective to argue with these people directly. Instead, we should work with high RWAs them towards common goals, since lets them see outside of their community--high RWAs tend to feel a lot of pressure to be "normal", so we just need to show them. We should increase the visibility minorities. And we should promote higher education, which tends to decrease people's RWA scores. He also says it would help if we reduced fear-mongering, or if we taught kids to question authorities, but he doesn't think either of these things will realistically happen.

Aside from critical thinking, one of the major topics of skepticism is understanding why people think the way they do. By that standard, this is a great book for skeptics. It gives plenty of insight into RWAs and what makes them tick.


vduhr said...

I've been reading The Authoritarians off and on (I pick it up once in a while to read it, but haven't gotten all the way through it). Recently, in light of the seemingly hateful rallys being held by Republican candidates, John McCain and Sarah Palin, I was reminded of what I have read so far in this book. At a point where McCain/Palin are behind in the polls, the Republican ticket has chosen to use "drastic" measures; unfortunately, they are only attracting the Republican base - the RWA's, as identified in this book. The fear-mongering, and the fact that the conservative voters fear losing this election, is inciting the RWA's violent side, which explains their behavior at these rally's, i.e. yelling "kill him", etc. I find it disturbing that the Republican candidates are using the fear tactic and inciting this behavior. I do believe they are using Karl Rove tactics, and that Karl Rove is fully aware of how to incite these people. Very sad and scary too. I have been recommending this book to many people myself, and do recommend to anyone who is wondering what the mindset of the people are, to absolutely read The Authoritarians.

Anonymous said...

Cherry Hill Publishing is honored to have produced the audiobook version of The Authoritarians, and I hope you can assist in getting the word out.

The audiobook is read by Dr. Altemeyer himself, with the foreword provided by John W. Dean. The CD version of the audiobook is available now at the Cherry Hill Publishing on-line bookstore ( A downloadable version will be available at in the coming days.

Those, like you, who are familiar with Dr. Altemeyer’s research understand how important this information is to the future of society. We believe that dissemination of this knowledge is the key to preventing a further slide into the totalitarian nightmare secretly longed for by the millions of authoritarians among us. Please drop me a line at if you have any questions or comments about this project. Thanks much.

Rick at Cherry Hill Publishing

raj said...

For those who want the hard science: from the Harvard University Press. One can also look into Robert Cialdini, Robert Lifton, Mark Galanter and Karen Taylor on the dynamics of mass influence. None of what's going on in America is even remotely novel; authoritarianism as a means of control is at least as old as the Great Pyramids.