Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Authoritarianism and Fear of Deviance

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Authoritarianism and Fear of Deviance

Article excerpt

The publication of The Authoritarian Personality, by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950), was a landmark event in personality and social psychology. The book was arguably the first, and certainly the most influential, systematic investigation of how personality shapes attitudes and belief systems. It proposed that prejudice, ethnocentrism, and the predisposition to accept right-wing ideology and fascist governments, were deeply rooted in the psychology of the individual. After a long decline during the later decades of the 20th Century, the study of authoritarianism has been greeted with renewed interest in the past few years. Indeed, a great number of contemporary social and political issues, such as increased opposition to immigration, debates over how to handle suspected terrorists, and proposed constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage all point to the continued relevance of the authoritarian personality today.

According to Altemeyer (1996), authoritarianism can be defined as the co-variation of three specific psychological tendencies. These include submission to authority, aggression toward individuals targeted by authority, and adherence to social conventions established by authorities. Stated another way, authoritarians are submissive toward authority figures and the norms of ingroups, and aggressive toward deviants and the members of outgroups. Decades of research support this interpretation of the construct (but see Kreindler, 2005) and indicate strong to moderate correlations with racial prejudice, anti-homosexual attitudes, punitive jury decisions, and many related attitudes and behaviors (Altemeyer, 1996; Stone, Lederer, & Christie, 1993). The authoritarian potential for prejudice, hostility, and aggression is well documented, yet there has been considerably less empirical research on their other emotional tendencies. One conspicuous gap in our knowledge concerns the level and varieties of fear that authoritarians experience. This is rather surprising considering the frequency with which fear is mentioned in theories and discussion about authoritarianism.

Like any emotion, fear is associated with subjective experience, physiological arousal, and behavioral expression. Fear is similar to the related feeling of anxiety, but differs mainly by having an identifiable trigger or eliciting stimulus. Fear should be viewed as an acute emotional reaction, rather than as a generalized state or mood. It can be understood as an alarm system that is linked to the fight or flight response, having been shaped by evolution to protect organisms from environmental threats (Ohman, 2000). Another useful distinction is that fear leads to the specific behaviors of escape and avoidance from threats, whereas anxiety is the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable (Epstein, 1972). Building from Plutchik's (1980) theory, fear is the central component of a causal chain that begins with a threatening stimulus and ends with either feelings of safety, or perhaps, lingering anxiety.

Fear has been long suspected as a core characteristic of authoritarians. According to the original formulation of the theory, the syndrome is a consequence of overly harsh and threatening parents (Adorno et al., 1950). This psychoanalytic interpretation suggests that fear and resentment repressed during childhood lead to hostility, which is later displaced onto more acceptable targets, such as minority groups. By this theory, authoritarians view the world as a "jungle" (p. 411), a highly threatening place that is greeted with distrust and suspicion. The original psychoanalytic approach suffers from both a lack of falsifiability and insufficient empirical confirmation (Altemeyer, 1996). Nevertheless, there is evidence that authoritarians are indeed more likely to believe that the world is a fearsome, dangerous place (Altemeyer, 1996; Duckitt, 2001; Sibley, Wilson, & Duckitt, 2007). …

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