Personality and Emotional Correlates of Right-Wing Authoritarianism

By Butler, J. Corey | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Personality and Emotional Correlates of Right-Wing Authoritarianism


Butler, J. Corey, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


Authoritarianism, the tendency to be hierarchical, conventional, and intolerant, has been implicated by research as an extreme feature of general right-wing ideology. The relationship between this ideological pattern and variables of personality and emotion was investigated in three studies. Studies 1 and 2 assessed personality traits in terms of the five-factor model, as well as right-wing authoritarianism, conservatism, and a battery of other political attitude measures. Study 3 examined the positive and negative affect of individuals with differing levels of authoritarianism. The results demonstrate that the authoritarian syndrome is primarily characterized by low openness to experience, and that it is unrelated to self-reported measures of emotion.

Ever since the publication, half a century ago, of The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, 1950), the idea that social and political beliefs could be understood in terms of basic personality structure has captured the imagination of psychologists. A gripping issue in the era of World War II, authoritarianism was conceived by these early researchers as the potential for fascism. Then and now, the authoritarian could be characterized as conventional, submissive to authority, and aggressive toward deviants and outsiders (Altemeyer, 1981). Although the original construct has oscillated in popularity, receiving both glowing praise and substantial criticism, the study of authoritarianism seems to have made a comeback in recent years (Peterson, Smirles, & Wentworth, 1997). Particularly noteworthy is Altemeyer's contribution of a psychometrically sound and substantially validated instrument in this arena, the Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale (Altemeyer, 1981, 1988, 1996). With this improved methodology, as well as theoretical mechanisms which are no longer tied to psychodynamic models, contemporary researchers stand poised to make great progress in understanding the many right-wing and reactionary political movements which are currently flourishing around the world. In fact, it seems very possible that militant fundamentalists, radical militiamen, neo-Nazi skinheads, and other intolerant extremists have common personality characteristics (George & Wilcox, 1996). Because personality, temperament, and emotion are substantially intermingled, it seems worthwhile to study the role of both the personality and the affective variables associated with right-wing authoritarianism.

In a theoretical paper published several years ago, Stone (1983) drew upon earlier work by Tomkins (1963,1965) and proposed that there are two dimensions of personality and ideology, left and right. The former is characterized by positive affect, humanism, liberalism, and egalitarianism, whereas the latter includes negative affect, normativism, conservatism, and authoritarianism. In a more recent analysis of the literature, Eckhardt (1991) similarly proposed that because such dimensions as authoritarianism, conservatism, dogmatism, militarism, and religiosity are consistently correlated, they should be considered different aspects of the same multifaceted construct, or "different parts of the same forest" (p. 121). The author noted that the weakest member in this constellation of affect, cognition, and behavior was the connection between personality and ideology. Neuroticism, in particular, does not reliably correlate with the rest of the pattern. This is a peculiar finding if we recall that the authoritarian syndrome was originally described as a disorder of the personality. The problem may be an over reliance on the psychodynamic approach and its concomitant principles of anxiety, denial, repression, and projection. As Altemeyer (1988, 1996) has noted, this model of childhood conflict and inflated superegos is now untenable as an explanatory theory of authoritarianism.

Contemporary research has demonstrated that the origins of authoritarianism are derived from several different sources, including genetics (Scarr, 1981); life experiences, especially those occurring during adolescence (Altemeyer, 1988); and possibly educational experiences (Altemeyer, 1996). …

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