Right-wing authoritarianism

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Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a personality and ideological variable studied in political, social, and personality psychology. It is defined by three attitudinal and behavioral clusters which correlate together:[1][2]

  1. Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
  2. Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
  3. Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms[3].

The terminology of authoritarianism, right-wing authoritarianism, and authoritarian personality tend to be used interchangeably by psychologists, though inclusion of the term "personality" may indicate a psychodynamic interpretation consistent with the original formulation of the theory.


The concept of right-wing authoritarianism was introduced in 1981 by Canadian psychologist, Bob Altemeyer,[4] as a refinement of the authoritarian personality theory originally pioneered by University of California at Berkeley researchers Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford.[5] After extensive questionnaire research and statistical analysis, Altemeyer found that only three of the original nine hypothesized components of the model correlated together: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. Researchers have traditionally assumed that there was just one kind of authoritarian personality, who could be either a follower or a leader. The discovery that followers and leaders are usually different types of authoritarians is based on research done by Sam McFarland.[6]


Right-wing authoritarianism is measured by the RWA scale. The first item on the scale states, "Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us." People who strongly agree with this are showing a tendency toward authoritarian submission (Our country desperately needs a mighty leader), authoritarian aggression (who will do what has to be done to destroy), and conventionalism (the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us).

Psychometrically, the RWA scale was a significant improvement over the F-scale, which was the original measure of the authoritarian personality. The F-scale was worded so that agreement always indicated an authoritarian response, thus leaving it susceptible to the acquiescence response bias. The RWA scale is balanced to have an equal number of pro and anti authoritarian statements. The RWA scale also has excellent internal reliability, with coefficient alpha typically measured over .90.

The RWA scale has been modified over the years, as many of the items lost their social significance as society changed. The current version is 22 items long, and can be found online. This website also contains a PDF version of an accessible, nonacademic book titled The Authoritarians, published by Altemeyer in 2006.

Right and left

The "right wing" in right-wing authoritarianism does not necessarily refer to someone's politics, but to psychological preferences and personality. It means that the person tends to follow the established conventions and authorities in society. In theory, the authorities could have either right-wing or left-wing political views.

Milton Rokeach's dogmatism scale was an early attempt to measure pure authoritarianism, whether left or right. The scale was carefully designed to measure "closed mindedness" without regard to ideology. Nevertheless, researchers found that it correlated with political conservatism.[7] In a similar line of research, Philip Tetlock found that right wing beliefs are associated with less integrative complexity than left wing beliefs. People with moderate liberal attitudes had the highest integrative complexity in their cognitions.[8]

There have been a number of other attempts to identify "left-wing authoritarians" in the United States and Canada. These would be people who submit to leftist authorities, are highly conventional to liberal viewpoints, and are aggressive to people who oppose left-wing ideology. These attempts have failed because measures of authoritarianism always correlate at least slightly with the right. There are certainly extremists across the political spectrum, but most psychologists now believe that authoritarianism is a predominantly right-wing phenomenon.[9]

Although authoritarians in North America generally support conservative political parties, this finding must be considered in a historical and cultural context. For example, during the Cold War, authoritarians in the United States were usually anti-communist, whereas in the Soviet Union, authoritarians generally supported the Communist Party and were opposed to capitalism.[10] Thus, authoritarians generally favor the established ways and oppose social and political change.


According to research by Altemeyer, right-wing authoritarians tend to exhibit cognitive errors and symptoms of faulty reasoning. Specifically, they are more likely to make incorrect inferences from evidence and to hold contradictory ideas that result from compartmentalized thinking. They are also more likely to uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs, and they are less likely to acknowledge their own limitations.[11] Nevertheless, there is no connection between authoritarianism and either low or high intelligence. In terms of the five factor model of personality, authoritarians generally score lower on openness to experience and slightly higher on conscientiousness.[12]

Altemeyer suggested that authoritarian politicians are more likely to be in the Conservative or Reform party in Canada, or the Republican Party in the United States. They generally have a conservative economic philosophy, are highly nationalistic, oppose abortion, support capital punishment, oppose gun control legislation, and do not value social equality.[13] The RWA scale reliably correlates with political party affiliation, reactions to Watergate, pro-capitalist attitudes, religious orthodoxy, and acceptance of covert governmental activities such as illegal wiretaps.[14] Although authoritarianism is correlated with conservative political ideology, not all authoritarians are conservative, and not all conservatives are authoritarian. It is also worth noting that many authoritarians have no interest in politics.

Authoritarians are generally more favorable to punishment and control than personal freedom and diversity. For example, they are more willing to suspend constitutional guarantees of liberty such as the Bill of Rights. They are more likely to advocate strict, punitive sentences for criminals,[15] and they report that they obtain personal satisfaction from punishing such people. They tend to be ethnocentric and prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities,[16] and homosexuals.[17]

In roleplaying situations, authoritarians tend to seek dominance over others by being competitive and destructive instead of cooperative. In a study by Altemeyer, 68 authoritarians played a three hour simulation of the earth's future entitled the Global change game. Unlike a comparison game played by individuals with low RWA scores, the simulation by authoritarians became highly militarized and eventually entered the stage of nuclear war. By the end of the high RWA game, the entire population of the earth was declared dead.[18]

The vast majority of research on right-wing authoritarianism has been done in the United States and Canada. A recent cross-cultural study, however, examined the relation between authoritarianism and individualism-collectivism in samples from Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, and the U.S.A. (total N = 1,018). Both at the individual level and the societal level, authoritarianism was correlated with vertical individualism (or dominance seeking) and vertical or hierarchical collectivism, which is the tendency to submit to the demands of one's ingroup.[19] A study done on both Israeli and Palestinian students in Israel found that RWA scores of right-wing party supporters were significantly higher than those of left-wing party supporters, and scores of secular subjects were lowest.[20]

Right-wing authoritarianism has been found to correlate only slightly with Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). Together they are strong predictors of a variety of prejudices such as sexism, racism, and heterosexism. The two measures can be thought of as two sides of the same coin: RWA provides submissive followers, and SDO provides power-seeking leaders. [21]


Altemeyer's research on authoritarianism has been challenged by psychologist John J. Ray, who questions the sampling methods used and the ability of the RWA Scale to predict authoritarian behavior.[22][23] Ray's approach is, however, a minority position among researchers [24] and other psychologists have found that both the RWA Scale and the original F-Scale are good predictors of both attitudes and behavior.[25] Part of the controversy in this area may be due to Ray's unique conceptual interpretation of authoritarianism as "directiveness," a construct that is unrelated to other theoretical approaches.

A recent refinement to this body of research was presented in Karen Stenner's 2005 book, The Authoritarian Dynamic.[26] Stenner argues that authoritarianism is best understood as a dynamic response to external threat, not a static disposition based on the traits of submission, aggression, and conventionalism. Stenner is critical of Altemeyer's social learning interpretation and argues that it cannot account for how levels of authoritarianism fluctuate with social conditions. She argues that the RWA Scale can be viewed as a measure of expressed authoritarianism, but that other measures are needed to assess authoritarian predispositions which interact with threatening circumstances to produce the authoritarian response.

See also


  1. Altemeyer, B. (1988). Enemies of freedom. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press
  2. Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians, p.27
  4. Altemeyer, B. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. University of Manitoba Press.
  5. Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.
  6. Altemeyer, B. (1998). The other ‘authoritarian personality.’ In M. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30 (pp. 47–92). San Diego: Academic Press.
  7. Smithers, A. G., & Lobley, D. M. (1978). Dogmatism, social attitudes and personality. British Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 17, 135-142.
  8. Tetlock, P. E. (1984). Cognitive style and political belief systems in the British House of Commons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 365-375.
  9. Stone, W. F., & Smith, L. D. (1993). Authoritarianism: Left and right. In W. F. Stone, G. Lederer, & R. Christie (Eds.). Strengths and weaknesses: The authoritarian personality today. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  10. McFarland, S., Ageyev, V., & Abalakina, M. (1993). The authoritarian personality in the United States and the former Soviet Union: Comparative studies. In W. F. Stone, G. Lederer, & R. Christie (Eds.). Strengths and weaknesses: The authoritarian personality today. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  11. Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  12. Sibley, C. G., Duckitt, J. (2008). Personality and prejudice: A meta-analysis and theoretical review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 248-279.
  13. Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  14. Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  15. Narby, D. J., Cutler, B. L. & Moran, G. (1993). A meta-analysis of the association between authoritarianism and jurors' perceptions of defendant culpability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 34-42.
  16. Duckitt, J. & Farre, B. (1994). Right-wing authoritarianism and political intolerance among Whites in the future majority-rule South Africa. Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 735-741.
  17. Goodman, M. B. & Moradi, B. (2008). Attitudes and behaviors toward lesbian and gay persons: Critical correlates and mediated relations. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 371-384.
  18. Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  19. Kemmelmeier, M., Burnstein, E., Krumov, K., Genkova, P., Kanagawa, C., Hirshberg, M. S., Erb, H., Wieczorkowska, G., & Noels, K. (2003). Individualism, collectivism, and authoritarianism in seven societies. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 34, 304-322.
  20. Rubinstein, G. (1996). Two peoples in one land: A validation study of Altemeyer's Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale in the Palestinian and Jewish societies in Israel. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 27, 216-230.
  21. Altemeyer, B. (1998). The other ‘authoritarian personality.’ In M. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30 (pp. 47–92). San Diego: Academic Press.
  22. Ray, J.J. (1985) Defective validity in the Altemeyer authoritarianism scale. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 271-272
  23. Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Individual Differences, 8, 771-772
  24. Stone, W. F., Lederer, G., & Christie, R. (1993). Strengths and weaknesses: The authoritarian personality today. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  25. Meloen, J. D., Van der Linden, G., & De Witte, H. (1996). A test of the approaches of Adorno et al., Lederer and Altemeyer of authoritarianism in Belgian Flanders: A research note. Political Psychology, 17, 643-656.
  26. Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic. Cambridge University Press.

Further reading