Ever found yourself trapped in an argument that is going nowhere because the other person is so dogmatically right wing that reasoning is impossible? Perhaps they’re cheerfully bellowing “hang ‘em all!”, and you want to point out that perhaps the death penalty is a bad idea. Maybe they’re griping about immigrants “coming over here and taking our jobs”, or suggesting that gay marriage is wrong as marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. It might be best to just down tools. That person is likely to be a right wing authoritarian, and you probably won’t change their mind.
What is right wing authoritarianism?
Right wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a personality trait, conceived by psychologist Bob Altemeyer. The right wing authoritarian personality consists of three attributes:
- Authoritarian submission: submissiveness and acceptance of authorities which are perceived to be legitimate and established in society, such as government or the police.
- Authoritarian aggression: aggression against outgroups and “deviants”–people who the established authority mark as targets. Examples of this includes travellers, immigrants, Muslims and other kinds of scapegoats.
- Conventialism: high adherence to traditions and established social norms. This can manifest in a respect for “traditional family values”, for example.
RWA is measured using a scale consisting of 20 items, with a score ranging from 20 (no RWA) to 180 (high RWA). I scored 22; try it for yourself. Depending upon the sample, university students often score around 75, while a large-scale American study found the average about 90.
Correlates of right wing authoritarianism
First of all, right wing authoritarianism is called such because it tends to correlate strongly with endorsement of political conservatism. Furthermore, while attempts have been made to investigate “left wing authoritatianism”–high adherence to left wing party lines and aggression to those who do not endorse left wing values–these attempts have fallen flat, suggesting that perhaps such a thing does not exist. When one measures submission to authority using different scales, it is still found to correlate with right wing ideology; it is likely, therefore, that authoritarianism and being right wing go hand in hand.
Following a lot of research, Altemeyer has identified a lot of ideologies which correlated with right wing authoritarism. The right wing authoritarian is likely to oppose abortion, support nationalistic ideas and behaviours, capital punishment, capitalism, religion and conservative economic policies. They believe the world to be a dangerous place. They also put less value on social equality, and are far more accepting of infringements on civil liberties–Altermeyer found that high RWA people were often not fazed by the Watergate scandal. Unsurprisingly, given this set of correlates, high RWA people are also more likely to be prejudiced against ethnic minorities and gay people, and more likely to be bullies or friends with bullies in childhood.
RWA is not correlated with intelligence, but arguing with a person who is high in RWA may be difficult, as they have been found to uncritically accept poor evidence–how many times have you found yourself arguing with someone who will not listen to reason and instead clings on fervently to a story they were once told by a friend of a friend? High RWA people often hold the perception that they are right, with less ability to accept their own limitations. They are also less creative than less RWA people. High RWA people have less tolerance for ambiguity: this means they are less able to accept change and jump to conclusions in ambiguous situations.
What can be done about right wing authoritarianism?
Some critics have suggested that RWA is not an immutable personality trait, but, rather, a response to an external “threat”, and that some people have a disposition to manifest RWA beliefs when they perceive they are threatened. This threat can come in the form of economic crises or 9/11, for example. As RWAs make the best followers for a right wing authoritarian regime, a somewhat frightening implication arises: by ramping up the threat level, a larger number of followers who are willing to accept undemocratic ideas appear. On the other hand, by reducing the threat level, RWA can be decreased.
Due to the reverence for authoritative sources of information and poor assessment of evidence, though, reducing the threat level may prove challenging. An anecdote, which non-RWAs will probably see as poor evidence: I have tried to do this on several occasions. It is incredibly frustrating and ultimately fruitless.
In truth, though, there is very little evidence as to whether RWA can be changed: the bulk of it focuses on correlates and whether it is a personality trait with a genetic basis, a trait with a social basis, or a reaction to circumstances. This is an area which sorely needs research, as RWA is a somewhat dangerous ideology, given that it is so related to prejudice and violence and can lead to worrying policymaking such as capital punishment.
For now, though, I would recommend, for the sake of your own sanity, disengage from the high-RWAs. It’s an argument you won’t win.