Right wing authoritarianism: you’ll probably recognise this personality trait

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:

  1. Authoritarian submission: submissiveness and acceptance of authorities which are perceived to be legitimate and established in society, such as government or the police.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

 

 


12 responses to “Right wing authoritarianism: you’ll probably recognise this personality trait

  • biondino

    Quite pleased with 24, though there were only about three questions, asked in half a dozen different ways. Made me think a little about whether it’s possible to have strong leadership (potentially a good thing) that doesn’t squash dissent. What do you think, Z?

  • Politics and Psychopathology | Veruca Salt

    […] reading the always-entertaining Another Angry Woman blog, I came across a post about the psychology of right-wing authoritarianism. Right wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a personality trait, conceived by psychologist Bob Altemeyer. […]

  • Quiet Riot Girl

    ‘Ever found yourself trapped in an argument that is going nowhere because the other person is so dogmatically right wing that reasoning is impossible? ‘

    NO but I have found myself trapped in an argument that is going nowhere because the other person is so dogmatically feminist that reasoning is impossible.

  • Michael (@tingedfringe)

    “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.”
    Isn’t this a bit of a false dichotomy?
    Surely personality traits are ‘thresholds’ for certain behaviours rather than uniform response mechanisms.

    “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”
    There’s plenty of authoritarian attitudes on the left (I know many ‘cult of personality’ types who’re reluctant to change) – and while not systematic, perhaps they reject the *current* social hierarchy but simply wish to enact a new one.
    This would imply a true left/false left grouping – true left being those low on SDO and who seek egalitarianism and false left being those who wish to overthrow the current hierarchy and replace it with another (stalinists, etc). This would be historically accurate in some way (?) – the rejection of previous hierarchies (aka modes of production – see the overthrow of the feudalism and the replacement of it with capitalism, etc) and the establishment of new ones has happened many times.
    This implies a whole ‘new’ danger to the left – our revolutionaries may be reactionaries in disguise (again, see the first international, soviet russia, french republic, etc).😉
    (Much like true libertarian vs false libertarian – many ‘small state’ capitalists are very pro-state when it comes to laws regarding unions, strikes, etc)

    And why right-wing (high-SDO) and authoritiarianism (high-RWA) correlate is obvious – they’re separate ideologies but they work best together without need for high-levels of cognitive dissonance.
    Authoritarianism works well with social hierarchy and there’s not very often conflict between the two – libertarianism works well with egalitarianism and there’s not very often conflict between the two.

    Enough rambling! Er, Hi Stavvers?

    • tammy

      Personally I think left wing authoritarian is rare. The typical personality traits of a left winger, is dubbed tolerant. Furthermore, with tolerance an open mind is necessary. This allows them to resist authorative views or laugh them out. Also on the left is socialist to be considered socialist, a trait that is undeniably present is compassion. You almost have to have compassion to be willing to step out of your life bubble to fight for fairness of all people not just a selective group. That being said I do not think it impossible for an Authorative left winger. What usually presents itself in just angry outburst at the far right, and an undeniably closed mind when it comes to any type of hate. Thus leaving them slightly lower on that scale.

  • Emelyn

    I got 27🙂
    I had similar thoughts to Biondino. There was a lot of repetition (unsurprisingly) and all the leadership questions came with negative implications. What do you think that means for left wing leaders?

  • mediocredave

    I got 20. I am an unconvincing parody of a man.

  • Are all coppers bastards? « Another angry woman

    […] trait? There are certainly some kinds of personality which seem obnoxious and unpleasant, such as right-wing authoritarianism or the “dark triad”, a personality type which includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and […]

  • Katie

    how can i cite this please?

  • Dag

    I don’t quite see the usefulness of the term “right wing authoritarianism” when there already is a term that amply describes the above, and that we have been using for many decades now, namely facism. To my lay man’s knowledge the facist adheres to all the above mentioned traits: authoritarian submission as well as aggression, and conventialism. Is it an attempt to come up with a more “pc”, less “dirty” term?

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