The Study of Authoritarianism

Published in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality marks the beginning of the scholarly exploration of authoritarianism. Its investigation into the individual, psychological roots of the Fascist nightmare that descended on Europe launched two thousand studies and hundreds of academic careers.[1] While the methodology of The Authoritarian Personality was quickly questioned[2] and then rejected,[3] its core observation that prejudice is a generalized attitude in those individuals who are intolerant—an “entire way of thinking about those who are ‘different’ ”[4]—is the foundation on which the studies of ethnocentrism and authoritarianism that followed are based.

From the observation that anti-Semites were also predisposed toward intolerance to others, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality hypothesized that the systemic prejudice observed in some individuals could be measured by a series of questions probing nine distinct, covarying traits. Answers to these questions could be summed and arrayed across a scale—what Adorno and his colleagues called the F-scale, in which F stands for fascism.[5] The psychological dimension estimated by the F-scale was then dubbed the authoritarian personality, and became the name of what quickly assumed status as a groundbreaking book.

The scientifically unfalsifiable basis of The Authoritarian Personality, faulty design of F-scale questions that created answer bias through acquiescent responses, and the multidimensional reality of the F-scale’s intended unidimensional output, all led to withering criticism of The Authoritarian Personality’s methodology.[6] It also led to new attempts to measure authoritarianism. These new measurement approaches include the Dogmatism scale,[7] Balanced F-scales,[8] the Wilson-Patterson Conservatism scale,[9] the Right-wing authoritarian scale,[10] and the child rearing battery of questions I employ.[11]

Today, much of the extensive scholarly literature on authoritarianism concludes that it is inextricably linked to political conservatism. Some social scientists consider authoritarianism the psychological basis of conservatism. Others describe it as a virulent variety of political conservatism.

But contemporary scholar Karen Stenner makes a critical and welcome distinction between authoritarianism and conservativism. She argues that while authoritarianism is “an aversion” to different “people and beliefs,” status quo conservatism “is an aversion to… change,” and laissez-faire conservatism is simply a commitment to free market principles.


  1. Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel–Burnswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitte Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950). Forty years after the publication of The Authoritarian Personality, more than 2,000 papers and studies on authoritarianism had been written; see Jos D. Meloen, Gert Van der Linden, and Hans De Witte, “A Test of the Approaches of Adorno et al., Lederer and Altemeyer of Authoritarianism in Belgian Flanders: A Research Note,” Political Psychology 17(4)(1996), 643-56.
  2. See, for example, Herbert Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, “The Authoritarian Personality—A Methodological Critique,” in Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda, eds., Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality”: Continuities in Social Research (Glencoe, Ill.; Free Press, 1954); and Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960).
  3. See, for example, Jos D. Meloen, Gert Van der Linden, and Hans De Witte, “A Test of the Approaches of Adorno et al., Lederer and Altemeyer of Authoritarianism in Belgian Flanders: A Research Note”; Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  4. David G. Meyers, Social Psychology, 10th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 230.
  5. It is also called the California F-scale.
  6. In addition to those listed in note 31 supra, see Richard Christie, “Authoritarianism Re-Examined,” in Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda, eds., Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality.”
  7. Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1960).
  8. John J. Ray, “A New Balanced F Scale and Its Relation to Social Class,” Australian Psychologist 7(3) (November 1972), 155–66.
  9. Glenn D. Wilson and John R. Patterson, “A New Measure of Conservatism,” British Journal of Social and Clincal Psychology 7(4) (December 1968), 264–269, DOI 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1968.tb00568.x
  10. Robert Altemeyer, Right-Wing Authoritarianism (Winnipeg, Man.: University of Manitoba Press, 1981).
  11. Matthew C. MacWilliams, “American Authoritarianism in Black and White.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 2016.

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