Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Authoritarianism

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In the aftermath of WWII there was a great deal of research interest in how the atrocities of that war could have taken place. How could regular German citizens simply follow orders to willingly participate in the Holocaust or simply look the other way and pretend they did not know it was happening? Of course, the behaviors that occurred during WWII were not isolated events in history. Humans have been very capable, both prior to and after that war, of continuing to carry out atrocities. Armenia, Rwanda, Ukraine, Greece, Cambodia, USA, Bosnia, Syria, and many others have all seen their share of death and genocidal attacks carried out by one group who first dehumanizes and then tries to exterminate the other. These are not isolated events and it is not limited to any one geography or culture. It is something dark and deep inside of the human inner core that allows these events to occur over and over. Yet, not all of us succumb and get caught up in these atrocities. Resistance can be found, even though it is often less than successful.

But what exactly are people resisting? What urges affect humanity that must be overcome to prevent a continuing string of atrocities from occurring?

One line of research examined the makeup and prevalence of the Authoritarian personality type as a possible explanation. The Authoritarian personality has “a desire for security, order, power, and status, with a desire for structured lines of authority, a conventional set of values or outlook, a demand for unquestioning obedience, and a tendency to be hostile toward or use as scapegoats individuals of minority or nontraditional groups.”

In the aftermath of WWII, in 1947, Theodor W. Adorno created the “F-Scale” or Fascism Scale.  The characteristics the F-Scale measured included: Conformity to traditional societal norms, submission to authoritarian figures, aggression to “others” who don’t fit the pattern, belief in fundamentalist religious notions, belief in superstitions, tendency towards power and toughness, a rejection of introspection, self-criticism, and tender-mindedness. The F-Scale was widely popular for a time but had some psychometric issues with reliability and faking. Since then others have created scales to measure similar characteristics with better psychometric properties. What is striking about the F-Scale from 1947, is how many of the issues you continue to hear today (similar to “these kids today”, kind of argument that happens over and over with each generation). Here are the original 30 items (http://www.anesi.com/fscale.htm) that made up the F-Scale (on a 6-point strongly agree to strongly disagree scale):

  1. Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
  2. A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.
  3. If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off.
  4. The business man and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and the professor.
  5. Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.
  6. Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.
  7. Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but as they grow up they ought to get over them and settle down.
  8. What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, is a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.
  9. No sane, normal, decent person could ever think of hurting a close friend or relative.
  10. Nobody ever learned anything really important except through suffering.
  11. What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country.
  12. An insult to our honor should always be punished.
  13. Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped, or worse.
  14. There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
  15. Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, and feebleminded people.
  16. Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.
  17. When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.
  18. Nowadays more and more people are prying into matters that should remain personal and private.
  19. Some people are born with an urge to jump from high places.
  20. People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong.
  21. Some day it will probably be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.
  22. Wars and social troubles may someday be ended by an earthquake or flood that will destroy the whole world.
  23. No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough will power.
  24. It is best to use some prewar authorities in Germany to keep order and prevent chaos. [You’ll have to pretend it is 1946 when you answer this one.]
  25. Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places
  26. Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict.
  27. Familiarity breeds contempt.
  28. Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching an infection or disease from them.
  29. The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared to some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.
  30. The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it.

If you complete the F-Scale at the link provided above, your responses will be scored and an interpretation provided. A higher score on the F-Scale was supposed to be predictive of and indicative of the person having fascist anti-democratic leanings and an attraction towards authoritarian figures and political systems. Recent work by political scientist Mathew MacWilliams, implies that somewhere between 18 to 30 percent of Americans fit the definition and that number goes higher when people feel under threat. (There is no reason to assume those numbers would be any different in other countries.) He found from a large sample of likely voters, that a tendency towards authoritarianism predicted support for Trump in the last election more reliably than other any other factors.

The question has been raised repeatedly about why certain groups such as evangelicals, or voters with low income levels would vote for and continue to support Trump, whose personal behaviors and actions are in contrast to either their stated values and whose aid-cutting, tax cuts for the wealthy agenda is so clearly against their personal self-interest or professed morals. What has been less examined is the percent of those people who are attracted to the authoritarian style of leadership or because they are feeling threatened on other fronts are willing to put up with it.

And in reference to how the morally centered religious right puts up with Trump’s atrocities, racism, misogynism, xenophobia and prejudices, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(4), 432-443 by Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967) found that the average churchgoers are more prejudiced than nonchurchgoers; that people with an extrinsic (externally focused) religious orientation are significantly more prejudiced than people with an intrinsic (internally focused) religious orientation; and that people who are indiscriminately proreligious are the most prejudiced of all. Remember religious fundamentalism is often found as a marker of attractiveness to an authoritarian style of leadership.

More recent research on authoritarianism shows that it is not a single personality type, but a set of characteristics that in combination lead to a particular pattern of behavior. Using the Big-5 categorization of personality type Phillip Chen and Carl Palmer (The Prejudiced Personality, Using the Big Five to Predict Susceptibility to Stereotyping Behavior, American Politics Research, Vol 46, Issue 2, pp. 276 – 307, August 4, 2017)   found that people who scored lower on Openness to Experience (an appreciation of things like intellectual complexity, artistic expression, etc.) and higher on Conscientiousness (organization, dependability, and self-reliance) are consistent predictors of authoritarian tendencies. Ryan Perry & Chris Sibley (2012) found similar patterns in an article titled “Big-Five personality prospectively predicts Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. (Personality and Individual Differences. 52. 3–8. 10.1016).

People with these personality characteristics would show more of a willingness to follow an authoritarian leader, even one who is expressing clinical or sub-clinical levels of mental illness, including malevolent narcissism or the Dark Triad, a combination of the often co-morbid factors of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

The incidence of the Dark Triad and its relationship to prejudice was examined by Gordon Hodson, Sarah Hogg and Cara MacInnis (Journal of Research in Personality (Volume 43, Issue 4, August 2009, Pages 686-690). They found that the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) personality traits were positively related to threat perceptions of those not part of the “in-group” and with an anti-immigrant prejudice, a desire for social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism. It is a short jump to assume that words used to describe others by those so afflicted with this illness would include streams of insults, pejoratives and ominous warnings, none of which would necessarily be based in reality.

It is a relatively new concept to use personality characteristics to predict political orientations or how someone might vote, which leaders they would follow, or their views towards differing societal activities, but Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, in their extensive research, simultaneously came to the conclusion that the polarization evident in American politics today was largely generated by authoritarian personality type people.

MacWilliams, describes authoritarians as “not supporting a lot of things that are basic to Madisonian democracy”, such as protecting minority rights, or maintaining religious freedom, they would have no issue with separating children from parents in asylum seeking families, as they respond aggressively to outsiders who are cast in the role of “other” or “enemy”. In one study of Republican voters MacWilliams found “that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing” on their preferred candidate. “Only two variables stood out as statistically significant: authoritarianism, with ‘fear of terrorism’ trailing as a distant second.”

All of these leaves one feeling unease that the USA is traveling down a precarious path. A path that can lead to horrors that must not be repeated and that must be completely and vigorously rejected.   We must turn from the path that has been set upon by those currently in power. How can we begin?

  • The coalition that elected Trump is a varied group. But what they seem to have in common is a tendency to find strong-man authoritarianism attractive. The percent who leans that way directly increases with their sense of threat. That sense of threat must be reduced and the inflammatory rhetoric used to increase that sense of threat must be clearly shown to be the hollow canard that it is.
  • Some of those who put us on this dangerous path did so because they have felt ignored by those in power and that their future (and the future of their children) is bleak. Coal miners, mid-west farmers, steel workers, fishermen, manufacturing workers, etc., we must not leave carcasses in our path as change comes to our society. And if nothing else our society has been in a state of constant change. We must protect and bring along those who will be most ill-affected by that change.
  • From years of research on workers it is very clear that one fundamental that everyone on this planet wants is to feel valued. We must make it clear that we value everyone, giving them a voice and letting them know that will not be forgotten, that they and their children have a positive and exciting future.
  • Respect & Dignity are also fundamental characteristics that people desire. Dignity is a relational factor. In other words, whether someone feels that are being treated with dignity is determined by how the see others being treated. If their treatment is perceived to be less they view it as undignified. If no one has electricity, I am not being treated with less dignity if I don’t have electricity. If everyone else has electricity and I don’t, my treatment is less dignified. If I don’t have clean water and others do, that is not dignified treatment. Respect is not a relational factor. I can feel disrespected regardless of how others are being treated. Everyone should be treated with Respect and Dignity.
  • We must protect the institutions that our society was built upon, the institutions which up to this point have allowed us to create the most successful human society this planet has seen so far. Checks and balances in our government must be restored. A free press must be protected. We must cherish and protect our planet as there is no planet B. We are caretakers of this world for our children and grandchild, we must pass to them a world in which they can thrive and live healthy lives. We must reassume our leadership position in the world, setting moral standards and leading in education, technology and scientific discovery. We must build bridges to others on this planet not walls to isolate ourselves. We must lead towards global success for everyone. And, the most vulnerable in our society must be protected.
  • It is time to define what we are going to be as a society, and not through fear-mongering, who we are going to protect ourselves from. We need to look forward not backwards.

This is just the start of how we begin to change the path we are on, away from the seduction that some feel towards authoritarianism. An authoritarianism which has led to unspeakable horrors time after time throughout history. It is time, more than time, to redefine ourselves in a manner that lets all of us thrive and live life to its fullest potential.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 1, 2018 at 4:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] commitment to an individual rings hollow. As it turns out, many people are susceptible to and find authoritarians attractive, as they state that they will take care of all of your problems and that they alone can […]

  2. […] via Authoritarianism […]


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