T. Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality Theory

December 12, 2019
Theodor W. Adorno developed the authoritarian personality theory to try to explain why some people are more susceptible to following authoritarian governments. How does it hold up?

Along with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, Theodor W. Adorno outlined the authoritarian personality theory. They were all researchers from the University of California, Berkeley at the time. The study that ended up shaping this concept was born in the middle of the last century. It was commissioned by the United States government because they were interested in tracing the embers of antisemitism.

Adorno argued that some personality traits predisposed certain people to be susceptible to totalitarian or anti-democratic ideas. He considered that these traits were deeply rooted in the individual. He gathered the evidence to support this conclusion from case studies, psychometric tests, and clinical interviews. For case studies, he was primarily interested in the Nazis. In terms of the tests, he used the F-scale, with F standing for “fascism”.

The data he gathered seemed to defend the existence of an authoritarian personality. That could help explain why some people resisted changing their prejudices more than others.

Characteristics of the authoritarian personality

According to the authoritarian personality theory, people with an authoritarian personality tended to be:

  • Hostile toward people of inferior status but obedient to people with higher statuses.
  • Very rigid in their opinions and beliefs.
  • Conventional; they defend traditional values.
A submissive and an aggressive figure representing the authoritarian personality against the submissive one.

Adorno came to the conclusion that people with authoritarian personalities showed a greater inclination for putting people into the categories of “us” or “them”. They obviously considered the “us” group superior.

People with very strict upbringings and critical and harsh parents were more likely to develop an authoritarian personality. Adorno believed that this was due to the fact that the individual in question could not express hostility toward their parents because they were strict and critical. As a consequence, the person would project their hostility toward targets that couldn’t harm them due to their inferior statuses. One example of such a target is ethnic minorities.

The F-scale

The authoritarian personality theory led to a group of criteria for defining personality traits. At the same time, the researchers called the reference tool for evaluation the authoritarian personality the F-scale. Adorno thought that the configuration of these traits was deeply influenced by peoples’ childhood experiences. These traits include:

  • Conventionalism. Adherence to values or conventions.
  • Authoritarian submission toward authority figures in a group.
  • Authoritarian aggression toward people who violate conventional values.
  • Anti-intraception. Opposition to subjectivity or imagination.
  • Superstition and stereotyping. Belief in the destiny of individuals; a tendency to think in terms of rigid categories.
  • Power and toughness. A concern for submission and domination and affirmations of strength.
  • Destructiveness and cynicism. Hostility toward human nature.
  • Projection. Perception of the world as a dangerous place; a tendency to project unconscious impulses.
  • Sex. Excessive concern for modern sexual practices.

Critical evaluation of the authoritarian personality theory

Evidence doesn’t back many of the points of this theory. On the other hand, although others have good supporting proof, that proof points in a direction opposite to what the theory postulates. Some of the most controversial points about the theory are:

  • Raising a child harshly doesn’t always lead to prejudice.
  • Some prejudices don’t adjust to the authoritarian personality type.
  • The theory doesn’t explain why people have prejudices against certain groups and not others.

People also criticized Adorno for his limited sample size. He recruited the participants through formal organizations. That was a biased selection from the onset. It also brought the representability of the sample into question when he tried to generalize the conclusions of his study.

A man blaming another man for something.

Another matter is that the researchers created each item on the F-scale in a biased way. Furthermore, these categories weren’t mutually exclusive. Finally, the procedures for validating clinical interviews offered no guarantees. That’s because the interviewers already knew the ratings of each person on the scale beforehand. This could have then influenced the way in which they formulated the questions.

Nevertheless, the authoritarian personality theory has inspired a broad spectrum of research on the relationship between personality traits, behavior, and political beliefs. In fact, although experts don’t consider it a reference these days, it’s not easy to understand the history of personality psychology without it.