Traits of authoritarian personalities.

From the book The Authoritarian Personality, by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson & Sanford.


1. Rigid, unthinking adherence to conventional, middle-class ideas of right and wrong. The distinction has to be made between

– (a) incorporating universal values, and

– (b) having blind allegiance to traditional social-political-religious customs or organizations.

Examples: an egalitarian person who truly values one-person-one-vote, equal rights, equal opportunities, and freedom of speech will support a democracy, not a dictatorship. A person who says, “I love my country – right or wrong” or “America – love it or leave it” may be a flag-waving, patriotic speech-making politician who is secretly an antidemocratic authoritarian (similar in some ways to Hitler).

For the authoritarian the values of respecting and caring for others are not as important as being a “good German” or a “good American” or a “good Catholic” or a “good Baptist.” Important values to an authoritarian are obedience, cleanliness, success, inhibition or denial of emotions (especially anger and even love), firm discipline, honoring parents and leaders, and abhorring all immoral sexual feelings. This was the German character.

Authoritarian parents tend to produce dominated children who become authoritarian parents. Egalitarians produce egalitarians.

2. Respect for and submission to authority – parents, teachers, religion, bosses, or any leader. This includes a desire for a strong leader and for followers to revere the leader, following him (seldom her) blindly. It was believed by the psychoanalytic writers of The Authoritarian Personality that recognizing one’s hostile feelings towards an authority was so frightening that the authoritarian personality was compelled to be submissive. There is an emphasis on following rules and regulations, on law and order. Everyone has a proper role to play, including gender role.

3. They take their anger out on someone safe. In an authoritarian environment (family, religion, school, peer group, government), the compliant, subservient, unquestioning follower stores up unexpressed anger at the authority. The hostility can’t be expressed towards the authority, however, so it is displaced to an outsider who is different – a scapegoat.

4. They can’t trust people. They believe “people who are different are no good.” If we believe others are as bad or worse than we are, we feel less guilt: “Everybody looks out for #1” or “Everybody would cheat if they had a chance.”

Such a negative view of people leads to the conclusion that harsh laws and a strong police or army are necessary. Also, it leads people to foolishly believe that humans would “go wild” and be totally immoral if they lost their religion.

5. Because they feel weak, authoritarian personalities believe it is important to have a powerful leader and to be part of a powerful group.

Thus, they relish being in the “strongest nation on earth,” the “master race,” the “world-wide communist movement,” “the wealthiest nation,” the “best corporation,” the “best part of town,” the “best-looking crowd,” the “best team,” etc. The successful, the powerful, the leaders are to be held in awe. And the authoritarian says, “when I get power, I want to be held in awe too. I’ll expect respect, just like I demand it from my children.”

6. Over-simplified thinking. If our great leaders and our enormous government tells us what to do, if our God and our religion directs our lives, then we don’t have to take responsibility for thinking or deciding. We just do what we are told. And, in general, we, “the masses,” are given simple explanations and told the solutions are simple by authoritarian leaders.


– “The source of the trouble is lenient parents (or schools or laws),”

– “God is on our side,”

– “Get rid of the Jews (or Capitalists or Communists or blacks or Arabs).”

For the authoritarian if things aren’t simple, they are unknowable, e.g. he/she endorses the statement, “science has its place, but there are many important things that can never possibly be understood by the human mind.”

7. Guard against dangerous ideas. Since the authoritarian already has a handle on the truth, he/she opposes new ideas, unconventional solutions, creative imaginations. They believe an original thinker is dangerous; he/she will think differently.

It’s considered good to be suspicious of psychologists, writers, and artists who probe your mind and feelings – such people are scary. Governments who observe subversives are OK, though. Indeed, censorship of the media may become necessary, especially if the media becomes critical of our leaders or sexually provocative.

A businessperson produces needed products; an intellectual is a threat.

8. I’m pure, others are evil. The authoritarian represses his/her aggressive and sexual feelings, then projects those traits on to stereotyped persons in the outgroup.

For example, it was Larry King’s and other white men’s dishonesty, laziness, hatred, and sexual urges that got projected to the black man (see quote above). The authoritarian, therefore, feels surrounded by people preoccupied with sex and/or violence.

The psychoanalysts who wrote The Authoritarian Personality say the sexual fears come from an unresolved Oedipus or Electra Complex. The hostility comes from childhood, too, and throughout their lives authoritarians expect criminal acts nearby and terrorists’ attacks around the world. They become paranoid, believing many people want to hurt them (which justifies their aggression?).

9. Ethnocentrism: Everything of mine is better than yours – my country, my religion, my kind of people, my family, my self. Research has also shown the authoritarian is more prejudiced and more prone to punish people (including their own children) to get them to work harder or to do “right” (Byrne & Kelley, 1981). This picture of an authoritarian isn’t pretty. How many of these people are there? Zimbardo’s “prison study” suggests that the potential for authoritarianism may be quite high, given the right circumstances. It is estimated that at least 80% of us have prejudices. Hostility (especially the you-are-not-my-equal and I-don’t-care-about-you type) abounds in the world. Milgram’s study of obedience suggests 65% of us would physically hurt someone if told to do so by an authority. Also, in that chapter we will see that most of us conform to social pressures in dress, in opinions, in behavior. Maybe there are parts of an authoritarian personality inside all of us.

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