Is there an authoritarian personality? That was a central question preoccupying thinkers such as Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer—all of whom were Jews who escaped the Third Reich. They wanted to explain the meteoric rise of Nazism within a social-psychological framework. Their theory was that people who were liable to follow authoritarian leaders in times of crisis had been socialized to do so.
According to the late scholar Detlef Oesterreich, not only has the concept been questioned, decades of psychoanalytic research into nailing down an authoritarian personality haven’t been “very successful.”
“The enormous research effort has produced few clear results,” Oesterreich wrote; “most findings have been compromised by counterevidence, and a stable relationship between the characteristics of an authoritarian personality and corresponding overt behavior has not been established.”
But what was the authoritarian personality supposed to be, anyhow, and why should we take it seriously today?
The idea lumps together an awful lot of personal characteristics. Some, according to Oesterreich, were “neurotic, antidemocratic, prejudiced, ethnocentric, aggressive, conventional, cowardly, rigid, anxious, dogmatic, stupid, demagogic, dominant, over-adapted, despotic, submissive, inhibited, etc.”
It hasn’t helped that the “concept has been used for decades as an ideological weapon,” in which only one’s enemies are authoritarian—no one considers themselves so.
Oesterreich nevertheless still found the authoritarian personality to be useful “because it helps to explain human nonage” (youth). He argued that a “flight into security” is a basic reaction to threat, fear, and uncertainty for the young. Whether motivated by innate or learned factors, children seek the shelter of their parents, the first authority figures.
Arguing that this “authoritarian reaction” is natural, Oesterreich was more interested in how people respond to it growing up. Some individuals “formulat[e] their own strategies to cope with reality” so they can become autonomous. But others don’t negotiate this transition successfully. As adults, they still gravitate toward “individuals who seem to provide security,” relying on authority figures and institutions instead of themselves. “The authoritarian personality emerges out of an inability to generate such individual coping strategies.”
Using a questionnaire to query “behavior, emotions, and one’s own self-concept,” Oesterreich argued that he had developed a solid measure of authoritarian personalities. His questionnaire included topics to measure rigid and inflexible behavior; closed-mindedness against the new and unfamiliar; conformity and submission; and hostility and suppressed aggression.
Those who strongly agreed with statements like “I don’t like to be confronted with new ideas,” “I don’t feel sorry for people in severe trouble,” and “I am satisfied with what I know,” among others, were indicating authoritarian personality characteristics.
In his surveys, Oesterreich found “high correlations between authoritarianism and indicators for orientation toward and support for the extreme political right, denial of women’s and immigrant’s rights.”
This all leads to a paradox for today:
“Societies, which tend to overtax the cognitive and emotional abilities of many people living within them […] force individuals to rely on authority. Such societies bear the burden of possible authoritarian reactions from a wide segment of their population. Consequently, modern industrialized societies are threatened by totalitarian tendencies.”