The Authoritarian Personality


German critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno and the distinguished colleagues with whom he collaborated to produce The Authoritarian Personality (1950) have with this volume produced a deeply fascinating and critical work for students of developmental and political psychology. The book, the first title in the Studies in Prejudice series coordinated by Adorno’s fellow German Marxist Max Horkheimer, is motivated by investigation of “the potentially fascistic individual,” a character type whose personal and behavior tendencies, claim Adorno et al., would likely lead her to “accept fascism if it should become a strong or respectable social movement.” This concern regarding the posited mass-presence of authoritarian personalities is of course rooted in Adorno and Horkheimer’s traumatic experiences as Jewish leftists observing the twentieth-century Nazi catastrophe; its fundament is tied to their intellectual and philosophical efforts to work toward ensuring that fascist rule never again arise, that millions of persons never again be murdered by genocidal militarists, that otherwise capable agents never again go along with racist-imperial politics. In this sense, Adorno and the other contributors seek with their study not just to “describe prejudice” but more importantly to “explain it in order to help in its eradication.” Posing then as political doctors of a sort—not unlike Wilhelm Reich in his The Mass Psychology of Fascism—the authors aim, via a “sincere and systematic scientific elucidation” of the phenomenon of prejudice, to “contribute directly to an amelioration of the cultural atmosphere in which hatred breeds.”

Introducing their work, the authors disclose some of the premises governing their study of prejudice: that personality is never static or isolated but rather “evolves under the impact of the social environment,” that people will generally accept political and social programs they feel will serve their economic interests, that membership within a particular social group can be expected to influence one’s views of those outside the group, and that people who are hostile toward one minority group are “very likely to be hostile against a wide variety of others.” They note that the chance for the development of fascism is aided along to the degree that people in general already exhibit authoritarian personality traits.

Else Frenkel-Brunswik, author of a number of chapters in the work that examine interviews with study-participants, summarizes the “most basic distinguishing criterion” found in The Authoritarian Personality between prejudiced and non-prejudiced individuals as being “the readiness to include, accept, and even love differences and diversities” in the case of the latter, as set against “the need to set off clear demarcation lines and to ascertain superiorities and inferiorities” among the former. This posited chasm in personality trends is introduced in the preliminary analysis given in the volume’s second chapter of two male college students, Mack (highly ethnocentric) and Larry (considerably less so), and developed more broadly in Frenkel-Brunswik’s chapters detailing and analyzing the results observed in the personal interviews performed with subjects regarding the following questions: work, income, family background, childhood, sex, school, social relationships, and minorities and “race.”

Frenkel-Brunswik’s first major chapter examines familial relationships and childhood in the interview material. She finds that those scoring high on the prejudice tests tend to conventionally idealize their parents, fear them (and consider this to be demonstration of respect), rebel against them capriciously, depend on them in exploitative and manipulative fashion, feel obligations to them, and generally express an “ingroup orientation” among family members—the family, that is, above or against the rest of society. Those scoring low on the prejudice tests are found to engage in objective appraisal of their parents, reject their parents on principle—or be independent them also on principle—and seek love and nurturance from them. Conventional idealization is found in the glorification of the external physical appearance and a lack of analysis of the personality of parents; low-scoring individuals on the other hand express criticism of parents’ pressure to make their children be more sociable or of their possessiveness and dominance, yet these resentments are often coupled with gratitude for positive qualities such as unconventionality and generosity. Unprejudiced individuals are more likely to demonstrate genuine positive feelings for their parents than more prejudiced ones. High-scoring participants willingly express their submission to their parents on the basis of fear; regarding questions of corporal punishment, they often agree completely with harsh regimes to which they historically were subjected, and they are given to periodic capricious rebellions that in no way challenge dynamics of subordination. Low-scoring persons, in contrast, demonstrate much less of a need of approval from their parents. Frenkel-Brunswik claims furthermore that typical prejudiced subjects seek to exploit their parents in material fashion, just as they exploit others; opportunism and the hopes of “making a deal” with parents seem to reign among these persons. More prejudiced subjects moreover tend to stress their family heredity and background in an attempt to distinguish their genetics from the rest of society—to create an in-group. Less prejudiced individuals are seen to have received more love from their parents, allowing them to develop independence from them.

In terms of specific perceptions of the characteristics of parents, high-scoring males and females tend to regard their fathers as being distant and “successful” (a “provider”), while low-scoring persons find their fathers to be relaxed, warm, and given to intellectual-aesthetic pursuits. More prejudiced participants claim their mothers to have been “sweet,” sacrificing, submissive, and a moral-model, while less prejudiced ones find mothers warm, loving, understanding, and—as with fathers—intellectual-aesthetic. Frenkel-Brunswik theorizes that unprejudiced males are aided in their development by the lack of an imposing father-figure who may threaten their masculinity, an eventuality that seems to give rise to overcompensatory aggressivity and need for authority. She further finds there to be a tendency toward father-dominated families among more prejudiced subjects, while unprejudiced persons seem instead to have experienced a mother-oriented household in which love rather than submission-domination dynamics rule. The development of “humanitarian values” within sons is linked to the relationship with the mother, and high-scoring respondents are far more likely to report anxiety regarding social status among parents than are low-scoring ones. Concluding this section, Frenkel-Brunswik notes the importance of relationships among children and parents for future political activity; she claims the power-orientation observed among more prejudiced participants to follow from their own trauma of being helpless, weak children subjected to hierarchical relations with parents: the prejudiced tend then to identify with the strong against the weak, in an attempt to escape their own former weakness.

Frenkel-Brunswik also authors the chapter on sex, people, and self as seen through interviews. In their attitudes toward sex, more prejudiced persons emphasize “conquests” and dates, engage in promiscuous relationships, generally view sex in terms of power, and exhibit a conventional morality repressive of the id. More prejudiced men seek in opposite-sex partners submissiveness, “sweetness,” and purity, while females seek hardworking, energetic, and “clean-cut” men. Among less prejudiced persons, there is more of an acceptance of the id, a greater interest in fusing sex with affection, a genuine respect and fondness for one’s partners, and a general desire for love rather than power dynamics; there is an emphasis among low-scorers on companionship, warmth, and understanding in opposite-sex partners. Many high-scoring men tend to see sex as a question of status; responding to strong needs for maintaining ideals of masculinity, such men speak of their depersonalized encounters in largely economic terms. Sex is almost utilitarian in this calculus; one prejudiced subject in particular is analyzed as “talk[ing] about sex as though it were an ego-alien tension which has to be ‘relieved’ for hygienic reasons.” High scorers are also found ultimately to be disrespectful toward sexual partners, with low-scorers exhibiting opposing trends. More prejudiced participants determine their values toward partners largely from convention, placing much stress on class, church membership, and conformity with established values, whereas less prejudiced individuals think more autonomously in these terms.

Similarly, in their attitudes toward others, high-scoring subjects tend toward moralistic condemnation, distrust and suspicion, manipulative opportunism, and hero worship, all within a hierarchical conception of human relations. Lower-scoring participants express much more permissiveness, empathy, and openness toward others; they promote egalitarian-mutual as well as loving inter-relations. More prejudiced individuals tend to view the world as dangerous and hostile—a “jungle-world”—in keeping with Darwinian conceptions of society; viewing humans as motivated only by power and material benefits, more prejudiced persons will engage interpersonally toward the end of securing their access to power and influence. They are expected to attendantly admire the strong and despise the weak. In contrast, less prejudiced persons are oriented more toward finding persons who will love them and with whom they can share understanding and camaraderie; they are more apt to express their need to help others and receive affection in return. Low-scorers furthermore tend to explore intellectual and artistic questions with their friends, and Frenkel-Brunswik notes that they are more able to seek common interests and enjoyment with friends relative to the prejudiced, who tend to be more anxiety-ridden.

Regarding their present selves, high-scorers glorify themselves, proudly situate themselves within prevailing conventional expectations for gender, and explain their development by genetics and accidents rather than psychology. Low-scorers are more capable of critical self-appraisal, and they are more willing to concede fallibility and weakness; they readily identify themselves as different, and their ego-ideals include among other things self-improvement and social change. Explaining their past resolutions of adversity, more prejudiced participants emphasize “will power and cheerfulness” as critical; they tend to think of themselves are basically moral and under control, as follows from their hopes to belong to dominant in-groups. Less prejudiced persons are more willing to identify themselves as different or unconventional; they are more likely to express “world identification” as their form of belonging to society, with an emphasis on egalitarian ideals of solidarity. More prejudiced persons are observed as viewing property as an extension of the self, while low-scorers are seen to be more casual and pleasure-seeking as regards money and possessions. In their perceptions of their childhood selves, more authoritarian subjects report having been “difficult,” “stubborn,” “spoiled,” or “aggressive” as children, with less authoritarian participants remarking on their shyness, isolation, and unpopularity in childhood. While high-scorers also describe their childhoods as bland, low-scorers tend to be more “adult-oriented,” as is reflected in one’s commitment to reading or interest in education.

In their conclusion to The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and company summarize the study’s findings, restating the opposition they find between the “hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitive parent-child relationship” they theorize as being carried over to attitudes toward others as expressed by more authoritarian persons, together with the suspectibility of these to “a political philosophy and social outlook which has no room for anything but a desperate clinging to what appears to be strong,” against the pattern comprised “chiefly [of] affectionate, basically equalitarian, and permissive interpersonal relationships,” as expressed by unprejudiced individuals. Defending the Freudian approach of emphasizing childhood experience, the authors nonetheless note that their study does not adequately account for the “social and economic processes” that influence the development of families within which children are socialized. Acknowledging another limitation, they note that they investigate authoritarian potentialities but not authoritarian behavior itself; in this sense, they cannot predict the conditions “under which an actual outbreak would occur,” as would follow from the “readiness” for such an outbreak as reflected in expressed opinion. Nonetheless, they have recommendations for addressing what Adorno terms the “authoritarian syndrome”: any psychosocial “countermeasures” that would be had should take aim at “stereotypy, emotional coldness, identification with power, and general destructiveness.” While they state that the “modification of the potentially fascist structure” cannot be the work of psychology and psychologists alone—it is much more a general problem, related, in Hegelian-Marxist terms, to the “total organization of society”—they vaguely propose a program to avoid the development of ethnocentric personalities within childhood: “All that is really essential is that children be genuinely loved and treated as human beings.” The authors close the volume by expressing their faith in the potentialities of people in general—continuing a trend seen in much of twentieth-century German Marxism, from the work of Ernst Bloch to that of Franz Neumann1—noting the majority of their subjects in fact not to have exhibited extreme ethnocentrism, and identifying the prospect of fascism as largely an imposition advanced by dominant groups, one whose victory is denied to the degree that humans employ reason and exercise eros.


1Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976 [1959]); Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944).

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