Authoritarian Personality: Followers and Leaders

Authoritarian personality syndrome, as defined below by Bobby Azarian, PhD, Psychology Today, is being increasingly witnessed in our country’s social and political scene:

Authoritarian personality syndrome—a well-studied and globally-prevalent condition—is a state of mind that is characterized by belief in total and complete obedience to one’s authority. Those with the syndrome often display aggression toward outgroup members, submissiveness to authority, resistance to new experiences, and a rigid hierarchical view of society. The syndrome is often triggered by fear, making it easy for leaders who exaggerate threat or fear monger to gain their allegiance.

According to Eric Maisel, PhD (Psychology Today), “In the authoritarian literature, there is a sharp distinction made between authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers. Both are authoritarians, but they have their significant differences. One major difference is that authoritarian followers, for all their hatred, belligerence, and aggressiveness, are also highly submissive, easily cowed by authority, and cowardly.”

Of course, the same individual can be both leader and follower, e.g, an authoritarian parent who also has had such a parent or an authoritarian political leader who admires and enables other authoritarian world leaders.

Authoritarians on all levels and in all types of positions in life can be expected to exhibit many or all of the following 30 traits, states Maisel in a series of posts on Psychology Today.

  • Hatred
  • Punishment and Cruelty
  • Violence, Aggression, and Assaultive Behavior
  • Threats and Scare Tactics
  • Quixotic, Unclear Rules
  • Paranoia and Enemies’ Lists
  • Truth Held as Enemy
  • Shaming Efforts, Derision, and Ridicule
  • Rigidity and Obsession with Control
  • Intrusiveness (“combine a need to control with a desire to shame and humiliate”)
  • Unacknowledged Anxiety
  • Religious Fervor and Religious Cover
  • Superstitions and Mythic Determination
  • Anti-Intellectualism and Anti-Rationalism
  • Hypocrisy
  • Diminishment
  • Demands and Coercion
  • Need for Domination
  • Prejudice and Bigotry
  • Lack of Conscience and Absence of Guilt
  • Lack of Compassion and Empathy
  • Conventionalism and Concerns with Social Status
  • Submissiveness and Cowardice
  • Preoccupation with Sex and Promiscuity
  • Destructiveness
  • Cynicism
  • Exploitation
  • Loyalty Demands
  • Narcissism and Superficial Charm
  • Consistent Authoritarianism

Psychologist Bob Altemeyer has combined and recategorized such longer lists into a simpler model of three (Scotty Hendricks, Big Think):

Authoritarian submission: a high degree of submissiveness to authorities perceived to be legitimate.

Authoritarian aggression: a general aggressiveness directed at deviants, outgroups, and those designated to be targets by established authorities.

Conventionalism: a high degree of adherence to traditions and social norms that are seen as endorsed by society and the established authorities. This includes a belief that adherence to these norms should be mandated across a society.

Altemeyer’s “Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale,” found at Open Psychometricstakes only a few minutes to complete.

But what about Left-Wing Authoritarianism? There’s not nearly as much mention of this in the literature. Psychologist Lucian Gideon Conway and his research associates adapted Altemeyer’s work toward trying to measure it (PsyPost) but haven’t quite gotten there yet:

‘We aren’t claiming definitively that left-wingers are just as likely as right-wingers to be authoritarian in all (or even most) contexts, or that left-wing authoritarians are just the same as right-wing authoritarians in every regard (in fact, I’m pretty sure they aren’t, and we’re doing some work on that).’

‘There are good reasons to think authoritarianism aligns more with right-wing than left-wing ideology, and we are interested in those reasons, too. The point is, it is a further question to better define the similarities and differences in right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism.’

One thought on “Authoritarian Personality: Followers and Leaders

  1. I’ve come to think of left-wing authoritarianism as fitting the “Puritan” model: people who derive meaning by obeying extremely rigid and narrow definitions of right-and-wrong, and have the peculiar (in comparison to right-wing authoritarianism) characteristic of focusing their attacks (think “burning at the stake”) on those closest to them for minute or imagined trespasses rather than focusing on the truest heathens totally outside their circle. Power & hierarchy in this puritan model is built from such neighbor-finger-pointing (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”).

    Many of the modern left movements fit this model. As an example: use wrong or not-up-to-date nomenclature for any form of featured identity victimhood, you will be blacklisted for life. Underscoring another feature: the leftward form is, compared to the right, is utterly unforgiving (and, interestingly, also comparatively humorless).

    Because of the strange “attack your neighbor before you attack your enemy” feature of the left-wing variety, they end up cooperating with their right-wing forms when it comes to elections. Not by directly voting FOR the right-wing candidates, but more by giving them their vote, e.g. voting for an impossible-to-elect candidate or not voting. For example, Bush/Cheney only won their first term by the Nader followers; Trump only got in to office by the Bernie followers.

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