In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Authoritarian Personality

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Historical Background

Psychology Authoritarian Personality
John T. Jost, Joanna Sterling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0160


Research on the “authoritarian” (or “anti-democratic”) personality has experienced periods of lively, rigorous, and sometimes contentious exploration in social, personality, and political psychology as well as periods of relative neglect. The waxing and waning of practical and research interest in the problem of authoritarianism has often been shaped by historical factors and current events. Fascist movements of the early to mid-20th century served as a primary catalyst for theoretical and empirical investigation of the phenomenon, but interest subsided in the aftermath of World War II. Updated and improved measures of authoritarianism and social dominance orientation continue to predict attitudes and behaviors associated with prejudice and discrimination, providing evidence of the longevity and societal significance of the construct.

General Overview

In The Authoritarian Personality, one of the most influential and widely debated works in the history of social science, Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford (Adorno, et al. 1950) proposed a psychodynamic theory of prejudice and ideology that was intended to explain why economic frustration brought on by World War I and the Great Depression contributed to the mass popularity of fascist movements in Europe from the 1920s to the 1940s. The gist of their argument was that “status anxiety produces authoritarian discipline which produces repression of faults and shortcomings and of aggression against authority,” which is then “projected onto minorities and outsiders” (Brown 1965, p. 504). One of the central insights of this theoretical perspective, which has received a great deal of empirical support, is that “a man who is hostile toward one minority group is very likely to be hostile against a wide variety of others” (Adorno, et al. 1950, p. 9). In other words, the authoritarian is an individual for whom generalized prejudice has become a structured aspect of his or her personality.

  • Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.

    In this seminal work addressing the individual and social origins of authoritarianism as a personality characteristic, the legendary social theorist T.W. Adorno teamed up with three research psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley. They constructed a new questionnaire to measure pre-fascist tendencies (the F-Scale) as well as instruments to measure ethnocentrism or anti-Semitism (the E-scale) and political-economic conservatism (the P.E.C. scale).

  • Brown, Roger. 1965. The authoritarian personality and the organization of attitudes. In Social psychology. Edited by Roger Brown, 477–546. New York: Free Press.

    Brown summarizes and evaluates over a decade of criticism directed at Adorno, et al. 1950. He concludes that, despite methodological flaws with the original research program, the central thesis of The Authoritarian Personality—that (for psychological reasons) a constellation of rigid, intolerant, authoritarian, and ethnocentric attitudes tend to co-occur—is not only plausible, but also likely correct.

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