5 March 2016
This is a bit off track from what I write about here, but the science behind the present civil war in the Republican Party is very fascinating. There are now some mainstream press articles about this coming out, but they don’t tend to explain much about the research. So here goes my first (and likely last ever) post dealing with psychology. I actually have a minor in the field (which is unusual for a meteorologist) and likely just means I know enough to be dangerous. If you came here for Earth science and are upset, I apologize in advance, but I think this research is important to give notice to.
I discovered this by accident, when looking at the psychology that would explain why normally smart people reject the overwhelming mountain of evidence on climate change. I often noticed that if you showed them that a claim they were making (i.e.the sun is responsible) was wrong they would accept it, but within days were repeating it again.
Donald Trump has said that “climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese, to take American jobs”, yet he seems to be on the way to winning the Republican nomination despite this, and an endless list of other statements deemed very offensive by many. Among those with a science background, there is near unanimous disbelief at this, and you often hear questions along the line of “are Americans really that ignorant of basic science??”. There are many TV commentators trying to explain why nothing he says hurts his poll numbers, but so far only a few news outlets have written about the science behind this.
The answer seems likely to be authoritarianism.
Several experts have now pointed out that authoritarian personality traits are the only reliable predictor of Trump support that can be found, and it works very well. Lower educated people tend to score higher on the scale, and this seems to fit with the strong support Trump gets from those with no college or a high school diploma.
To understand authoritarians you should read the book by one of the pioneer researchers in the field. Dr. Bob Altemeyer. He wrote a book about his award winning research and it is free in pdf form. I rank it as one of the best and most fascinating psychology books I’ve ever read. A recent paper he wrote (2004) about his research is here (firewalled but worth reading if you have access). Citations for his other published papers in peer reviewed journals are in the beginning of his book. An excellent recent piece on authoritarianism is also here.
What makes an authoritarian different from everyone else? Here are some excerpts from the beginning of his book. You may find some of this so “current” that you assume the quotes below are recent. They are over a decade old.
Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal…We know an awful lot about authoritarian followers. In one way or another, hundreds of social scientists have studied them since World War II. We have a pretty good idea of who they are, where they come from, and what makes them tick. By comparison, we know little about authoritarian leaders because we only recently started studying them.
He goes on about this type of personality:
Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.
Authoritarian Submission. Everybody submits to authority to some degree. Imagine a world in which people ignored traffic laws and sped through red lights. The cost of auto insurance would shoot through the roof (although the line-ups to buy it would become much shorter). But some people go way beyond the norm and submit to authority even when it is dishonest, corrupt, unfair and evil. We would expect authoritarian followers especially to submit to corrupt authorities in their lives: to believe them when there is little reason to do so, to trust them when huge grounds for suspicion exist, and to hold them blameless when they do something wrong.
Altemeyer talks about many of his experiments with people who test as high authoritarians. Here is a short example from a decade back that you may find surprising:
Here’s another one of my measures, which I call “Posse,” that you may find so ridiculous that you’d say no one would ever buy into it. Humor me, gentle reader. Suppose the federal government, some time in the future, passed a law outlawing various religious cults. Government officials then stated that the law would only be effective if it were vigorously enforced at the local level and appealed to everyone to aid in the fight against these cults.
Please respond to the following statements according to the following scale: -4 indicates the statement is extremely untrue of you. -3 indicates the statement is very untrue of you. etc. to: +4 indicates the statement is extremely true of you.
1. I would tell my friends and neighbors it was a good law.
2. I would tell the police about any religious cults I knew.
3. If asked by the police, I would help hunt down and arrest members of religious cults.
4. I would participate in attacks on religious cult meeting places if organized by the proper authorities.
5. I would support the use of physical force to make cult members reveal the identity of other cult members.
6. I would support the execution of religious cult leaders if the government insisted it was necessary to protect the country.
I’ll assume, because I know what a fine person you are, that you would respond to each of these statements with a -4 or a -3. Most people do. But not authoritarian followers. They typically answer with -2s and -1s, and sometimes even say, “Yes I would.” If that shocks you, remember that the premise behind “Posse” runs right down Main Street in the authoritarian aggression mind-set. When the authorities say, “Go get ‘em,” the (strong authoritarians)high RWAs saddle up. Who can ‘em be? Nearly everybody, it turns out. I started with a proposition to outlaw Communists and found authoritarian followers would be relatively likely to join that posse. Ditto for persecuting homosexuals, and ditto for religious cults, “radicals” and journalists the government did not like.
Altemeyer’s test is in his book, and it consists of 22 questions that you mark your degree of agreement or disagreement from -4 to +4.
Some of the questions:
1. The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just “loud mouths” showing off their ignorance. ___
3. Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us. ___
4. Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else. ___
5. It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds ___
7. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.
10. Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs. __
16. God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished. ___
Everyone surrounds their political worldview with a wall of cognitive bias. We interpret information through a filter that conforms to our world view, and tend to reject information that conflicts with it, while accepting (with little scrutiny) information that matches it. Just knowing this alone, makes one a much better critical thinker, and most people never even consider the way their brain accepts and rejects information. Scientific method/peer review exist to override this in hope that the truth will out.
However, Altemeyer’s research indicates that strong authoritarians have an iron wall around their beliefs that no amount of fact and evidence can penetrate. They consume no information from media sources that do not agree with their worldview, and any evidence that disagrees with their belief actually strengthens it! Perhaps this explains why Trump supporters accept such silly conspiracy ideation on climate change, and the birth of President Obama. The more evidence you present that they are wrong, the more they believe they are right.
Altemeyer says that while a lot of research has been done on authoritarian followers, there has not been much on authoritarian leaders which most experts agree that Trump is nearly the very definition of. What is known is rather frightening. Chapter 5 in Altemeyer’s book is about those who lead authoritarians- social dominators. Here is a short excerpt:
Personal Origins of the Social Domination Orientation We think we understand how people become authoritarian followers (chapter 2). So where do social dominators come from? Right now, it’s hard to say. Attempts to find shaping experiences have uncovered a few “beginnings.” High social dominators among university students say it has been their experience that:
Deceit and cheating were good tactics because it led to what they wanted. Taking advantage of “suckers” felt great. They’ve enjoyed having power and having people afraid of them. “Losers” deserved what happened to them.
It’s smart to use whatever power you have in a situation to get what you want. Life boils down to what you can get away with. People who suffer misfortunes deserve them because they are lazy or dumb or made bad moves. And of course, they say their lives have taught them that “Life is a jungle.”
These experiences indicate that the future dominator was rewarded earlier in life when he cheated, took advantage of others, made people afraid of him, overpowered others, got away with doing something wrong, or beat somebody to the punch. All of these actions may in turn have been predicated by a “tooth and claw” outlook that he learned from (say) his parents. Or that outlook may just serve as a rationalization for being amoral, unsympathetic, and exploitive because acting this way often pays off. Psychologists talk about the “Law of Effect,” which says you learn to do what works. Being unscrupulous works for social dominators.
I suspect that the excerpts of the book have intrigued you enough to read it. His research has won awards by the AAAS and is now getting substantial attention. Some of the experiments done comparing low authoritarian and high authoritarian college students are actually rather amusing, but make no mistake, this research is being played out in the real world right now. You can probably guess at who some past authoritarian leaders were, and the results that followed their coming to power.
There is still a lot of unknowns when it comes to social dominators and authoritarians. If you find what you have already learned alarming, then you’re in good company because authoritarian researchers seem to as well. The battle between the authoritarians and those who are not is producing the civil war in the GOP right now, and the research says that trying to convince the authoritarians to look at facts is a waste of time.
Climate change deniers may very well be strong authoritarians as well. I know some top climate experts who upon telling someone what they do, are told that it is all a hoax. When asked about their background in science is these people often have never taken a college course in anything. I suspect only authoritarians could possibly be blind to how ridiculous they look, and when I realize I have been asked a question by one, I never waste time arguing with them!
Update: Another very long (but thoughtful) piece on the psychology involved is this piece http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/
Note Comments are welcome on this post, but it is about authoritarianism, and not who you do, or do not, support for President. I’ll post all reasonable comments that are on that topic.