24 August 2010

Are You An Authoritarian? (Some fascinating psychological research)

Posted by Dan Satterfield

I recently read a fascinating book. It’s called the Authoritarians and it was written by Robert Altemeyer. Altemeyer is a professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba. You can read his  book online for free or buy it from amazon.com.

I stumbled  across it doing research on climate skepticism. I have often wondered why some people are totally immune to facts. I’m talking about the kind of person who, if you tell them the sky is blue, and walk outside and show them the sky is blue, will still tell someone a day later that the sky is not blue!

Why do I care?

Basically I want to know when I am wasting my time talking with someone! Not just about climate science but nearly any kind of science! If Altemeyer is right, then if the person I am talking to is a strong authoritarian, then I am truly wasting my time. Nothing I can say and no amount of scientific fact will change their mind.

Am I one?

Reading the book, the first thing I started wondering about was the obvious question- Am I an authoritarian???

Thankfully, according to the test devised by Altemeyer I’m not!

This is good since his research indicates that people who are, tend to be more likely to be prejudiced, and to commit torture and other crimes in the name of the government. They have a high degree of obedience to established authorities. They also tend to be lower educated and have almost no ability to do critical thinking.

Most importantly they tend to be heavy traditionalists.  In a sense they are the opposite of those bumper stickers you see that say question authority!

The American Assoc. for The Advancement of Science awarded Altemeyer the Behavioral Science Prize for his research. (The AAAS is one of the world’s top science organizations.)

The reason these people cannot be convinced by facts is that they let others do their thinking for them. In fact, they seem to have almost no critical thinking skills.They are more likely to associate with others who have their viewpoints than the average person. So much so that they rarely meet others who have differing opinions and only watch TV news that agrees with their viewpoint as well.

So you may be wondering by now if you are an authoritarian! If not, you probably are!

You can read the book and take the test and score yourself. I highly recommend reading it. The research says that those who are strong authoritarians will not finish it. Moreover it predicts I will get nasty notes and maybe even death threats for talking about it!

I will let you know if that happens!

The Test

Here are 3 questions from the 22 question test. You answer on a scale of +4= strongly agree to -4 strongly disagree. Any number you choose from +4 to -4 is OK and scored differently.

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
___ 6. Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
___ 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.


One question more from the test-

Are you a plus 4 or a -4 or somewhere in between??

Apparently about 15% of the population are authoritarians. Altemeyer calls them “right wing authoritarians” but cautions that right wing does not have the same political meaning it does in America.

What is even more interesting is that research has shown that about 15% of the population thinks climate change is a hoax or a conspiracy and this is about the same number of people who are high authoritarians. Just a coincidence? I do not think so after reading the book.

His research is certainly controversial, but it is science, and therefore fair game for this journal. While his research has gotten rave reviews there are a few psychologists that disagree.  Not many it seems…

My score and opinion are my own and I will keep them to myself. Fascinating though, very fascinating…

Comments welcome, but read the comment policy first because I will apply it very stringently to this post.