Authoritarian Personality

How Theodor Adorno's F-scale aimed to identify fascism and authoritarian personality.
Authoritarian Personality

A Look At The Authoritarian Personality

How much do you agree with the following statements?
  • People can be divided into two distinct classes - the weak and the strong.
  • Some people are born with the urge to jump from high places.
  • No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough willpower.
  • Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked and feeble-minded people.

The statements you just read are a part of one of the most infamous psychological scales of the 20th century - Theodor Adorno's F-scale. The F stood for Fascist - and the test was meant to help identify how racism develops in people.

Understanding the Holocaust

In 1950, Harper and Row published a book that had all the earmarks of a blockbuster in the field of psychology. The Authoritarian Personality was an attempt by a group of researchers to explain the conditions that allowed Nazi-ism to gain a foothold in Europe. The researchers, led by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, used various psychological scales to attempt to explain racism and the atmosphere that led to the slaughter of six million Jews and others in psychological terms. The book weighed in at a hefty near-1000 pages, and included contributions from a number of social psychologists who helped to correlate and analyze the data collected.

Controversial Research

Almost from the start, The Authoritarian Personality engendered heated controversy. By 1955, the book and its theory had been vilified and torn down by many critics as propaganda masquerading as poor science. The most notorious part of the book - and the most enduring - is the infamous Adorno F-scale (F for Fascist), which purported to measure Fascist tendencies by evaluating responses to a series of weighted questions. The F-scale was only one of the research instruments used by the group, but it is the one that has endured the longest.

The Authoritarian Personality Type

According to Adorno's theory, the elements of the Authoritarian personality type are:

  • Blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong
  • Respect for submission to acknowledged authority
  • Belief in aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different
  • A negative view of people in general - i.e. the belief that people would all lie, cheat or steal if given the opportunity
  • A need for strong leadership which displays uncompromising power
  • A belief in simple answers and polemics - i.e. The media controls us all or The source of all our problems is the loss of morals these days.
  • Resistance to creative, dangerous ideas. A black and white worldview.
  • A tendency to project one's own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group
  • A preoccupation with violence and sex

To measure these things in subjects, Adorno devised a test that asked them to state how much they agreed with particular statements. Each statement was correlated to one of the above elements. For example:

Q. The businessman and the manufacturer are more important to our country than artists and writers. (Distrust of artists and writers)

Q. Every person should have complete faith in a supernatural being whose decisions he obeys without question. (Submission to established authority)

Q. An insult to our honor should always be punished. (Aggression toward those who harbor unconventional thinking)

More on Authoritarian Personality: Adorno Reviled & Revisited

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