Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Australian Journal of Psychology, 1990, 42, 87-111.

(With a post-publication addendum following the original article)


Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism By R. Altemeyer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988. Hardbound. 407 pp. $22.95

It is presumably only a minor distinction but it is nonetheless the case that Australia is home to all three academics who regularly write on the topic of authoritarianism. Aside from these three (K. Rigby, J.J. Ray and P.C.L. Heaven) there are only authors who contribute one or two publications on the topic and then fall silent. It seems therefore very appropriate that the latest book on authoritarianism should be reviewed in this journal.

As it happens, the book concerned invites extreme derision from an Australian point of view. It shows no awareness of anything that the Australian authors have long been debating. Where the Australian authors have long been struggling with what should be deemed "authoritarian" Altemeyer even fails to comprehend what is meant by "Right-wing". He trots out a definition that may owe something to dictionaries but which shows no current political awareness whatsoever. He equates it with the basic lexical definition of "conservatism" -- in summary form "rejection of change". In other words, figures like Brezhnev and Li Peng are Rightists and Margaret Thatcher is a Leftist!

Such theoretical incompetence is hard to believe. The fact that those who are traditionally in politics called "conservatives" have long opposed extensions of State power, control and intervention whereas Leftists want to extend State power, control and intervention is quite lost on Altemeyer. Only when State interventionism was all the rage was it literally "conservative" to oppose it. Now that it is not, the literal meaning of the term "conservative" applies best to Leftists -- something which many journalists have noticed but which Altemeyer has not.

The foundation for this theoretical incompetence would seem to be Altemeyer's determination to read as little as possible on his topic before sitting down to write. Not one of the papers by Rigby is cited by Altemeyer and Heaven is cited once only because he once used Altemeyer's scale. Of my more than 100 papers on the topic only three are cited -- two of which used Altemeyer's scale. Even Altemeyer, however, seems embarrassed by his failure to use so many of my papers. He seems to be trying to excuse himself by giving a critique of just one of my papers -- the paper in which I introduced my "Directiveness" scale for the measurement of authoritarianism (Ray, 1976). He starts out by asserting that in that paper I made the mistake of claiming that Milgram used students as subjects and Psychology Department staff as the authority figure. That is not true. What I said was that the "tradition of research" emanating from Milgram's work was so characterized. In other words, Milgram's successors were less rigorous than Milgram. So even when he is trying to score (surely trivial) points, Altemeyer still cannot get it right. He then goes on to make some criticisms of my Directiveness scale and concludes that my work is therefore to be dismissed as irrelevant. He neglects to let his readers know that I also found that the first form of the Directiveness scale had faults and that he is criticizing the Mark I version of a scale that is now in its Mark VI form! He does seem quite desperate to avoid the need for reading anything.

Is this because his own research is so superior? Far from it. His RWA (Right-wing authoritarianism) scale looked to me suspiciously like an ordinary conservatism scale so in Ray (1985) I used a random community sample to correlate it both with a well-validated measure of authoritarian personality and with two fairly orthodox scales of conservatism, one of which was balanced to control out any influence of authoritarianism (i.e. Left-authoritarian and Right-authoritarian items were included in equal numbers). Altemeyer's RWA scale correlated overwhelmingly with both conservatism scales but not at all with the authoritarianism scale. In other words, Altemeyer's naivety about the concept of conservatism has simply caused him to reinvent it under another name! Altemeyer mentions this finding in his present book but rejects it on the grounds that I devised the conservatism scales. I suppose that I could with equal coherence reject the RWA scale solely because Altemeyer devised it.

Given Altemeyer's theoretical deficiencies, it should come as no surprise that his book arrives at the ultimate anti-climax. His alleged scale of Right-wing authoritarianism is, by Altemeyer's own admission, an almost complete failure at predicting anything Right-wing! Scores on it are roughly normally distributed so it should discriminate well but in fact it is a virtually complete failure at predicting political candidate preference. The form of conservatism it measures is essentially non-political. The basis for Altemeyer's claim that his work explains Right-wing authoritarianism (rather than non-political conservatism) is, therefore, a considerable mystery.

J.J. Ray

University of N.S.W.


Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

Ray, J.J. (1985) Defective validity in the Altemeyer authoritarianism scale. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 271-272.


I should have mentioned above that there is another Canadian study that is everything which Altemeyer's work is not -- the study by Sutherland & Tanenbaum (1980). This was a remarkably rigorous study that used a large Canadian general population sample and applied to it scales that distinguished carefully between the various supposed "components" of authoritarianism. It may be noted from their Table III that high and low scorers of their measure of "General Obedience" (excerpted from the F scale) were virtually identical in political party orientation -- both being on average very much at the political centre in fact.

I did not above give the exact reference to the failure of the RWA scale to predict vote. My reference was to p. 239 of Enemies of Freedom -- where Altemeyer makes the bald statement that "Right-wing authoritarians show little preference in general for any political party". So in what sense are the statements in the scale "right-wing" if right-wingers are no more likely to endorse them than Leftists are? Altemeyer is like a character in "Alice in Wonderland" where words can mean anything that he says they mean.

Even Altemeyer however seems eventually to have become perturbed after the decline and fall of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe enabled use of his RWA scale there. Studies in the East such as those by Altemeyer & Kamenshikov (1991), McFarland, Ageyev and Abalakina-Paap (1992) and Hamilton, Sanders & McKearney (1995) showed that high RWA scores were associated with support for Communism!! So an alleged "Rightist" scale went from being non-political to being a measure of Leftism! If you took it at face-value, it showed Communists were Rightists! -- the absurdity of which I was not slow to point out at the time (Ray, 1992).

After that, Altemeyer more or less gave up his original claim and engaged in a bit of historical revisionism. He said (Altemeyer, 1996, p. 218) that when he "began talking about right-wing authoritarianism, I was (brazenly) inventing a new sense, a social psychological sense that denotes submission to the perceived established authorities in one's life". It is true that he did originally define what he was measuring in something like that way (in detail, he defined it as a combination of three elements: submissiveness to established authority, adherence to social conventions and general aggressiveness) but what was new, unusual or "brazen" about such a conceptualization defies imagination. The concept of submission to established authority was, for instance, part of the old Adorno et al (1950) work. What WAS brazen was Altemeyer's claim that what he was measuring was characteristic of the political Right. But it is precisely the "Right-wing" claim that he now seems to have dropped and the RWA scale is now said to measure simply submission to authority.

Even that claim, however, seems ambitious. In a general population survey, Heaven (1984) found that the peer-rated behaviours that the RWA scale significantly predicted were submissiveness (r = 0.22) and authoritarianism (0.20) but the very low level of the correlations may be noted. More importantly, however, there is evidence showing that there is no such thing as a consistent or overall attitude to authority -- not even to conventional authority (Ray, 1972; Ray & Lovejoy, 1990). People are discriminating about what authority they will accept and when they will accept it. So "acceptance of conventional authority" is now clearly a "unicorn" concept -- i.e. there turns out to be no reality there to correspond the words. But anybody who talked to committed U.S. conservatives about the U.S. Supreme Court in late 2003 would soon get an idea of how little respect conservatives have for THAT major example of conventional authority! James Lindgren has also drawn together some U.S. public opinion poll data showing that respect for authority among the public at large is anything but monolithic.

It may also be noted that, despite all the evidence to the contrary and Altemeyer's own backdown, the RWA scale still seems to be referred to by all its users as measuring something "Right-wing". As I have pointed out at some length elsewhere (Ray, 1987) psychologists hold to their prejudices so rigidly that they rarely let little things like evidence disturb them.

Altemeyer did however have still more to contribute in his role as the clown of political psychology. He then went on to develop a scale of Left-Wing Authoritarianism -- the LWA scale. When he tested it on over two thousand people however, he could not find one single high-scorer on it! The LWA scale did not detect a single Left-wing authoritarian! Again he himself proved that his scale was not valid -- unless of course one is so totally one-eyed as to accept that there ARE no Left-wing authoritarians. If you are as good at waving magic wands as Altemeyer is, you might perhaps be able to claim that no such thing as Communism has ever existed, I guess.


Unsurprisingly, Altemeyer does not seem to have had much success at getting papers published in the journal literature. In fact I could find only one of them online. So I thought it might be useful for me to append here a few comments on that article.

His paper is about religion and does seem to show the usual Leftist hostility to religion (Islam excepted, of course). He concerns himself with the now hoary question of whether or not religious people are racially prejudiced. The answer of course does to a large degree depend on how you define "religious". But generally, psychological research -- such as mine -- has found no association between orthodox Christian beliefs and racial prejudice. That does not suit religion-hating Leftists at all, however -- as "racist" is one of their handiest terms of abuse. So we find Altemeyer riding to the rescue with a paper headed "Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice"

Again in this paper Altemeyer relies heavily on his Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale. As the very name of it implies, it contains a "mixed bag" of statements. Many are worded in a very aggressive and punitive ("authoritarian") way but there are also in the scale statements such as: "National anthems, flags and glorification of one's country should all be de-emphasized to promote the brotherhood of all men" (from p. 305 of Altemeyer's 1981 book). Now how many conservatives would agree with that statement? Very few, I suspect. So agreeing with the aggressive and hostile statements of the RWA scale can get you a high score on it but just rejecting characteristically Leftist statements can also get you a high score on it. So whether any given correlation with the scale arises from its conservative character or its authoritarian character is simply unknowable.

So Altemeyer's failure to recognize that simply being conservative could lead you to get elevated scores on his RWA scale leads him to lots of apparently profound conclusions that are in fact much more parsimoniously (simply) interpreted. For instance, he concludes: "people raised in no religion are apt to be the least authoritarian [conservative] respondents". But all that that finding really tells us is that modern-day North American Christians tend to be conservative. Big news! In a similar vein he supports his assertion that high scorers on his RWA scale [conservatives] are characterized by "deplorable behavior" by showing that they were more supportive of Republican President Richard Nixon and were more opposed to Communists and more dubious about homosexuality. Again: Big news

Anyway, Altemeyer's whole approach in this article is again so silly and naive that it does not deserve a full critique so I will simply move on to a few remarks on what he says about religion and racism. His first interesting statement is this one: "For example, in a study of 533 University of Manitoba students tested in the fall of 1987 by Altemeyer, the RWA Scale correlated .48 with a measure of acceptance of Christian beliefs, the Christian Orthodoxy (CO) Scale ( Fullerton & Hunsberger, 1982). It also correlated .41 with a measure of prejudice against most of the minorities mentioned a few paragraphs ago. But CO scores correlated precisely .00 with prejudice". In other words, Altemeyer found what I found 15 year before him (not that he mentions my work) -- that orthodox Christian beliefs have ZERO correlation with racial prejudice.

That pesky finding did not defeat him, though. He went back to the drawing board and came up with his own measure of religious belief -- a "Religious Fundamentalism" (RF) scale, which was essentially a set of statements that were very dogmatic about the truth of religion. And he went on to show (Phew!) that that scale DID show a small (.30) correlation with racial prejudice. But here's the kicker: Altemeyer's scale of religious belief deliberately EXCLUDED all specifically Christian statements of belief! Even an atheist with a passionate belief in flying saucers could get a high score on it! There is a later study by Ken Deeks here which also used Altemeyer's scales and that study confirms that high scorers on Altemeyer's RF scale (but not Christians) tended to be simple-minded. So once again poor old Alty tried to fudge his data and failed. All he has really shown is that racial prejudice (but not Christianity) tends to be simple-minded.

It may finally be worth noting that my earlier study used a measure of religious dogmatism too (which I called the "religiocentrism" scale) but my scale was specifically Christian in content. And guess what? It too showed NO correlation with ethnic prejudice. So it was only by taking the Christianity out of religion that Altemeyer could show that religious people were bigots. What a laugh! Only too typical of Leftist psychology, however.


Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

Altemeyer, R. (1996). The Authoritarian Specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Altemeyer, R. & Kamenshikov, A. (1991) Impressions of American and Soviet behaviour: RWA changes in a mirror. South African J. Psychology 21, 255-260.

Hamilton, V. L., Sanders, J., & McKearney, S. J. (1995). Orientations toward authority in an authoritarian state: Moscow in 1990. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 356-365

Heaven P. C. L. (1984) Predicting authoritarian behaviour: analysis of three measures. Personality & Individual Differences, 5, 251-253.

McFarland, S. G., Ageyev, V. S., & Abalakina-Paap, M. A. (1992). Authoritarianism in the former Soviet Union. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 1004-1010

Ray, J.J. (1972) The measurement of political deference: Some Australian data. British Journal of Political Science 2, 244-251.

Ray, J.J. (1987) Intolerance of ambiguity among psychologists: A comment on Maier & Lavrakas. Sex Roles 16, 559-562.

Ray, J.J.(1992) Defining authoritarianism: A comment on Duckitt & Foster, Altemeyer & Kamenshikov and Meloen. South African J. Psychology, 22, 178-179.

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1990) Does attitude to authority exist? Personality & Individual Differences, 11, 765-769.

Sutherland, S.L. & Tanenbaum, E.J. (1980) Submissive authoritarians: Need we fear the fearful toadie? Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology, 17 (1), 1-23.

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