Saturday, October 01, 2005

Letter to the editor of Canadian Psychology. Published 1990, 31, 392-393.

As I am sure you are aware, Canadian scholarship has recently been honoured in that Bob Altemeyer's book Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-wing Authoritarianism received the 1988 prize for behavioral science research awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The book has also received a number of favourable reviews. I don't like to spoil the glow but I feel that some comments on the limitations of the book are needed to balance the
account. I would like to submit, in fact, that the book is a complete failure as far as achieving what it set out to achieve is concerned.

In response to Altemeyer's earlier book on the same subject (Altemeyer, 1981), I on a couple of occasions wrote (Ray, 1985b & 1987) that his concept of "right-wing authoritarianism" strongly resembled traditional political conceptions of conservatism and noted his failure to define what he meant by "Right-wing". In this book he attempts to remedy that deficit. But the definition of "conservative" that he now gives is a poor one: "A disposition to preserve the status-quo, to
maintain social stability, to preserve tradition". By such a definition Britain's Margaret Thatcher (perhaps the contemporary world's most notable conservative politician) would not be conservative! Is the most energetic reformer Britain has seen for a long time "maintaining the status quo"? I do not pretend that an account of what underlies "Conservatism" is easy (I myself grappled with the problem at some length with only indifferent success in Ray, 1981) but Altemeyer shows no awareness of the great literature on the problem or even any awareness that there is a problem.

Another failing of the book concerns Altemeyer's claim that Right-wing authoritarianism is learned during the process of growing up from parents and others. He ignores the huge and sophisticated twin study by Martin & Jardine (1986) which showed that up to 50% of the variance in conservatism can be explained as genetically inherited. Although he appears to address the nature/nurture issue, he in fact cites no behaviour genetics research at all.

He also takes no account of whether or not any form of attitudinal authoritarianism really exists. Is it true, for instance, that experience with the parent as an authority influences later attitudes to other authorities? It might be "obvious" to say "Yes" to this but it is not true . Rigby & Rump (1981) found that attitudes to various
authorities are correlated with attitude to parents only during early adolescence and that by late adolescence the relationship has vanished entirely. Attitude to authority as such just does not seem to exist. There are attitudes to particular authorities but these are often not correlated with one-another. Parents as authorities and policemen as authorities have nothing in common as far as attitudes towards them are concerned.

I also (Ray, 1971) reported two examples of failures to correlate between different types of attitude to authority (among High School students) many years ago. I hoped at the time that the students were a-typical but as both of those failures to correlate have recently been replicated in two large and very different adult samples (See Table 2 of Byrne, Reinhart & Heaven, 1989 and Table 2 of Ray, 1985a) it seems that the students might in fact have been typical. So if a general attitude to authority does not exist as such how must more inclusive concepts such as "authoritarianism" fare? The generality and generalizability that Altemeyer assumes is fictitious. The generalizability that he observes is the product of his very extensive and careful selection of items which confirm it, not a reflection of
much in the real world. Altemeyer has created a world of his own from which most disturbing outside information has been rigorously excluded.

Finally, it should perhaps be noted that Altemeyer's research "technique" seems generally to consist of asking his students why they do certain things. He then accepts those answers fairly uncritically. That his students might be naive, defensive, uninsightful, dishonest, unsophisticated, inexperienced etc. he seems to give little weight to. The book, then, is largely a study of attributions rather than of
anything the attributions concern. This may be of some specialized interest but it is hardly a study of authoritarianism.

Altemeyer's RWA scale bears a strong resemblance to older scales of general conservatism so whatever consistencies his results show probably flow from that fact. In other words, insofar as he has studied anything at all, he has probably studied some form of conservatism.

It should be noted, however, that Altemeyer's scale gives, by his own admission, virtually no prediction of Right-wing political preferences. What he has studied seems therefore to be some non-political form of conservatism. Since the central claim of the book is that it explains Right-wing authoritarianism, that is a remarkably irrelevant achievement! Putting it another way, Altemeyer finds that many Right-wing authoritarians are Leftists. What sense does that make? Black might as well be white.

Yours faithfully,
J.J. Ray


Altemeyer, R. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Altemeyer, R. (1988) Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Byrne, D.G., Reinhart, M.I. & Heaven, P.C.L. (1989) Type A behaviour and the authoritarian personality. British J. Medical Psychology 62, 163-173.

Martin, N. & Jardine, R. (1986) Eysenck's contribution to behaviour genetics. In: S & C. Modgil (Eds.) Hans Eysenck: Consensus and controversy Lewes, E. Sussex: Falmer.

Ray, J.J. (1971) An "Attitude to Authority" scale. Australian Psychologist, 6, 31-50.

Ray, J.J. (1985a) Using multiple class indicators to examine working class ideology. Personality & Individual Differences 6, 557-562.

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

Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Indiv. Diffs. 8, 771-772.

Rigby, K. & Rump, E.E. (1981) Attitudes towards parents and institutional authorities during adolescence. J. of Psychol. 109, 109-118.



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 recent years 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.

So what DOES the RWA scale measure?

There is, however, one shred of justification for psychologists continuing to refer to the RWA scale as measuring something "Right-wing". Like the F scale which was its inspiration, the RWA scale seems to have little to do with voting behaviour or, indeed, any sort of behaviour, but it does correlate well with various other measures of conservative attitudes (Ray, 1985). It does appear to measure some sort of conservatism, if not a politically relevant type of conservatism. So what could that possibly be?

The most probable answer is that, like the F scale, it simply measures old-fashioned attitudes. Conservatives undoubtedly have some respect for the past so they would tend to find some sense or plausibility in attitudes from the past and would say so. But the evidence is that they no more allow such thinking to influence their political decisions than Leftists do.

Another possibility is that vote is little influenced by ideology -- a view which has been put forward by Lipset (1959), among others. So maybe the RWA scale simply demonstrates that. Undoubtedly, there is a large grain of truth in that. Ideology clearly is only one factor in vote. Economic self-interest is another obvious factor. But to declare ideology irrelevant would surely be to declare irrelevant just about the whole of politics -- which does depend heavily on ideological statements of one sort or another! Fortunately, we do not have to do that. As I have shown in my own work, an empirically constructed scale of conservative attitudes can correlate up to .50 with vote and by using several scales, a multiple R of up to .70 can be obtained. So ideology may not be the whole story but it is still highly relevant -- if measured in a relevant way. Altemeyer's way was not relevant.

A third possibility has to do with the tone of the RWA items. They are generally expressed in a combative, aggressive, hostile way. It is clear that Leftists are angry and hate-filled people (witness how they behave when they gain unrestricted power -- as in Communist regimes) so that aspect of the RWA items could resonate with Leftists and attract assent from them -- while conservatives assent more to the basic content of the item. But which ever way you look at it, Altemeyer's scale is simply irrelevant in telling us anything about contemporary politics.

Altemeyer is of course aware of the validity problems with his scale but seems to be largely in denial about it. He has made various attempt to demonstrate validity for it and chief of these attempts seems to be how students and others perform in playing a game of Altemeyer's own devising. I will simply quote what another writer says about the game concerned:

"Altemeyer's favorite proof of right-wing turpitude comes from something he designed called the "Global Change Game." Altemeyer does not explain the game in detail, but, essentially, participants control various regions of the globe and then make decisions (e.g., wage war, allocate "resources," restrain population growth) about what their respective regions will do. Apparently, when only RWAs played the game, "after 40 years, not counting nuclear war, 2.1 billion people had died."

Frightening, no? Only until one reads that the 2.1 billion figure was calculated "according to a complicated formulae used in the game to take into account the consequences of war, long-term unemployment, malnutrition and poor medical infrastructures." In other words, the results of any game simply reflect the designers' assumptions as to how the world really works. Altemeyer takes it for granted, for example, that foreign aid from wealthy countries reduces suffering in poor countries, notwithstanding the contrary theory that foreign aid makes matters worse by entrenching kleptocracies and rewarding government failure. Hence, the hapless high RWAs who don't see the world the way Altemeyer does necessarily fail when they play the game. The Global Change Game, in short, proves only that Altemeyer's political views differ from those of conservatives. As he is hardly reticent about making this point to begin with, it is unclear why he needed a "sophisticated simulation" to prove it.


Altemeyer did however have still more to contribute in his role as the clown of political psychology. He 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.


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.

Lipset, S.M. (1959) Democracy and working class authoritarianism. American Sociological Review, 24, 482-502.

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

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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