Monday, October 17, 2005

Australian J. Psychology, 1983, 35, 267-268

Book Review

Right-Wing Authoritarianism
By Robert A. Altemeyer
Winnipeg, Canada, University of Manitoba Press.
1981. ix + 352. C$30.00.

Review by John Ray
(Sociology, University of New South Wales)

This book has attracted reviews in North America which might well be called ecstatic. It does do well what it sets out to do. To add a little balance, however, one of its previously unremarked limitations might be referred to. In a rather humourous preface, the author makes a considerable point of how long it took him to get the book into print. One might therefore reasonably ask whether it was significantly undated during this period. A glance at the references in the back of the book suggests not. There are a very large number of references to the psychological literature for 1972, a few for 1973, fewer for 1974 and very few indeed after that. The inference from this would seem to be that the book was written in 1973 and 1974, is pretty complete up to 1972 and was very little altered after that. It is therefore much less up to date in its coverage of the relevant literature than its publication date might suggest.

One of the more remarkable features of the book is the saga it relates of the almost heroic efforts Altemeyer made to balance the F scale. He seems to have carried out over many years literally dozens of studies devoted to testing reversed forms of F scale items. In the end he did find 14 items that correlated well with the original items they were derived from and used these to make up a final version of a balanced F scale. He found that his positively and negatively scored items, after all his efforts still were non-significantly correlated. Bathos indeed! He concludes from his failure that acquiescence is indeed a large component of what the F scale measures. One wonders what he will make out of it when he discovers that someone else did finally succeed in producing a satisfactory balanced F scale (Ray, 1972, 1979).

Like most North American authors, Altemeyer seems to know little about the literature outside North America. He does however have the grace to acknowledge this in one of his footnotes. He does at least seem to be aware of the work of Wilson (1973) -- unlike most of his North American colleagues. He makes the interesting point about Wilson's C-scale that its reliability is usually high only because it has such a large number of items (50). He points out that the C-scale's internal consistency (as measured by mean inter-item correlations) is actually quite low and is thus consistent with the scale being quite multi-factorial.

What are Altemeyer's conclusions on the validity of the 'F' scale? He finds that it has predictive success in only two areas. To quote:

"What can we make of the test's very limited success at predicting (a) hostility toward certain targets, and (b) conservative political sentiment? These findings might be insightful if we know more about them, but as matters stand now, there is a perfectly straightforward interpretation of them: they may just be due to those items on the F Scale whose content reflects (respectively) aggressive and conventional sentiments. Thus the studies on aggression listed in Table 4 may carry no more psychological significance than the fact that people who indicate on the F Scale that they are particularly hostile toward sex criminals, disrespectful youth, rebellious youth, and homosexuals are also aggressive on other measures against these and similarly unconventional individuals. That should not knock anyone off his horse. A major failing of the research we have just reviewed is that nearly all of the investigators who found positive results failed to determine if these results were attributable to the scale as a whole or mainly to subsets of items with rather obvious connections to the criterion."

After demolishing the F scale, Altemeyer proceeds to develop his own new scale of Right-wing authoritarianism (the RWA scale) and test its correlates. His scale, needless to say, was balanced against acquiescence from the beginning. In the end, however, the only conclusion he seems able to come to firmly about the genesis of Right-wing authoritarianism is that Right-wing authoritarians have generally learnt their Right-wing authoritarianism from their Right-wing authoritarian parents. He rejects the Berkeley view of authoritarianism formed as a response to parental harshness.

It is an enjoyable book and is well worth reading: Some account of work in the field more recent than that covered by Altemeyer can be found in Ray & Lovejoy (1983).


Ray, J.J. (1972) A new balanced F scale -- And its relation to social class. Australian Psychologist 7, 155-166.

Ray, J.J. (1979) A short balanced F scale. Journal of Social Psychology, 109, 309-310.

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1983). The behavioral validity of some recent measures of authoritarianism. Journal of Social Psychology, 120, 91-99.

Wilson, G.D. (1973) The psychology of conservatism. London: Academic Press.


In the above review I was not critical of Altemeyer's claim to have produced a new measure of "Right-wing authoritarianism" because I had not at that time tested the claim for myself. When I did test the claim, however, I found it to be not supported. See below:

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

For a review of Altemeyer's second book on the subject see:

Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Australian Journal of Psychology, 42, 87-111.


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