(With a post-publication addendum following the original article)
Personality & Individual Differences 1990, 11, 763-764.
Enemies of freedom: Understanding right-wing authoritarianism
by R. Altemeyer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
1988, $22.95 Hardbound 407 pp.
In a true science, research is cumulative. In writing on any given topic people take account of what others before them have done. I suspect that many of us have some idea that this is often not so in psychology. In psychology the wheel is constantly being reinvented. What is written often shows little awareness of what has gone before.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this that I have so far been able to document (Ray, 1986a) is the idea that achievement motivation might be measured by self-report scales rather than by projective tests. I was able to find over 70 such scales published over a 40 year period and most of the authors of such scales showed no awareness that anyone before them had ever thought of such an idea. The minority did know of one or two such previous efforts. That is surely not good science.
I do not really know why such things happen but one major contributory explanation that I have also been able to document (Ray, 1986b) is the unsatisfactory state of Psychological Abstracts. The more optimistic among us probably fancy that this service provides an encyclopedic view of psychological publications. In reality, it covers less than half. Social Science Citation Index is, in a way, even worse. It aims only at providing a "representative" view of the literature rather than a comprehensive one. In other words, they deliberately exclude what they see as "minor" journals. At least Psychological Abstracts will abstract any paper of psychological interest if it is drawn to their attention. Their main problem seems to be lack of resources.
Given this context, then, it is not really too surprising that the book reviewed here (Altemeyer, 1988) is yet another example from psychology of "scientific" work that does not really deserve that title. Like many other psychologists, Altemeyer ignores large amounts of previous work. Perhaps worse than that, however, is his "research" methodology. If he wants to know why his students believe a particular thing his principal research "technique" for finding out why is to give the students a questionnaire asking what the source of their belief was: Parents, friends, own personal experience etc. He then appears to accept these attributions as accurate or important information about what actually did cause a particular belief. Any possibility that the students might be naive, inexperienced, unobservant, dishonest, defensive etc. just does not seem to be taken seriously by Altemeyer.
When it comes to acknowledging or using previous work Altemeyer (1988) also falls down. His book purports to be about Right-wing authoritarianism. Over the last 20 years I have had published well over a hundred articles on authoritarianism, conservatism and related topics. How many of these does Altemeyer cite? Three! He actually ignores most of the recent references on his topic. Of the other two prolific authors on authoritarianism (K. Rigby and P. Heaven), Rigby is not mentioned at all and Heaven gets one mention only -- apparently only because he did once use Altemeyer's RWA scale.
Altemeyer appears to excuse himself for giving no heed to my work by giving a critique of one of my papers -- the paper (Ray, 1976) in which my "Directiveness" scale first appeared. I have published many scales to measure variables in the authoritarianism area and I have published many papers reporting other work on the Directiveness scale but Altemeyer confines himself to one paper on one scale. He makes some generally reasonable criticisms of that paper and the scale it describes. If I did not think that some reasonable criticisms of the Directiveness scale were possible, the scale would scarcely by now be in its Mark VI version! Altemeyer, however, gives his readers no hint that he is criticizing a scale that has since been extensively revised to take account of precisely the sort of criticism that he makes!
Altemeyer himself has made considerable alterations to his own RWA scale over the years but he does not seem to recognize it as legitimate that others might need to do the same. It is hard to avoid the impression that he is interested only in playing his own games and simply dismisses any thought that he might learn from what others have done before him.
Another example of this is his conclusion from his own "research" that right-wing authoritarian attitudes are learnt by children from their parents, teachers etc. The massive and methodologically sophisticated twin study by Martin & Jardine in Modgil & Modgil (1986) which shows that up to 50% of the variance in conservatism can be explained as genetically inherited is treated how? No behaviour genetics studies of any kind are even mentioned. Altemeyer prefers the impressions of his students to hard scientific data.
Altemeyer's limitations also show in his definition of "conservatism". After the publication of his first book (Altemeyer, 1981), I on several occasions wrote critically (e.g. Ray, 1985 & 1987) of his failure in that book to define or say what he meant by "conservative" or "Right-wing" (he appears to use the two terms interchangeably). He attempts to make good the deficit in his current book but the definition he comes up with is plainly outdated: It may show some ability at looking up dictionaries but it shows little awareness of politics. It is: "A disposition to preserve the status quo, to maintain social stability, to preserve tradition". By such a criterion, Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher (surely one of the world's leading conservative politicians) would not qualify as a conservative. Far from maintaining the status quo, she is one of the most energetic reformers Britain has ever had! Her poll tax on registered voters means that the right to vote in Britain will in future have to be bought. It is hard to imagine a proposal more novel or tradition-breaching than that! And which countries in this century have been most determined to maintain social stability and to preserve their traditions, sometimes at almost any cost? Surely the Communist-ruled ones! See Brahm (1982). It is only the virtual worldwide abandonment of Communism and socialism that has recently brought about some change in such countries. Surely the key to the Left/Right divide today is attitude to State power, control and intervention. Leftists want a lot of it (allegedly to assist the poor and disadvantaged) and conservatives want little of it. (This, of course, suggests the inference that if any side of politics is characteristically authoritarian today it is the Left!). One of the major writers on conservatism was aware of the poor correlation between dictionary-type conservatism and Rightist politics at least as far back as 1978 (Wilson, 1978) but it was obviously too much to expect that Altemeyer should keep up with major writers in his own field.
Another example of Altemeyer's remarkable political thinking is his finding that his scale of "Right-wing authoritarianism" provides virtually no prediction of Right-wing political preferences! He seems quite unmoved by the fact that his own research shows his scale as not measuring what it purports to measure. He seems to think that it is his game and he will play it any way he likes. His research shows that many "Right-wing authoritarians" are Leftists but he sees no problem with that. Black might as well be white.
Does all this matter? There have been plenty of silly books published before. What does one more matter? Poorly done work slips through to publication all the time, does it not? It probably does, but this book won the prize for behavioral science research of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This book exemplifies what mainstream psychologists regard as first-class science! The statements I made initially above about the bad state of modern psychology must have seemed initially rather sweeping and extreme. Do they now?
University of N.S.W., Australia
Altemeyer, R.A.(1981)Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg:
Univ. Manitoba Press.
Modgil, S. & Modgil, C. (1986) Hans Eysenck: Consensus and
controversy Lewes, E. Sussex: Falmer.
Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.
Ray, J.J. (1986a) Measuring achievement motivation by self-reports. Psychological Reports 58, 525-526.
Ray, J.J. (1986b) The inadequacy of "Psychological Abstracts" Bulletin of the British Psychological Society 39, 184-185.
Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Indiv. Diffs. 8, 771-772.
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.
ALTEMEYER ON RELIGION
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. 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 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.
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