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The concept of authoritarian personality denotes a number of qualities, which according to the theories of Theodor Adorno predict one's potential for fascist and antidemocratic leanings and behaviors. These qualities are assessed by a coherent system--the "structure of personality"--which arises out of characteristic experiences in early childhood and the pattern of internal, psychic processing.

History of the Term

Although the first usage of the term "authoritarian personality" goes back to Abraham Maslow in 1943, whose work in turn rests upon Erich Fromm's theory of the authoritarian character, in its essentials it has been marked by the 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford. Conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, the study was part of a large research project aimed at examining the psychological bases of anti-Semitic prejudices. The researchers performed their work heavily influenced by Second World War and the Holocaust, which had just ended, and these events strongly informed the direction of the project. A result of their research was the development of a measure for fascist tendencies known as the F-scale that is still in use today.

In light of this background, it was the goal of the study to explain the onset of fascist and antidemocratic attitudes from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, and thereby to make a scientific contribution in the struggle against fascism. The theory of the authoritarian personality laid the cornerstone for a rich, extensive tradition in social science research that continues down to the present day.

Theory of the Authoritarian Personality

Those persons who cling to fascist ideologies, according to the theory, distinguish themselves through their inappropriate, prejudice-laden view of social and political relationships. From this background in their personal history arose the assumption that the emergence of certain phenomena such as anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism stands in close connection with this particular personality structure. Because fascistic groupings get support essentially from the right-conservative camp (although that does not suggest that the right-conservative camp invariably lends these groupings such support) parts of the conservative outlook are likewise judged as an expression of this personality structure....


As an instrument to measure this outlook, the AS-scale (for "anti-Semitism") the E-scale (for "Ethnocentrism") and the PEC-Scale (for "political-economic conservatism") are used.

Psychoanalytic aspect

Adorno and his colleagues regarded the fundamental basis of this presumed system of personality qualities and its linkage to certain attitudes according to a psychoanalytic viewpoint: experiences in early childhood and their internalization.

Freud's psychoanalytic theory suggests that values and norms that are first represented in the person of the father are internalized in the course of the child's development. From these the first unconscious stage of the so-called superego develop. The grappling with an authoritarian, very strict father leads to the development of a very strong superego. Thereby, from the earliest childhood onward, unconscious desires and drives (e.g., power and sexual license) must be thrust down and remain unsatisfied.

The unconscious conflicts that are unleashed thereby are solved when the person projects the "forbidden" drives and aggressions of his superego onto other people. As a rule, ethnic, political or religious minorities are selected as a screen for these projections, because this way there are no social sanctions to fear. Often, he can fall back on socially acceptable prejudices. Studies by Hans Eysenck, Milton Rokeach and many others go into this question.

Extent of Validity

Besides these problematic concerns, many have criticised applying the theory with too broad a sphere of validity--that the authors did not account for variables that reflect socioeconomic status such as class and level of education. Some have argued that in these circumstances, these would offer simpler explanations, and increase the practical relevance of the study.

Despite some methodological deficiencies, the theory of the authoritarian personality has had a major influence on subsequent research. One criticism is that the theory of the Berkeley group insinuates that "Authoritarianism" is present only on the right of the political spectrum. As as result, some have claimed that the theory is corrupted by political bias.

In Germany, research on authoritarianism has been more recently carried out by, among others, Klaus Roghmann, Detlef Oesterreich and Christel Hopf.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Aorno,T.W. Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D,J. and Sanford, R.N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Frenkel-Brunswick, Else, and et. al. "Authoritarian Personality (Studies in Prejudice)" W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393311120


  • ltemeyer B., Reducing Prejudice in Right-Wing Authoritarians, InZanna M.P., Olson J.M., The Psychology of Prejudice: The Ontario Symposium,Hallsdale, L. Erlbaum, 1994.
  • Baars J., Scheepers P., Theoretical and Methodological Foundations of the uthoritarian Personality, in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 29, 1993, p.345-353.
  • Cattell, R. B. (1964). The parental early repressiveness hypothesis for the authoritarian personality factor, U.I. 28. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 106, 333-349.

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