The Authoritarian Personality, 50 Years Later: What Questions Are There for Political Psychology?



Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford's The Authoritarian Personality is probably the most deeply flawed work of prominence in political psychology. The methodological, procedural, and substantive errors of this study are well known, but they are frequently simply attributed to poor methodological judgments, issues of scaling (such as response set), or Freudian theories that legitimated circular interpretations. But a more fundamental bias arose from the attempt to empirically verify the existence of a “type” of person whom the researchers thought dangerous and with whom they did not empathize. This attempt involved two dangerous procedures: (1) the fusion of nominalist research procedures (in which empirical results were used to type respondents) with a realist interpretation of types (in which some people “just were” authoritarians and others not), and (2) a theoretically rich critique of the authoritarians and a lack of interest in the psychodynamics of liberals. This combination led to an intrinsically biased interpretive project that could not help but accumulate damning evidence about authoritarians. These subtler problems have haunted contemporary work in political psychology that avoids the methodological problems of Adorno et al.; Altemeyer's work on authoritarianism, which not only is free from the defects of the Adorno et al. study but also involves some methodologically exemplary experiments, is similarly distorted by asymmetries. The same fundamental problems seem to be at the heart of the weaknesses of the theory of symbolic racism to which critics have pointed. Political psychologists should regard The Authoritarian Personality as a cautionary example of bias arising from the choice of methodological assumptions.