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Introducing The Authoritarian Personality: How To Deal With Them?

Are authoritarians created by nature or nurtured by their society? What do you do when you meet one?

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

Introducing The Authoritarian Personality: How To Deal With Them?

Ukraine and Russia are at war.

Unlike other wars, wars in the 21st century include fighting to control public opinion and perception through the power of mass and social media. Propaganda machines from multiple sides churn "news" at top speed. Ordinary people become "click-warriors" to counter misinformation.

World leaders fear possible escalation into World War III. While some countries have recovered, others are still recovering from the remnants of World War II (WWII). Yet since then, various areas of science and research have evolved and expanded, particularly in psychology.

Are there lessons we can learn from WWII and apply to current times?

Depending on the media consumed, both the Ukrainian and Russian presidents were either glorified or vilified. The hashtag #PutinHitler is making its rounds on social media. Since WWII, social scientists have studied and researched leaders like Hitler and Putin to identify and understand their personalities. One such study is called The Authoritarian Personality.

What is the Authoritarian Personality?

Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford released a book, "The Authoritarian Personality" in 1950. In the aftermath of World War II, the team searched for the personality traits of leaders or ordinary people who supported fascism. Fascism is a political philosophy or movement with an unwavering belief that society has a "natural" hierarchy and maintains it through extreme militarism, ultranationalism, and a deep contempt for electoral democracy.

The book attracted much controversy. Yet, it remained influential through most of the 20th century and shaped the psychology of authoritarianism field. The study is most renowned for its F-Scale measure, where "f" refers to fascism. According to Adorno et al., if you believe in some of the statements below, you may tend towards an authoritarian personality or support an authoritarian demagogue.

  • People are either strong or weak.
  • People who insult our honour should be punished.
  • War and conflict is part of human nature.
  • The traditional way of life is fast disappearing, and we need to do all we can to preserve it.
  • The needs of the family and the nation trumps individual needs.
  • Homosexuality is corrupting our youth and has no place in society.
  • People should have blind faith, unquestioning belief, and total allegiance with supernatural forces to keep the universe in order.

The "F-Scale" consists of nine traits: conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intraception, superstition and stereotype-y, power and "toughness", destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity, and exaggerated concerns over sex. In short, an authoritarian personality is a person who is willing to surrender to a "higher" authority and enjoy exerting power over others.

Take the free F-Scale by Charles Anesi here.

While influential, the research received criticism for its bias and methodology.   Nevertheless, it had spurred social psychological research in authoritarianism. Since then, psychological research in authoritarianism has evolved with current times.

How does a person adopt an authoritarian personality?

Are people born with an authoritarian personality? Or did they learn it from somewhere? If so, where does the authoritarian personality come from?

There is two possible explanation of how people develop authoritarian personality; social learning theory and psychodynamic theory.

According to Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory, people adopt behaviours from those around them through observation and role-modelling. When children observe how adults behave, they will try, imitate and demonstrate the behaviour till it becomes part of their character or personality.

Thus, the person with authoritarian tendencies may have adopted their beliefs and learned authoritarian behaviours from their family, teachers and the community since childhood. And so, growing up, such behaviours were deemed acceptable and possibly desirable.

However, Adorno et al. explained that the authoritarian personality came from Psychodynamic Theory, where the parent-child relationship shapes a person's character.

The psychodynamic theory suggests that children struggled when their parents were harsh and overly strict. Because of the child's dependence on their parents, they cannot express their anger and hostility for fear of being punished.

As such, repressed anger becomes absolute obedience and uncritical submission to their parents, and later in life, towards conventional authority figures. However, the repressed anger does not disappear. Instead, it is redirected towards groups considered vulnerable and weak by authority, including minorities or cultural sub-groups.

Whether through Social Learning Theory or Psychodynamics, not everyone with a tendency for authoritarian personality will become a dictator. Even the concept of authoritarian personality has many flaws.

There are times when you encounter and need to manage people with authoritarian personalities. How do you go about it?

How to deal with people with authoritarian personalities?

There are no straightforward answers.

Personalities are hard to change. Deep-seated, unchanging beliefs have become ingrained since childhood and people don't know or have the skills to navigate society and life in different ways.

Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. Thich Nhat Hanh

With awareness, people can understand how their behaviour impacts others and how others influence them. Yet,  awareness requires inner motivation to change, openness to new knowledge and an external trigger, such as a conversation or an inspiring book.

If attempts of raising awareness fail, the next step is to protect yourself and your community. One way is to foster social norms of inclusion. Not only will the bonds of your community be strengthened, but you will also become a role model in demonstrating alternative beliefs and different ways of living.

Here are some suggestions on what you can do as an individual and with your community.

Moral Courage

Any change comes with risks and negative consequences. When you change your profession, there is the risk or fear of not performing or not getting along with new colleagues. When you transition from being a single person to a married couple, you fear losing one's freedom or lifestyle. Yet, people change every day, and change requires courage.

When it comes to your society, you need moral courage. Moral courage is the bravery required to act according to ethical standards.

To demonstrate moral courage, it is not enough to feel or think about being courageous. You need to act. Moral courage requires you to take action based on your principles and standards. This means you are convinced and are resolved to "do the right thing", even if it means standing alone. This also means taking action to prevent violence by being an active bystander.

People with moral courage are aware that it puts them and their loved ones at risk or in possible danger, such as losing their jobs, losing friends, being exiled or at the very worst, a target of assassination.

Liu Xiaobo, Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai are only a few of many advocates for moral courage. They have risked their lives to defend the rights of their community in non-violent ways.

Active Bystandership

Along with moral courage, train yourself to be an active bystander. Active bystanders identify and respond to the need for help in a conflict or crisis.

Active bystandership is not about retaliation or fighting back. Becoming an effective active bystander requires specific skills to reduce harm and protect yourself from unnecessary negative consequences. Active bystander programs teach and promote safe practices, such as engaging other bystanders or distraction.

Researchers have found that active bystandership effectively reduces harm. For example, active bystander training has reduced aggression in schools and reduced sexual violence on a college campus.

Check out Right To Be, a leading voice in bystander training. Or check out our article on Active Bystandership.

Inclusive Caring

When a stray dog or cat is crying in starvation, do you offer some water or food? Or when a foreigner asks for directions, do stop to look at the map?

Animals and foreigners are not part of our "in-group". An"in-group" are people who you consider to be part of "your" group because they share similar characteristics with you. These characteristics can be based on race, religion, gender, profession, etc.

Caring is part of our human nature. Deep down, people care and provide help within their capabilities. Most often, caring is limited to the 'in-group' because in our mind, caring for people "like us"  feels safe and familiar.

Caring should go beyond people who look, act and speak like you. Inclusive caring is the ability to care for people beyond your "in-group". Apart from showing concern, inclusive caring involves the ability and willingness to promote others' welfare by fulfiling needs in a constructive and non-violent manner.

For example, white Americans support the #blacklivesmatter movement or male leaders who support and ally female leaders.

We are at war. But we don't have to be...

At the time of writing, two million Ukrainians fled the country, and commodities prices are at an all-time high. Nearly every nation has condemned the war. People worldwide are standing in solidarity with the Ukrainians and innocent Russians providing refuge and support.

While it is helpful to identify and learn more about authoritarian personalities, the crucial step we can take now is to render help where it is needed, especially for those who want to change themselves.

Not everyone with authoritarian personalities will become a Hitler or a Putin. While it is challenging to change characters, it is possible. People can change.

The test of a civilisation is in the way that it cares for its helpless members. Pearl S. Buck

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