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Right wing authoritarianism

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Right wing authoritarianism represents the extent to which individuasl feel that authorities should be followed. Specifically, right wing authoritarianism comprises three key related attitudes: Individuals submit to authorities, they endorse aggression towards anyone who violates regulations, and they follow the established traditions of society (e.g., Altemeyer, 1998). These three attitudes are called authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism respectively. These attitudes represent key determinants of prejudice (Altemeyer, 1998).

Consequences of right wing authoritarianism


Both social dominance orientation (see social dominance theory)--the assumption that some constituencies are inherently superior to other constituencies--and right wing authoritarianism--which is the belief that authority should always be followed rather than challenged--predict prejudice (e.g., Hodson, Hogg, & MacInnis, 2009). Nevertheless, many studies have shown that social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism are indeed distinct.

For example, social dominance orientation is related to prejudice after right wing authoritarianism is controlled and vice versa (Ekehammar, Akrami, Gylje, & Zakrisson, 2004;; Hodson & Costello, 2007;; Hodson, Hogg, & MacInnis, 2009). Hence, social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism evoke a distinct set of mechanisms to provoke prejudice.

Kreindler (2005) developed a theory, called the dual group processes model, that clarifies the differential role of social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism in the prediction of prejudice. According to this model, when individuals adopt a social dominance orientation, they show prejudice against anyone who belongs to another, inferior social class. This prejudice reflects the need to differentiate social categories. In contrast, when individuals show right wing authoritarianism, they show prejudice against anyone in their social class that differentiates from the norms of this collective.

According to this perspective, when individuals feel their social identity is threatened--for example, when their club or network is criticized--they strive to perceive other collectives is inferior. They form beliefs and assumptions that justify their superiority, called a social dominance orientation. Their prejudice is thus directed towards collectives they conceptualize as outside their own social category.

In contrast, when individuals feel that some person or group in their social category violates the norms of this collective, they feel a sense of threat. That is, such violations challenge their norms, instilling a sense of uncertainty. To override this uncertainty and to reinforce their identity, individuals attempt to fulfill these norms more vehemently, culminating in right wing authoritarianism. Furthermore, they also reject any person or group who violates this norm. This rejection explains the association between right wing authoritarianism and prejudice.

Military aggression

Crowson (2009) examined the role of right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation in the formation of attitudes towards military aggression. Specifically, they discovered that right wing authoritarianism, but not social dominance orientation, was related to support towards the US military invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, the belief the world is dangerous was positively associated with right wing authoritarianism.

In particular, if individuals perceive the world as dangerous and threatening, characterized by chaos, disorder, and immoral behavior, they champion practices that instill order and security (e.g., Duckitt, 2006). Hence, they value social conventions, submit to authorities, and direct aggression to any person or collective who compromises this order, manifesting as right wing authoritarianism. This aggression towards other collectives translates into support for military aggression.

To clarify, one of the core facets of right wing authoritarianism is the belief that individuals who violate conventions should be the target of aggression. This punishment is assumed to maintain control and curb uncertainty. These individuals, thus, tend to support the war in Iraq (Crowson, 2009).

Furthermore, because of this belief, they accept the decline in civil rights that coincide with laws that are developed to curb terror. They feel these laws might punish individuals or collectives who violate the authority (Crowson, 2009).

Punishment of failure

As Dambrun and Vatuien (2010) showed, right wing authoritarianism does indeed increase the likelihood that individuals will obey authorities, even if asked to initiate extreme punishments. Specifically, Dambrun and Vatuien (2010) utilized a virtual variant of the classical Milgram study. Participants observed a student complete a task. The task was to learn pairs of words. On each trial, a target word was presented. Then, a series of four alternatives appeared. The student had to decide which of these four alternatives was paired with the target word, by pressing the appropriate button.

The participants were told the study was intended to assess the effects of punishment on learning. Whenever the student answered the questions incorrectly, the participants would press a button that generated an electric shock to the student. For every additional incorrect answer, the participants had to increase the shock by 15 volts.

When the number of volts exceeded 150 V, the student, who was actually a confederate, reacted strongly and asked to discontinue. At 300 V, the student groaned loudly. At 330 V, the student no longer responded. If participants hesitated, experimenters would prompt these individuals to continue. They would state "please continue" and later "The experiment requires that you continue". Participants also completed measures of anxiety and truama. Participants also completed measures of right wing authoritarianism.

The study, however, departed from the original study, as conducted by Milgram in the 1960s. First, the reactions and behavior of the student had been pre-recorded. Hence, variations across confederates were nullified. In one condition, participants observed this student over video. In another condition, participants only heard the student. Second, participants were told the student was actually an actor, feigning the reactions. This adaptation was included to ensure the study was ethical, demanding limited deception. Third, whether or not the student belonged to the same racial category as the participant was also manipulated.

Even though participants were informed the student was an actor, many participants decided to withdraw from the study. Specifically, if the student was visible, 87% withdrew. If the student was not visible, 47% withdrew. Hence, even if told the responses were contrived, participants seemed to empathize with the student, experiencing some of the same emotions, eliciting distress. This distress was especially pronounced if they could observe the person. A sense of proximity thus seemed to evoke empathy.

If right wing authoritarianism was elevated, participants were not as inclined to withdraw. Right wing authoritarianism might increase either submission to authorities or perhaps even resentment to students who fail to succeed, increasing their willingness to punish the person.

Moral disengagement

Some of the effects of right wing authoritarianism on behavior could, arguably, be ascribed to moral disengagement. For example, if individuals report right wing authoritarianism, they are also more likely to embrace military action. Potentially, right wing authoritarianism evokes beliefs and attitudes that can be applied to justify behavior they would otherwise perceive as immoral. These individuals, for example, might minimize the appalling consequences of war: They might refer to civilian death as merely collateral damage, obscuring the pain and suffering of victims. They might also conceptualize war as a moral act or even a duty (Jackson & Gaertner, 2010).

Jackson and Gaertner (2010) conducted a study to assess these propositions. American participants completed a series of measures. First, they received scales that measure right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Second, they completed measures that assess the inclination of individuals to disengage morally. Some of these questions related to minimizing the consequences, such as "Reports of damage resulting from military interventions are usually exaggerated". Other questions assessed conceptualizations of war as moral, with items like "It is our duty to stop terrorists by any means necessary". Finally, these completed measures that assess their attitudes to war. Some questions referred to their support of the US invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, some participants read a scenario about a fictional conflict between two nations and then answered questions about whether they would support a war in this region.

Right wing authoritarianism was related to support of wars. This association was mediated by both minimizing the consequences and moral justifications (Jackson & Gaertner, 2010). Social dominance orientation generated similar effects as did right wing authoritarianism, but was not as strongly associated with these two mechanisms of moral disengagement. Nevertheless, social dominance orientation was highly related to another mechanism of moral disengagement, called dehumanizing or blaming victims, as measured by items like "Enemy rulers and their followers are no better than animals".

Antecedents and correlates of right wing authoritarianism

In addition, the origins or antecedents of social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism are distinct (see Duckitt, 2005). Social dominance orientation is related to traits that emphasize competition and hierarchy, including narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (e.g., Hodson, Hogg, & MacInnis, 2009). Right wing authoritarianism is related to traits that emphasize danger or compliance (Duckitt, Wagner, de Plessis, & Birum, 2002). Right wing authoritarianism, for example, is inversely related to openness to experience (Hodson, Hogg, & MacInnis, 2009).

Specifically, social dominance orientation is associated with the belief that our world is competitive, because of a key desire for power (Duckitt, Wagner, de Plessis, Birum, 2002;; Duriez & van Hiel, 2002). In contrast, right wing authoritarianism, the belief that authority should be followed, is associated with the belief that out world is dangerous and threatening, highlighting the need for security (Duckitt, Wagner, de Plessis, Birum, 2002;; Duriez & van Hiel, 2002). They are more frightened than callous.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Crowson (2009), American participants completed measures of social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism. In addition, they completed measures that assess dangerous world beliefs (see Duckitt, 2001), with items like "Any day now chaos and anarchy could erupt around us", as well as competitive world beliefs, comprising items like "It's a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times". Finally, participants specified the extent to which they approve of measures intended to curb terrorism.

As structural equation modeling showed, dangerous world beliefs were related to right wing authoritarianism, which in turn was associated with the endorsement of war in Iraq and reductions in civil liberties to curb terrorism. In addition, competitive world beliefs were related to social dominance orientation, which in turn was associated with the endorsement of reductions in civil liberties. The correlation between right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation was .45.

Climate change

When people reflect upon the problems that climate change could provoke, they become more likely to demonstrate right wing authoritarianism and justify the existing system, as shown by Fritsche, Cohrs, Kessler, and Bauer (2012). Specifically, in the aftermath of these discussions, individuals feel their sense of certainty, control, and even their life might be under threat. To override these threats, they feel especially motivated to reinforce their existing social identity or group. The norms or tendencies of their social identity confer a sense of certainty& to override uncertainty about how to behave, individuals merely conform to the norms of this group. The group also impart a sense of control, as individuals feel this group may be able to influence the system better than can any individual. The group can also protect people.

For example, in one study, some participants read information about the problems that climate change could provoke, such as droughts. In the control condition, participants read information about the existing climate. Relative to the control group, participants showed more authoritarian aggression: they felt that crime should be punished very harshly. They also expressed more positive attitudes towards groups that support the existing system, such as police and lawyers--although not in all studies--and more attitudes towards groups that challenge the existing system, such as protestors.

Intolerance of ambiguity

Some individuals do not tolerate ambiguity. When events are unstructured or random, they nevertheless readily uncover patterns or structures. They contrive regularities. For example, if a recruiter does not contact them for a few days, they assume prematurely they have not been granted the job: They reach conclusions in ambiguous situations, similar to a facet of need for closure.

Because of this intolerance to ambiguity, they do not embrace change. They prefer conservative values, primarily to maintain clarity. Van Hiel, Onraet, and De Pauw (2010) undertook a meta-analysis that confirmed these premises. That is, they discovered a mean correlation of about .22 between intolerance of ambiguity and measures that include right wing authoritarianism, conservatism, ethnocentrism, and dogmatism.


Right wing authoritarianism is also associated with personality. In particular, whereas social dominance orientation coincides with low levels of honesty and humility, right wing authoritarianism coincides with low levels of openness of experience, as shown by Lee, Ashton, Ogunfowora, Bourdage, and Shin (2010).


Hodson and Busseri (2012) showed that intelligence correlates with various forms of conservative values, including right wing authoritarianism, and these conservative values also correlate with prejudice. In one study, to gauge intelligence, participants completed various measures of verbal ability, spatial ability, memory span, and vocabulary. To gauge conservative values, the individuals answered questions that revolve around submission to authority and attitudes towards traditional sex roles. Finally, the individuals answered questions about whether they like to interact with people from other races or ethnicities. Intelligence was correlated with avoidance of other races and ethnicities, a variant of prejudice, and this association was mediated by conservative values.

Similarly, another study showed that abstract reasoning is associated with prejudice against homosexual individuals. Furthermore, this association is mediated by right wing authoritarianism and previous contact with homosexual individuals.

Presumably, when intelligence is limited, individuals cannot as readily process and interpret their environment. They cannot, for example, recognize underling patterns as readily, called abstract reasoning. Consequently, they often feel uncertain. To prevent this uncertainty, they gravitate towards more predictable and stable environments. They like traditions and customs, sometimes manifesting as conservative values. They are averse to communities that challenge this certainty and stability.

Cognitive ability

Cognitive ability and education may also be associated with right wing authoritarianism. For example, when individuals attend university, they are often exposed to contradictory and progressive attitudes. They will, therefore, recognize that issues are complex, often curbing right wing authoritarianism. Furthermore, when cognitive ability is elevated, individuals may be able to reconcile contradictory arguments, curbing the uncertainty that such complexity can evoke, and thus reducing their need to invoke conservative beliefs.

In a meta analysis, Van Hiel, Onraet, and De Pauw (2010) showed that cognitive ability, including education and performance on tests of intelligence, reasoning, or ability, was negatively associated with right wing authoritarianism. The correlation was about -.34 across studies.

Beliefs and attitudes as a function of effort and concentration

Some evidence indicates that, at least some, of the attitudes and principles that conservative people uphold are not natural but demand effort or energy to evoke. That is, when conservative people experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, they may attempt to adopt attitudes or opinions that instill a sense of security or superiority. Nevertheless, they do not uphold these attitudes or opinions naturally. Hence, they need to mobilize effort to embrace these principles.

This possibility was substantiated by Wright and Baril (2011). In this study, participants were exposed to one of three conditions. In one condition, they undertook a task that depletes mental effort--striving to refrain from thinking about white bears--before completing questionnaires. This task compromises the capacity of individuals to mobilize mental effort soon afterwards (cf., ego depletion). In the second condition, participants needed to count the number of tones that were emitted while completing a questionnaire. In the final condition, participants completed the questionnaire without needing to complete these additional tasks.

The questionnaire was intended to ascertain the extent to which people feel that caring for other people, justice, reciprocity, loyalty to their group, respect of authority, and purity are important moral principles. In addition, participants completed a questionnaire that ascertains the degree to which they espouse conservative attitudes, distinct from, but related to, right wing authoritarianism.

Most participants perceived caring for other people and justice as key moral imperatives. However, conservative participants were more likely to uphold the other moral values, such as the importance of loyalty to the group and authority to leaders. Interestingly, however, even these conservative participants were not as likely to uphold these moral values when effort was depleted or distracted by other tasks. Therefore, conservative people need to mobilize effort to recognize the importance of these moral attitudes.


To assess right wing authoritarianism, most researchers administer the scale that was developed and validated by Altemeyer (1981). The scale, which consists of 30 items, assesses the three main attitudes that underpin right wing authoritarianism: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. Typical items include "Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us" and "Once our government leaders give us the go ahead, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within".

Related concepts

Left wing authoritarianism

Altmeyer (1996) developed a measure of left wing authoritarianism--that is, a left wing variant of right wing authoritarianism. Left wing authoritarianism comprises the same three clusters of items as right wing authoritarianism& however, individuals who report left wing authoritarianism embrace institutions that want to overthrow the existing powers& they do not embrace the establishment. Specifically, the first set of items, called left-wing authoritarianism submission, relates to the inclination of individuals to submit to authorities who want to overthrow the establishment. The second set of items, called left-wing authoritarianism aggression, refers to the tendency of individuals to espouse aggression and violence towards the establishment. The third set of items, called left-wing conventionalism, refers to the inclination of individuals to comply with the norms and standards of authorities who want to overthrow the establishment.

Van Hiel, Duriez, and Kossowska (2006) developed a variant of this measure, comprising eight items, that excludes left-wing conventionalism. They argued that conventionalism refers to adherence towards established traditions, contradicting the left-wing orientation. According to Van Hiel, Duriez, and Kossowska (2006), left-wing conventionalism could be interpreted as individuals who follow left wing authorities& but this interpretation begins to merge with left-wing authoritarianism submission and thus seems redundant.

Four of the items in this revamped scale relate to left-wing authoritarianism submission: A typical item is "A revolutionary movement is justified in demanding obedience and conformity to its members" (Van Hiel, Duriez, & Kossowska, 2006). The other four items represent left-wing authoritarianism aggression. A sample item is "It would be wrong to solve our problems by acts of violence against the conservative Establishment" (reverse scored).

This scale was then administered to a sample of voters as well as to another sample of political activists, including affiliates of a Stalinist party, a neo-Marxist communist party, an anarchy party, and right wing extremist movements. The psychometric properties differed between the voters and the political activists.

In the ordinary voters, left wing authoritarianism was positively related to ring wing authoritarianism as well as cultural conservativism--a measure that represents the extent to which individuals report contempt towards abortion, euthanasia, and premarital sex, for example. Left wing authoritarianism, however, was negatively related to economic conservativism, representing respect towards trade unions, economic equality, and government intervention (Van Hiel, Duriez, & Kossowska, 2006). These findings align to the proposition that more extreme attitudes, regardless of whether they support or disavow economic equality, are motivated by similar inclinations. For example, both left wing and right wing authoritarianism might represent an attempt to forge a sense of clarity in a threatening world.

In the activist sample, however, a different pattern emerged. Left wing authoritarianism was inversely related to right wing authoritarianism. These individuals, presumably, had committed to a specific course of action to forge this sense of clarity (Van Hiel, Duriez, & Kossowska, 2006). Furthermore, as evidence of validity, left wing authoritarianism was significantly elevated in the left wing activist groups& these findings confirm that left wing authoritarianism is a viable concept.


Some people adopt very conservative values. For example, rather than feel that wealth should be shared, they feel that property rights should be protected and taxes should be minimal. They believe that production and trade should not be constrained by government interference. They feel that authorities should be respected rather than challenged by unions and other associations.

According to Eidelman, Crandall, Goodman, and Blanchar (2012), when people do not devote effort into their thoughts, they are more likely to embrace conservative values. To illustrate, if people do not want think too carefully, they reject the complexity of change and instead prefer the status quo. Likewise, they like the simplicity of hierarchies rather than more complex and egalitarian organizations. Finally, they tend to ascribe success to the effort and ability of people rather than more complex explanations. They will, therefore, impute poverty to limited effort and ability. This inclination to cherish the status quo and hierarchical organizations, as well as to blame poverty on limited effort or ability, often translates into more conservative values.

Eidelman, Crandall, Goodman, and Blanchar (2012) conducted a series of studies that confirm these hypotheses. In the first study, the blood alcohol level of people near a bar was tested. Next, they completed a measure that assesses whether or not they embrace conservative attitudes, such as the degree to which they believe that production and trade should not be constrained by government interference. If blood alcohol level was elevated, and therefore the capacity to think carefully was inhibited, participants were more likely to embrace conservative values.

In the second study, participants also completed a scale that assesses the extent to which they uphold conservative or liberal values. However, while completing this scale, some participants were exposed to sequences of tones. Their task was to count the number of tones that was presented before the pitch changed. If participants needed to complete this task--and, therefore, their capacity to devote effort to other thoughts was impeded--they were more likely to embrace conservative values.

In the third study, various phrases that represent conservative values, such as law and order, or liberal values, such as civil rights, appeared on a screen. Participants indicated the extent to which they agree or disagree with the importance of each phrase. If the phrases appeared very quickly, and therefore deliberate thought was impaired, participants tended to embrace the conservative phrases instead of the liberal phrases.

Leone and Chirumbolo (2008) uncovered one of the sources of this aversion to thought: discomfort with strong emotions. That is, some people are especially sensitive to unpleasant emotions. Consequently, they avoid activities, such as careful deliberation, that might elicit uncertainty--a state that merely amplifies emotions.

In one study, conducted by Leone and Chirumbolo (2008), participants completed a measure called need for affect. One of the subscales assesses the inclination of people to avoid emotions, such as "I find strong emotions overwhelming and therefore try to avoid them". People who avoid emotions were more likely to endorse conservative policies, as well as exhibit right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, than other participants. This pattern of results was observed even after controlling need for closure.


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