In recent years, I’ve been doing a lot more thinking about the concept of authoritarianism, its dangers to our society, and the kind of people who are taken in by it.
I’ve just discovered the work of Bob Altemeyer, an Associate Professor of Psychology who has researched authoritarianism pretty much his entire life, and whose work provided much of the support for John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience.
Altemeyer has been writing an easy-to-read (but not dumbed-down) book on his methods and how authoritarianism manifests in its followers. And he’s providing it free on the internet — The Authoritarians — in a series of chapters released every two weeks or so (the first five chapters are already up and the last one will come out on Monday.
In chapter one, he sets up his RWA scale (Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale — a different meaning of right-wing than most people assume, which isn’t necessarily attuned to liberal or conservative in U.S. politics). He provides a test that you can take to determine your own RWA score on a scale of 20 to 180 (I scored a 28, and I’m betting that most readers here will score below 90).
Turns out this scale can fairly accurately predict a variety of specific authoritarian behaviors including the tendency to ignore facts and reason and mindlessly support what they are told by authority figures if it agrees with their world-view.
For example, he gave tests to two large groups of students:
In both studies high RWAs went down in flames
more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or
deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:
All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea.
Therefore, sharks are fish.
The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the
reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they
would likely tell you, ‹Because sharks are fish.Š In other words, they thought the
reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is
right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way,
they don‰t ‹get itŠ that the reasoning matters–especially on a reasoning test.
This is, of course, extremely dangerous, as Altemeyer says “because it shows that if authoritarian followers like the conclusion, the logic involved is pretty irrelevant.” He is careful to note that this is not an absolute, and that lots of people have problems with syllogisms, but it is a measurable factor. And this can go beyond the inability to accept syllogisms and continue on to complete rejection of logic, science, reason, education, and more.
[Note, for simplicity in communication, even though the psychology is different, I am using the term authoritarian for both those who are authoritarian followers, and those opportunistic leaders who often manipulate the followers in order to increase power.]
Let’s take a real-world drug policy example. Some of our good friends here at Drug WarRant have been having some excellent discussions on the Sean Hannity messageboard. One of the pro-prohibition (and clearly authoritarian) posters had brought up, in opposition to marijuana, an early study by Dr. Tashkin that showed potential for precancerous links to marijuana. Our folks countered with Tashkin’s later comprehensive study that conclusively showed no link between even heavy marijuana use and lung cancer. How did the authoritarian respond? Carefully analyze the evidence? Look for more studies? No. Here was his reaction:
This is exactly why all funding for research should be stopped immediately. The Universities and Colleges of America are the enemy in the war on drugs. They harbor druggies, they employ druggies and they are the epitome of the drug culture. […]
Marijuana should not be studied. There’s been too much study. It’s just time to condemn the Demon Weed for all eternity as well as all who partook of the Demon Weed. To HELL WITH THEM ALL. I hate them, I hate their misdeeds, I hate all they stand for and I don’t want them studied, I want them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and made to pay for their crimes.
These are the soldiers being actively recruited and egged on by the drug warriors.
Those of us in drug policy reform have been aware of the dangers of authoritarianism for some time — probably before much of the rest of the country even realized the degree of prevalence of the trait in this country.
I think Altemeyer is really on to something, and it helps to explain why some of our opponents seem so resistant to fact and reason. It’s also good to understand the psychological connection between drug war authoritarianism and the current political authoritarianism that has manifested in the practical alliance between the neocons and the religious extremists.
What I don’t know is whether this information helps provide any kind of strategy for us. Altemeyer notes that RWA scores have a natural tendency to increase with fear and in times of crisis (which is why authoritarian leaders pull the fear card so often). Theoretically then, if we could ease people’s fears, we could reduce their RWA score and make them more open to facts and reason. But how do we do that?
I’m just thinking out loud, here. What do you think?