Sunday Sermon: The Authoritarians


What is an “Authoritarian?”

Well, if you were an authoritarian, you probably wouldn’t even ask that question. For you, an “authoritarian” is whatever I tell you it is: authoritarians are people who accept beliefs based on simple assertion from an authority figure. In this case, since this is my blog, I say that’s what an authoritarian is, so there you go, let’s move on, we’ve got other things to talk about.

Authoritarians prefer not to argue, especially not about definitions, because definitions are notoriously tricky.[stderr] Besides, if you don’t actually define things you have a great deal of wiggle-room: “FREEDOM!” We are all in favor of freedom, and it’s good. So let’s go get some.

If I were being serious about being an authoritarian, and I had tried to sell you on the idea that we all want FREEDOM without saying what it is, I’ve just pulled one of the most basic political scams on you, ever. I could turn around and repeal your medical insurance and tell you, “see?! There’s your FREEDOM!” because I got away with asserting something without doing the dirty work of backfilling my position – without explaining my words.

Another form of authoritarianism is divine fiat. The authoritarian simply says “deus vull’t” and there you go, that’s enough justification. I see a bunch of possibilities as to what’s going on, and I believe they are all present to some degree:

  • Intellectual laziness: the authoritarian follower doesn’t want to have to think, so they just accept truths
  • Nature: perhaps there are some people who are predisposed by the way their minds are constructed to be accepting of other people’s truths
  • Critical period: perhaps children are more accepting of other peoples’ truths because that’s part of how we learn; we accept truths from authorities for a period in our lives because accepting truths is learning
  • Delivery of truths: perhaps some people are better at being convincing, and convey their ideas of the truth more effectively and energetically

It seems superficial and easy to dismiss people who accept authority as being intellectually lazy yet I certainly am guilty of assuming that one of the mechanisms behind religion’s success is intellectual laziness – coupled with religion’s active attempt to produce educationally stunted believers. Perhaps the best observation on inculcating authoritarianism is Francis Xavier: “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.”

What is it about authoritarians and big hats?

What is it about authoritarians and big hats?

If you aren’t familiar with Robert Altemeyer’s book, “The Authoritarians” you should be. It’s fascinating, though I am on the fence as to the degree to which he is right about certain things. For one thing, Altemeyer engages in a kind of circular definition that I am uncomfortable with. What is an authoritarian follower? Well, we know that a certain collection of attitudes and behaviors goes together, so we rank and score them and call someone an “authoritarian follower” if they score high. How do we know that those are the attitudes and behaviors of authoritarianism? Based on the questionnaire. It seems to me that there are lots of clusters of attitudes and behaviors that can be arranged and questioned in this manner: skepticism, religiousity, food preferences, etc. And such collections of attitudes and behaviors can come with predictive power – if you answer 100 questions about food in a manner that indicates that you don’t like to eat meat, I can eventually claim to have produced a “veganism index” and it will do a good enough job of predicting your attitude about pulled pork sandwiches.

Altemeyer’s book is available for free on the web [alt] though there appear to be some inconveniently timed changes in his hosting arrangement. It’s also available on various caches[1] Every time I look at the book, I have washes of mixed feelings. The skeptical part of me groans “Ah! Social Science! Political commentary masquerading as experiment!” Other parts of me go, “This is really interesting!” One thing I want to do is avoid the Event Horizon of Irony and not simply accept a book about authoritarians based on the authority of Robert Altemeyer.

Perhaps if you’re interested, you’ll take the Altemeyer survey first and then proceed. It is here.

What is Authoritarianism?

Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I’m going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.

We know an awful lot about authoritarian followers. In one way or another, hundreds of social scientists have studied them since World War II. We have a pretty good idea of who they are, where they come from, and what makes them tick. By comparison, we know little about authoritarian leaders because we only recently started studying them. That may seem strange, but how hard is it to figure out why someone would like to have massive amounts of power? The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom?  So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem. 

Some of that makes sense, some of it does not. Some of it matches my reality but some of it does not. For one thing, my brain immediately locks its brakes heading toward “the greatest threat to American democracy” and skids into the ditch. American democracy? And I find myself rejecting the idea that “authoritarian communist dictatorships” were even a thing – the fact that some dictatorship called itself the “socialist worker’s paradise of whatever” doesn’t mean they were communist – it just means they were liars. Like the people who talk about American democracy. There is a great deal of use of emotionally loaded language here (and in the survey!) but I guess that’s the point: when you are studying people’s attitudes toward political manipulation, how do you avoid political manipulation?

I have read this book maybe a half dozen times and this time, I am very skeptical about it. Yet, I still say Altemeyer is worth reading because there are really fascinating nuggets:

Yaquinto Games' "Ultimatum" - I played this a lot of high school

Yaquinto Games’ 1979 “Ultimatum” – I played this a lot in high school. I didn’t realize I was doing social science.

High RWAs tend to feel more endangered in a potentially threatening situation than most people do, and often respond aggressively. In 1987 my colleague Gerry Sande and I had five-man teams of male introductory psychology students role-play NATO in an “international simulation” involving (they thought) another team of students playing as the Warsaw Pact. Some of the NATO teams were composed entirely of low RWA students, and other NATO teams were stocked entirely with highs. (We experimenters secretly played the Warsaw Pact.) The simulation began with a couple of ambiguous moves by the Warsaw Pact, such as holding military exercises earlier than anticipated, and withdrawing divisions to rear areas (possibly for rest, or –as Dr. Strangelove might argue–possibly for redeployment for an attack).

The NATO teams could respond with nonthreatening or threatening moves of varying magnitudes. But if they made threats, the  Warsaw pact responded with twice as much threat in return, and the NATO team would reap what it had sown as an escalation of aggressive moves would likely result.

The low RWA teams did not interpret the ambiguous moves at the beginning of the game as serious threats and thus seldom made threatening moves. The high RWAs on the other hand usually reacted to the opening Warsaw Pact moves aggressively, and sowed a whirlwind. Over the course of the simulation, the high RWA teams made ten times as much threat as the low teams did, and usually brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

On this re-reading, my alarm bells keep ringing. The experimenters played the Warsaw Pact? Did they always play it the same way? Wouldn’t it have been better to have a computer consistently playing the same move-tree?

 Right-wing authoritarians are prejudiced compared to other people. That does not mean they think that Jews can’t be trusted at all, that all Black people are naturally violent, or that every Japanese is cruel. High RWAs may, as a group, even disagree with these blatantly racist statements. However they don’t disagree very much, while most people strongly or very strongly disagree. So  authoritarian followers are relatively prejudiced, which means it would presumably take less persuasion or social pressure to get them to discriminate than it would most people.

See what I mean? People who express attitudes that are typical of other attitudes, tend to hold those other attitudes. If I had enough questions about your meat-eating preference (Question #1: “I feel bad when I think of the creature I am eating”) constructed over years, my survey would probably correlate highly with vegetarianism. The question is: what would my survey allow me to learn about vegetarians?

Since followers do virtually all of the assaulting and killing in authoritarian systems–the leaders see to this most carefully–we are dealing with very serious matters here. Anyone who follows orders can become a murderer for an authoritarian regime. But authoritarian followers find it easier to bully, harass, punish, maim, torture, “eliminate,” “liquidate,” and “exterminate” their victims  than most people do. We saw in chapter 1 that high RWAs are more likely to inflict strong electric shocks in a fake learning experiment in which they choose the punishment level, are more likely to sentence common criminals to long jail sentences, are more likely to be prejudiced, are more willing to join “posses” organized by authorities to hunt down and persecute almost any group you can think of, are more mean-spirited, and are more likely to blame victims of misfortune for the calamities that befall them. So while on the surface high RWAs can be pleasant, sociable, and friendly, they seemingly have a lot of hostility boiling away inside them that their authorities can easily unleash. Indeed, this authoritarian aggression is one of the three defining elements of right-wing authoritarianism. What  causes it?

A Psychoanalytic Explanation

Several theories have tried to explain authoritarian aggression, and the Freudian one has long been the best known. I was quite seduced by its ingenuity and drama when I first heard of it. Let’s see if it can seduce you.

Supposedly the future authoritarian follower was severely punished as a child by his cold, distant parents for any signs of independence or rebellion. So such urges were repressed. Instead through a reaction-formation the child became obedient, loyal, even adoring of his parents. But deep down inside he hated them. However the Freudian “deep down inside” doesn’t have a shredder or burn-basket, so ultimately the repressed hostility has to come out some way. Thus the authoritarian follower projected his hostility onto safe targets, such as groups whom the parents disliked or people who couldn’t fight  back, and decided they were out to get him. That projection provided the rationalization for attacking them and, voila, you have authoritarian aggression–thanks to just about all the ego defense mechanisms in Freud’s book.

In fairness to Altemeyer, he realizes that the Freudian interpretation he presents (which is actually fairly generous) is BS:

One gets nowhere with a theory that can “predict” whatever happened, after it happens. Having an answer for everything may make one a great used car salesman, but it rings the death knell for a theory in science. In science, the best explanations are nailed-down-testable.

He then continues:

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory of Aggression

A more testable explanation of aggression in general has been provided by Albert Bandura of Stanford University. Bandura says that aggression occurs after two switches are thrown. First some bad feeling like anger or envy stirs up hostility. But that by itself won’t lead to aggression. An angry individual who wants to attack someone may anticipate getting punched in return, or ending up in jail. Or he may have moral restraints against hurting others. So the second stage involves overcoming these restraints, setting aside these inhibitions, letting the aggression erupt and flow.

[…]

Sometimes it’s all rather predictable: authoritarians’ parents taught fear of homosexuals, radicals, atheists and  pornographers. But they also warned their children, more than most parents did, about kidnappers, reckless drivers, bullies and drunks–bad guys who would seem to threaten everyone’s children. So authoritarian followers, when growing up, probably lived in a scarier world than most kids do, with a lot more boogeymen hiding in dark places, and they’re still scared as adults. For them, gay marriage is not just unthinkable on religious grounds, and unnerving because it means  making the “abnormal” acceptable. It’s yet one more sign that perversion is corrupting society from the inside-out, leading to total chaos. Many things, from stem cell research to right-to-die legislation, say to them, “This is the last straw; soon we’ll be plunged into the abyss.” So probably did, in earlier times, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, sex education and Sunday shopping.

The thing that’s so interesting about this stuff is that it rings true, to a certain degree. But then, so do horoscopes. Altemeyer throws out the idea that maybe authoritarianism is inherited, or maybe it’s learned, or maybe it’s some combination of the two. <snark>That neatly covers all the possibilities, doesn’t it?</snark> As Altemeyer says:

One gets nowhere with a theory that can “predict” whatever happened, after it happens. Having an answer for everything may make one a great used car salesman, but it rings the death knell for a theory in science.

This stuff is all cracking good fun, but what happens when it sinks into the popular culture and is taken seriously? I have a friend who lost a high-paying job at a tech company because their Myers-Briggs Type Index showed that they were a “personality type” that does not play well with others. What happens if some company were to use the authoritarian attitudes questionnaire to decide who is management material and who is not? Is it relevant to mention now that my friend who lost the job because of MBTI is an outspoken and threateningly talented young woman?

divider

I will say for the record that I have no definition to offer for “authoritarian” – I am using it as a label of convenience for discussion only. Do not take internally, void where prohibited, some settling may have occurred in shipping and crushing.

“Delivery of truths: ” In his book Aristoi,[wikipedia] Walter Jon Williams presents a fictional future in which researchers have figured out the deep gestural and postural languages of the body. They can be extra-convincing, subliminally, by adopting the postures of confidence, or command, or whatever. I find this idea simultaneously appealing and appalling: it’s hard not to watch authoritarians in action and not see common touches: big hats, arrogant postures, body dimension-defining military wear, a certain tilt of the head, pumping hands in the air, flared nostrils, etc. If we accept the idea that there may be threat displays in other animals, what if there are subliminal components of threat displays used subconsciously by authoritarians to cow their subjects?

Circular logic and pulled pork sandwiches: In my comment here[1], I allude to this problem. It affects the usefulness of language, for me, because words become just collections of words, unless there is some kind of detection test that can be applied in the absence of the label. If someone had a blood-test for authoritarianism, I’d be more inclined to accept that authoritarianism is not just a game of labels.

Freud: Altemeyer wrote The Authoritarians in 2006; the stink of Freud still lingers in the social sciences.

Perhaps if you’re interested: I score 15%.

MBTI friend: I suggested that she begin legal action, but instead she went to another start-up where she quickly became a multimillionaire off stock options. Laughter is the best revenge. She’s still outspoken and threateningly talented and the company she departed from is still floundering and mismanaged.

I think a lot of why social science work like Altemeyer’s has traction is because he tells us what we already believe (confirmation bias) but he does it in a way that makes us feel smart and perceptive. On his site he also has some wonderfully dismissive labelling of the Tea Party [alt](guess what: there are a lot of authoritarian followers in the Tea Party) and tosses out some chewy nuggets like:

These attitudes come right out of the catechism of the other authoritarian personality that research has discovered, the social dominators. Their defining characteristic is opposition to equality. They believe instead in dominance, both personal (if they can pull it off) and in their group dominating other groups. They endorse using intimidation, threats, and power to enrich themselves at the expense of others. This is the natural order of things, they believe. “It is a mistake to interfere with the “law of the jungle,” they argue. Some people were meant to dominate others.” “Its a dog eat dog world in which the superior people get to the top.” Such people may want government to stick to running fire departments so they can rise/stay above others unimpeded. Research shows that social dominators are power – hungry, mean, amoral, and even more prejudiced than the authoritarian followers described earlier. They want unfairness throughout society. Barack Obama, and the ludicrous perception that he is going to lead African-Americans in “taking over America” would be their worst nightmare. So the hypothesis that the Tea Party movement has more than its fair share of social dominators may have merit.

Comments

  1. Brian English says

    Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.

    My eldest sprog is approaching 7. The other day, he loves dinosaurs – what kid doesn’t? – and when talking about Quetzocoatulus )am Ameroindian god) and then later about Homeric stuff (Poseidon getting huffy) – he said something like ‘we have our own god’, because even in a state (public) school, it’s not verbotten for religious preachers and teachers to ‘accidently’ mention their beliefs as fact, I said ‘I don’t believe in any god because when you look at it, there’s nothing there’. He said something like, ‘it’s not fact and I don’t believe it’. I thought he’d gotten the general idea, he’ll work the rest out… My youngest, who’s nearly 5 won’t be convinced of any deity unless they exist in the recent Trolls movie. So, I’m safe there for now.

    I allude to this problem. It affects the usefulness of language, for me, because words become just collections of words, unless there is some kind of detection test that can be applied in the absence of the label.

    Maybe you need a little Van. And I don’t mean Van Morrison. Knowledge is a web, not a series of steps following one from the other. Or maybe not, I’m not sure. As a nihilist*, you’re shit out of foundation. 😉

    (*as someone who is pretty much a nihilst, I think something like Quine is what we can expect).

  2. Brian English says

    **Still, as a sceptic, I’ll ignore Quine and go for his philosphical ancestor, the wake lad from nine-wells. You’d go for that lad’s philosophical ancestor, the guy whose name was coopted by gourmets.

  3. says

    I think, based on not very much I suppose, that we are all about half an inch from becoming authoritarian followers. It seems baked in to so much of our history.

  4. polishsalami says

    When I hear of “authoritarianism,” I usually follow a mental train to “indoctrination,” and from there to Chomsky’s thesis that the US is one of the most indoctrinated societies on Earth.

    Compare the furore over Venezuela’s intervention in bread and cakes with the fact that Flint hasn’t had clean drinking water for three years. Nobody in the mainstream media would even consider the notion that the Flint crisis represented a “crisis for capitalism,” but it’s a given that Venezuela’s flour shortage is proof that socialism doesn’t work.

    The following article is typical, but note the comment from James Keilman: Keilman says that the drop in oil prices is due to the manipulations of (hypercapitalist) Saudi Arabia, but immediately follows with the ‘this is why socialism doesn’t work’ line. A perfectly indoctrinated serf.
    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article138964428.html

  5. says

    Andrew Molitor@#3:
    I think, based on not very much I suppose, that we are all about half an inch from becoming authoritarian followers. It seems baked in to so much of our history.

    That’s another way of approaching the nature/nurture question, I suppose. If you have a lot of people who are beaten into line at a young age, why is it unreasonable to expect that they may learn some of those behaviors?

    One thing I will say for Altemeyer is that he stays pretty far from the question of whether authoritarians are made or born. I’m not aware of any twin studies or parenting studies using Altemeyer’s survey…. uh, whoops, I just burned a scroll of Google and sure enough:
    http://www.sdu.dk/-/media/files/om_sdu/institutter/statskundskab/sidipob/authoritarianism+as+a+personality+trait.pdf
    see also:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3809096/

  6. jrkrideau says

    Random thoughts on Ranum’s comment on Altemeyer
    Note: My comments are not necessarily in the order that the original points appear in text.

    Altemeyer has written a very enjoyable and funny, totally self-indulgent book—well funny if you’re psychologist, at least. I read it in the pdf format and it is amazing annoying to read even with two pdf readers open. The chapter end notes alone are maddening though often wildly entertaining. His Americanism is sometimes irritating but as I said it’s a self-indulgent book.

    social science work like Altemeyer
    I think you just insulted Bob Altemeyer. I doubt that he would consider his work “social science”. Psychology has, AFAIK, never considered itself a social, science, but rather a behavioural science—it is really difficult to describe rat-running, behavioural genetics, language learning and drug reaction studies as social sciences though, admittedly, Bob’s research is on the social end of the continuum. However his research interests appear to be in the measurement of individual differences as opposed to some of his editorial statements which could be considered social/political commentary.

    That said, I think he is definitely on to something. As I mentioned yesterday, I have not read any of his peer-reviewed work in years and I should also have a look at what others in the area are doing to see how well things are hanging together.

    It appears that the political scientists love the concept. Have you seen this http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism I was very impressed to see that they managed to do the entire article without a mention of Altemeyer.

    Nomenclature
    When you come right down to it, the Right Wing Authoritarian term is nonsense. I suspect that Altemeyer started using it in his early research as, I think that that is what Adorno and colleagues were using back in the 1950’s when they were using psychoanalytic theory. And a grand mess that was. And so he’s been stuck with it ever since.

    My impression is that RWA is more a tendency to follow leaders blindly and as one would expect, Altemeyer, somewhere in that bloody book, reports someone’s research from post-Soviet Union that tend to confirm this.

    US military officers tend to be seen as right-wing but my suspicion is that Soviet military officers would have been seen as left wing. In both cases it would be the appeal to legitimate authority not the actual policies that is important but as I say this is just a suspicion.

    I’d suggest, if it is not too late to move to something like the Authoritarian Quotient (AQ) which removes the (irrelevant) political labelling.

    I tried the test three for four years ago and I think I was somewhere in the 11 to 16 range. Of course, the scores for anyone trying the test here are not particularly valid since the test-taker is aware of the purpose of the test. Social desirability is likely to affect test score; I am making the assumption that most of your readers do not want to be labelled “Right Wing Authoritarian”. I may be wrong. Stand up those who wish to be labelled a “Right Wing Authoritarian”.

    Altemeyer engages in a kind of circular definition that I am uncomfortable with. What is an authoritarian follower? Well, we know that a certain collection of attitudes and behaviours goes together, so we rank and score them and call someone an “authoritarian follower” if they score high. How do we know that those are the attitudes and behaviours of authoritarianism? Based on the questionnaire.

    This, unfortunately, is a common problem in several areas of psychology. The same thing applies to the measurement of IQ. What is IQ? It’s what the IQ test measures.

    In the case of IQ and Authoritarianism there is the underlying assumption (pius hope in some cases?) that the measurements map reasonably well to the underlying theoretical constructs (Intelligence and Authoritarian behaviour). In a way, this is probably true of a lot of concepts in other sciences as well;

    I may be wrong but I don’t think anyone has “seen” gravity. We know it exists because all our relevant measurements conform to the concept (I am leaving town until the physicists calm down).

    The issue is just a lot messier in some areas of psychology and this is one of them. It is possible to develop alternative measures of the same concept and hope they correlate, and so on, but at the end one still has a rather circular argument.

    Walter Jon Williams presents a fictional future in which researchers have figured out the deep gestural and postural languages of the body. They can be extra-convincing, subliminally, by adopting the postures of confidence, or command, or whatever.

    Research on this is proceeding as I type. So far the research appears to be total crap—I have not read it, just read some critiques—but some social psychologists are investigating the idea at a very basic level and if they ever clean up their methodology they may find something.

    Not something mentioned in the original text but Altemeyer’s discussion of high Social Dominance Scale people as the immoral leaders of the RWA cannon fodder is scary and seems to ring true. I am reminded of our dear departed, and unlamented last Prime Minister.
    The experimenters played the Warsaw Pact? Did they always play it the same way? Wouldn’t it have been better to have a computer consistently playing the same move-tree?

    • Computer, what computer? Don’t forget we are looking at something like a 40-year research program. Quite possibly there were no decent microcomputers available when these studies were done. Borrowing an IBM mainframe may not have been feasible. Heck, even a Dec PDP 11 was a bit bulky.

    Freud: Altemeyer wrote The Authoritarians in 2006; the stink of Freud still lingers in the social sciences.
    I read that totally differently, it’s Bob mocking Freudian theory though admitting that Freud may have been affecting his thinking back in the 1950’s. Adorno and colleagues definitely were working with Freudian theory. IIRC Bob got his PH.D around 1965.

    Re: MBTI . That’s the problem with letting laymen play with things they do not understand in the slightest. Besides the point that the MBTI, for various technical and theoretical reasons is a load of bollocks, all sorts of people started using it for purposes that the wretched instrument was not designed for.

    Still, MBTI misuse pales before the misuse of the polygraph. Both have the same validity, that is zero but the consequences of using the polygraph can be much more drastic.

    • BTW if you really want to read about quack science in action you might like to have a look at the US NRC’s report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A path forward. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228091.pdf A better title might have been Cleaning the Augean stables: What do these idiots think they are doing. “Forensic science” is an oxymoron. Do not, repeat do not believe CSI stories.

    • In reference to the Vox article referenced above http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism., what I missed when I read a bit of it the first time about a year ago is the claim that Stanley Feldman has developed a “reliable” four item test of Authoritarianism. I have my doubts that a 4 item test is useful in psychological research, it just does not supply enough range, and the reliability of a 4 item test usually is damn poor , but it may be sufficient for a political scientist who only wants to do crude classifications. The concept of using child-rearing practices as the measure is fascinating

    • Karen Stenner in The Authoritarian Dynamic makes the claim that the Feldman test is valid cross-culturally but I had given up trying to read the book before I got to the where, presumably, she mentions that it was a test developed by Feldman and not one “pulled out of her ass” as you so elegantly put it for Freud.

    She was annoying the hell out of me for her constant denigration of Altemeyer whose work it seemed she had not read, or at least not understood, and she was showing an apparent lack of knowledge or complete disregard for psychometrics that was just a tad worrying giving what she was doing. I know nothing about political science methodology so it may have been fine but arrgh. Reliability is not optional in a test.

    Altemeyer points out that his test is unlikely to have any validity in a cross-cultural setting. I imagine it is fine in a Western civilization setting though it really needs some cross-validation

    I’d really expect it to be dubious or useless in a something like a Chinese or Middle-Eastern context. It is just too culturally bound.

    • Come to think of it, it probably would be dicey to use with First Nations people here in Canada or recent immigrants from non-Western countries.

    Oh there is a typo in “Deus vult”.

    Good article.

  7. says

    polishsalami@#4:
    When I hear of “authoritarianism,” I usually follow a mental train to “indoctrination,” and from there to Chomsky’s thesis that the US is one of the most indoctrinated societies on Earth.

    My train of thought goes off the rails in similar ways. One of the other aspects of it is the degree to which we are incredibly saturated with marketing. We’re not only constantly being told “America is the greatest!” but we’re being told we’re too fat and we need to have a smartphone in order to lead a happy life. It’s all tied together for me (which is why I dropped that Adam Curtis piece on Bernays, earlier) Propaganda, marketing, ideology, get them while they’re young, and indoctrinate the hell out of them.

    I have a book on my shelf that I keep thinking I could do a book report on, The Militarization of the Western World which sports a thesis that all that indoctrination is in the service of warfare. Well, there’s probably some truth in that. The problem is there’s “probably some truth” in all this stuff!

    Compare the furore over Venezuela’s intervention in bread and cakes with the fact that Flint hasn’t had clean drinking water for three years. Nobody in the mainstream media would even consider the notion that the Flint crisis represented a “crisis for capitalism,” but it’s a given that Venezuela’s flour shortage is proof that socialism doesn’t work.

    Quoted and Bolded for Truth!
    Yes.

    The $.05 analysis would be that the media have been indoctrinated to believe that capitalism = good and socialism = bad and what you’re seeing is confirmation bias. But the $.10 analysis is that maybe they aren’t even thinking about it enough to experience confirmation bias.

    A perfectly indoctrinated serf.

    I remember when I was in 8th grade, one of my dad’s colleagues briefly hosted a family from Russia. And their boy, who was my age, hung out with me for a while. Some of my classmates made googly eyes at me because I was hanging out with a Russian and weren’t they all creepy and weird and hostile and everything? Even at the time I was thinking “WTF!? This is a family of dissidents who fled Russia!” (Which, by the way, if relevant to the “immigration crisis”)

  8. says

    jrkrideau@#6:
    Altemeyer has written a very enjoyable and funny, totally self-indulgent book

    I agree. It’s an editorial with some sciency stuff forklifted in.
    Yet, peer-reviewed papers are being published based on his work.

    social science work like Altemeyer
    I think you just insulted Bob Altemeyer

    When he’s talking about democracy and communist dictatorships, I think “social science” .. Also, I used that term because (please correct me if I have this wrong..) my impression is that survey methodologies are characteristic of social science working methods. I admit I probably thought “social science” with a bit of sneer in my mental voice, because I tend to be immediately skeptical of self-reported surveys. I’m aware that they can be done carefully so as to produce results that are defensible. Yeah, I was being a bit insulting.

    It appears that the political scientists love the concept. Have you seen this http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism I was very impressed to see that they managed to do the entire article without a mention of Altemeyer.

    They may have been working from John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience which is basically “John Dean writes a book about Bob Altemeyer’s work”

    When you come right down to it, the Right Wing Authoritarian term is nonsense. I suspect that Altemeyer started using it in his early research as, I think that that is what Adorno and colleagues were using back in the 1950’s when they were using psychoanalytic theory. And a grand mess that was. And so he’s been stuck with it ever since.

    I agree. That’s one of the things I was referring to obliquely about the “fecal reek of freudianism” – as in the bits I quoted above, Altemeyer does dismiss psychoanalysis, but … he still gives it air-play. I wish he didn’t do that but it sure helps make my case that freudian pseudoscience is still all to prevalent.

    US military officers tend to be seen as right-wing but my suspicion is that Soviet military officers would have been seen as left wing.

    I reject the notion that there are “wings” so when I read that I just interpolate “yaddayadda” in. I understand that there are political labels some use to broadly describe political ideologies but I don’t see them as accurate enough to be useful.

    Of course, the scores for anyone trying the test here are not particularly valid since the test-taker is aware of the purpose of the test. Social desirability is likely to affect test score.

    I have a problem with that aspect of survey-based methodologies. If you’re measuring something that is actually true, your measurement should always yield the same result. Otherwise, you’re not actually measuring that thing, you’re measuring what people think you want to hear. So either the surveys are actually measuring a phenomenon, or they are not. The phenomenon is real or it’s not. When we acknowledge that surveys may change because the test-taker is aware of the test, then the phenomenon we are measuring is the test-taker’s awareness.

    This, unfortunately, is a common problem in several areas of psychology. The same thing applies to the measurement of IQ. What is IQ? It’s what the IQ test measures.

    Yes (though Quetelet showed that it correlated highly with individual performance on another test as well, presumably because the tests explored common knowledge) There is a serious epistemological problem in psychology and I tend to look with extreme skepticism on anything that uses self-reporting on surveys. I have been skeptical about that since I was an undergrad (and, yes, I did have to participate in a number of surveys as course requirement, and was thinking “this is bullshit!” the entire time) The replication fiasco in the social sciences and psychology has a lot to do with that flock of turkeys coming home to roost.

    The issue is just a lot messier in some areas of psychology and this is one of them. It is possible to develop alternative measures of the same concept and hope they correlate, and so on, but at the end one still has a rather circular argument.

    I was trying hard to be fair. My reaction is to reject the whole thing as circular but there does appear to be some “there” there somewhere. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of my posts or comments on what I call “linguistic nihilism” – it’s a similar problem: when you establish a label in language, you need to define something in other terms. Well, eventually you run out of terms. Sextus Empiricus pointed that out long long long before I started having problems with it, but it appears to be a side effect of language. We can either conclude “nobody knows what anyone means when they say anything” or accept that language is a flawed instrument and try to make sure we think we’re talking about the same thing.

    The thing that really drove this home for me was a symposium (literally! there was alcohol involved!) I took as an undergrad, taught by Prof Maury Silver, on “language and definition.” We used to meet in the university presidents’ garden, drink margaritas, and each session of the class we tried to define a word. “Freedom” – and – of course – we realized (that was the point of the class) that definitions are circular, concepts are vague, and margaritas don’t help with either of those. I was already a budding nietzschean so that class really made me blossom. (Nietzsche at least didn’t bother pretending to support his terms or arguments! Because the superior man’s language serves him something something uh not the other way around something)

    Altemeyer’s discussion of high Social Dominance Scale people as the immoral leaders of the RWA cannon fodder is scary and seems to ring true.

    A lot of Altemeyer seems to ring true!!! That’s what makes my confirmation bias and preaching to the choir detector over here vibrate. I had to put it on “mute”

    Computer, what computer?

    I started programming computers in 1976, specifically so I could implement surveys. (and roll D&D NPCs and auto-generate dungeon maps…) But, yeah, that’s a quibble. Perhaps they had scripted response patterns. Otherwise I think there are and should be serious concerns that the experimenters may have subconsciously manipulated the subjects.

    I read that totally differently, it’s Bob mocking Freudian theory though admitting that Freud may have been affecting his thinking back in the 1950’s. Adorno and colleagues definitely were working with Freudian theory. IIRC Bob got his PH.D around 1965.

    Fair enough. I’ll try your reading: Altemeyer put Freud up specifically to knock him down, and to avoid colleagues asking him snarkily, “What Would Sigmund Say?”

    (skipping a bit)
    Karen Stenner in The Authoritarian Dynamic makes the claim that the Feldman test is valid cross-culturally

    A 4 question cross-cultural survey? Whoah.
    1) Do you know which way is “up” (please point)
    2) Is water “wet”? (yes/no)
    3) Point at yourself
    4) ..
    I used to think of “the bushman test” which would be that a survey measuring non-learned/non-social attitudes ought to return the same results if taken by a K’ung as if taken by an ivy league undergrad.
    Of course one of the funny things in psych class was the discussions of IQ testing and testing methodologies and how Quetelet and Binet made tests that didn’t measure what they were used to measure … and then we’d leave class and be expected to do a couple surveys for the researchers down the hall. I remember one test I did where we were being rewarded with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and I kept telling the researcher “I don’t like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” and he told me to imagine that I did.

    Altemeyer points out that his test is unlikely to have any validity in a cross-cultural setting. I imagine it is fine in a Western civilization setting though it really needs some cross-validation
    I’d really expect it to be dubious or useless in a something like a Chinese or Middle-Eastern context. It is just too culturally bound.

    So I’d say that the survey should be entitled the “Survey About American Attitudes Toward Authority” or someting like that. That’s one of the other things that consistently bothers me about these sort of things: they’re so culturally bound but they don’t come with an explicit warning to that effect.

    Thank you for your comment; I think that we could have a great (and higher bandwidth) conversation about this stuff.

    (I’m not sure where I got the “Deus Vull’t” spelling but it stuck in my head from somewhere; I think maybe Joinville or Villehardoin – that was how they shouted it as they rode down the citizens of Jerusalem, not how the Romans would have spelled it.)

  9. says

    Brian English@#1:
    Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.

    I always was fascinated by that observation because it appears that Xavier is acknowledging that indoctrination is necessary to faith, which sort of refutes all of religion, in one fell swoop. I know that the faithful may talk about having a “sensus divinatus” or whatever but I think Xavier was accidentally telling a deep truth.

    Knowledge is a web, not a series of steps following one from the other

    Yes, I think Aristotelian logic was a good attempt but there are severe limits to epistemology. Which leaves us with a great big unsupported web that’s not attached to anything at the edges. I’m actually comfortable with that – I adopt the pyrrhonian school’s approach of dealing with the web as it appears to be. It’s the best I can do.

    the wake lad from nine-wells. You’d go for that lad’s philosophical ancestor, the guy whose name was coopted by gourmets.

    I can decode “Epicurus” (I assume you already know I am quite the fan) but I don’t get the other one and I’m too stubborn to burn a scroll of google. So, your “stump the chump” score stands at 1:0 !!

  10. says

    When I first read Altemeyer years ago I remember thinking that I ought to be suspicious of something which is so perfectly designed to appeal to my preexisting biases. Doubly so for his work on atheism, but at least those books include enough detail to spot the problem: the data comes almost exclusively from WEIRD Canadian undergraduates. Since I was at the time a WEIRD Canadian undergraduate it had both the ring of truth and immediate applicability.

    It’s been many years since I read the Authoritarians so I don’t recall if he ever discusses his sources. It’s probably based on those same classes, in fact the surveys were probably given to the very same students each year.

    I still recommend it to people now and then, but always with the caveat that I am poorly positioned to spot any flaws in it.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    … a kind of circular definition that I am uncomfortable with.

    I’m running a sleep deficit today, so please don’t get real harsh if I’ve overlooked something blatant – but don’t most definitions of abstractions go into orbit around themselves?

  12. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#11:
    please don’t get real harsh if I’ve overlooked something blatant – but don’t most definitions of abstractions go into orbit around themselves?

    It seems to me that they do. And, it seems to me that almost everything is an abstraction to some degree or another. Which makes me go into a great tail-spin of doubting my ability to use language.

    By the way
    please don’t get real harsh

    I make an effort to be considerate and fairly non-aggressive here. But I’ve seen a couple comments lately with front-loaded “this is my opinion…” or “go ahead have at me..” type pre-disclaimers. Am I being harsh here? If so, I will not get upset by the feedback. If I’m being too aggressive I can, uh. I dunno. But if I’m being hard on people, I need to know that.

  13. says

    ryangerber@#10:
    When I first read Altemeyer years ago I remember thinking that I ought to be suspicious of something which is so perfectly designed to appeal to my preexisting biases. Doubly so for his work on atheism, but at least those books include enough detail to spot the problem: the data comes almost exclusively from WEIRD Canadian undergraduates. Since I was at the time a WEIRD Canadian undergraduate it had both the ring of truth and immediate applicability.

    Exactly.

    I still recommend it to people now and then, but always with the caveat that I am poorly positioned to spot any flaws in it.

    Me too, with the caveat that I think it’s probably a load of circular reasoning and confirmation bias. I think it’s worth reading (obviously!) but I’d hate to see people taking it as gospel and I’d really really be upset if companies started using the authoritarianism scale in employment screening.

    For me it’s particularly problematic because I reject the idea that there is such a thing as “right wing” and consequently the whole thing rests on a foundation of sand. (I probably should do a posting on that topic…)

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 12: … almost everything is an abstraction to some degree or another. Which makes me go into a great tail-spin of doubting my ability to use language.

    Which should affect your self-esteem in the same way as doubting your ability to use a greasy-handled hammer.

    And that leads me to ponder the relation of abstractions and metaphors… I think I better not use any power tools today.

    I make an effort to be considerate and fairly non-aggressive here.

    More so than certain others, so feel free to read my defensiveness above as Not About You.

  15. jrkrideau says

    my impression is that survey methodologies are characteristic of social science working methods.

    Indeed they are but Altemeyer’s work is not what I or most people in the areas would call surveying. Pew or Statistics Canada do survey work. It includes careful sampling of the target population and generally a desire to aggregate/generalize findings to a national or whatever level. So StatCan may want to be able to estate the number of people who own iphones as opposed to using the telegraph in Canada.

    Bob is trying to tease out some behaviour characteristics and while eventually I am sure any psychological researcher would like to be able to generalize to a target population, that is not the purpose of what Bob is doing.

    He is trying to get a feeling for the dimensions of his hypothesized construct “authoritarianism”. As long as his samples have some reasonable link to the construct he does not really care about representativeness of the sample. I am sure he would assure you that using the number of student groups he has used in his studies is not ideal but it is not crippling in terms of the type of research he is doing. One just needs to expand the research pool of subjects to ‘real people’ as one goes along as he has done.

    You are confusing the fact that both surveying and the personality-type research that Altemeyer are using both use paper and pencil responses so-to-speak. It’s a bit like a total non-techie, say from a non-technical civilization confusing an Imac computer with a Sony TV. Hey, they look the same.

    Re Altemeyer giving Freudian theory a passing nod. Sorry but that goes with the field. The original concepts came from Adorno et al. and they were working in a psychoanalytic framework. In fact, a failure to acknowledge this and the change in orientation could be misleading or make one wonder if Altemeyer did not know the history of the research area.

    I have a problem with that aspect of survey-based methodologies. If you’re measuring something that is actually true, your measurement should always yield the same result

    Sorry, but it just does not work that way. Heck blood pressure readings don’t work that way.

    then the phenomenon we are measuring is the test-taker’s awareness

    Well, actually we are praying and sacrificing the odd white dove that the test taker is not aware of the hypothesis. This is one of the reasons a lot of psychologists envy some of the hard sciences. Physicists have it easy. Briefing a Higgs boson before an experiment is unlikely to change its behaviour.

    Social desirability and in some cases just pure bloody-mindedness on the part of a subject can affect results.

    Plus physicists don’t have to worry about fatigue or the possibility half the subject pool has the flu or just got laid off and so on.

    The replication fiasco in the social sciences and psychology has a lot to do with that flock of turkeys coming home to roost

    Well, we will have to disagree here. Some of the issues may come from the use of self-reports but from my reading the problems come from more serious methodological problems, some of which, weak theory, low statistical power and bad stats are obvious and some research decision making moves which are not so obvious but perhaps more dangerous.

    Of course, the replication problem in psychology is noticeable because psychologists have suddenly woken up and started to do something about it.

    There seems to be a similar problem with drug development but it is not getting the same treatment, perhaps because a) psych, especially some of the sillier social psych studies, are good click bait and a drug replication study just is not as sexy and b) the implications of the early drug replication studies have not quite registered in the academic research community.

    My reaction is to reject the whole thing as circular but there does appear to be some “there” there somewhere.

    See my comments about gravity. It’s just a theory.

    We used to meet in the university presidents’ garden

    Your president had a garden. Wow, our principal didn’t have one.

    A lot of Altemeyer seems to ring true!

    Err maybe because after a 40 year research program and with supporting evidence from other areas of research by other researchers there may even be something there?

    A 4 question cross-cultural survey? Whoah

    My thought exactly but I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt until I see some of the research. I find such a thing in one culture hard to believe unless the poli-sci people are happy with a really crude dichotomization, sort of like “Yep almost certainly male, yep almost certainly female”. It might work at that level.

    I’d say that the survey should be entitled the “Survey About American Attitudes Toward Authority”

    Well no, just on the grounds that most of the research and development was not done in the USA nor with US citizens as research subjects. There are better reasons but that one will do for the moment.

    However you are confusing the “questionnaire” which is a specific measuring tool with it’s specific wording which is certainly culturally bound to Western cultures and specifically English-speaking North America and the concept of Authoritarianism which may need to be measured with different questionnaires or other means in other parts of the world.

    That’s one of the other things that consistently bothers me about these sort of things: they’re so culturally bound but they don’t come with an explicit warning to that effect.

    I’m sorry but I had to chuckle at that. It’s so obvious to anyone in the business that I guess we forget to mention it. It is an issue that we have been dealing with, with varying degrees of success for at least 80 years, probably more. Since the book is meant for a lay audience he probably should have been more explicit.

    I believe Altemeyer did discuss the issue in passing in the Authoritarians but what may have been more than enough for me may not have registered at all for a layman.

    It could be that one would not find much in the way of Authoritarianism in some cultures. I may be wrong but I think that Bob is leading towards the idea that most if not all Authoritarianism is a learned behaviour and not genetically based. He does point out that they are maleable.

  16. says

    Okay, I took the survey: Your score for right-wing authoritarianism was 6.25%. I expect it’s that high because I didn’t always go with very.

    Your link is bad, by the way, it should be: http://personality-testing.info/tests/RWAS/

    What was the deal with checking off the words you knew the definition of? Would an authoritarian asshole have marked off all the made up words too?

  17. says

    Caine@#16:
    What was the deal with checking off the words you knew the definition of? Would an authoritarian asshole have marked off all the made up words too?

    I believe that’s to filter out people who didn’t actually read the test, or possibly to block robots.

    I also found that my answers tended to almost always be extreme. My guess is a) the questions were pretty obvious b) the questions were very heavily slanted, too c) writing a blog has clarified some of my views, making me more confident giving extreme answers d) current politics have clarified some of my views, making me more confident giving extreme answers.

  18. jrkrideau says

    @ 10 ryangerber

    the data comes almost exclusively from WEIRD Canadian undergraduates

    Well most human psych data comes from WEIRD undergraduates somewhere in the world, unfortunately. “Most psych data’ perhaps? From the researcher’s perspective, an undergrad is often cheaper than a rat or a pigeon and immeasurably less expensive than a primate.

    Actually I think Altemeyer has made a fair attempt to generalize. A lot more than say the perception people and probably a lot of the cognition people.

    IIRC, he has hit everyone from his students’ parents with take-home questionnaires to MPs and US politicians. Wider sampling would always be nice but one can say that of much of human research. Areley’s initial behavioural economics work, IIRC, rested very heavily on undergrads at a couple of universities. I think that a good bit of Tversky and Kahneman’s work did too but I have not read a lot of it and it was a long time ago.

    It’s probably based on those same classes, in fact the surveys were probably given to the very same students each year.

    Not likely. From a logistical standpoint, in a university the size of Altemeyer’s it would be almost impossible. The same course perhaps, but each year that course will have a new wave of students.

  19. says

    Marcus:

    I also found that my answers tended to almost always be extreme.

    Mine as well, but I really loathe those disagree/agree deals. It bothers me, on a deep level, to confine myself to such “answers”, and it doesn’t take long before I chafe at the whole notion.

  20. says

    jrkrideau@#18:
    Well most human psych data comes from WEIRD undergraduates somewhere in the world, unfortunately.

    Now you’re just trying to bait me into another round of trying to throw psychology under a bus.

  21. says

    Caine@#19:
    A bunch of years ago a friend suggested I join okcupid. So, I did. And I started filling out the survey stuff and I discovered quickly that pretty much every question required a short essay as an answer (checkbox: “it depends”) When the friend in question took a look at my profile a while later, she said “well, that’s why I didn’t want to date you.” So, it was a huge success: we both learned something!

    Actually, it was interesting to explore my own attitudes and think about where they come from. So, pretty quickly I shifted into “voyage of self-discovery” mode. Someone needs to make a dating site for solipsists. Maybe call it “justme.com”

  22. says

    Marcus:

    A bunch of years ago a friend suggested I join okcupid. So, I did. And I started filling out the survey stuff and I discovered quickly that pretty much every question required a short essay as an answer (checkbox: “it depends”)

    I’m not keen on essay type things either. In the end, I suppose it’s just that I don’t like answering questions of a personal nature. Going by Fred Vargas’s books, that would make me a Norman, with a distinct dislike of answering direct questions.

  23. Dunc says

    Pierce R. Butler@#11:
    please don’t get real harsh if I’ve overlooked something blatant – but don’t most definitions of abstractions go into orbit around themselves?

    It seems to me that they do. And, it seems to me that almost everything is an abstraction to some degree or another. Which makes me go into a great tail-spin of doubting my ability to use language.

    Well, you can either go all the way down the rabbit hole of radical scepticism and linguistic nihilism until you starve to death wondering whether you really know what “food” is, or you accept that the reality you think you experience is actually just a bunch of mental representations of abstract concepts that your brain has taught itself to overlay on a fragmentary and confusing blizzard of sensory input in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to make sense of the world, and get on with living in it.

    Of course the definition of “authoritarianism” is circular. The definition of “dog” is circular if you think about it long enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful concept.

    You’re supposed to get over this shit by doing hallucinogens in your teens.

  24. Crimson Clupeidae says

    “Your score for right-wing authoritarianism was 10.23%. Higher scores indicate more right-wing authoritarianism. ”

    I knew I would score low, but I was surprised at just how low.

  25. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I think the aspect of the authoritarians (the book, the test, and the general concept) isn’t really the validity/accuracy of the test, which is obviously slanted towards western countries. I think the scariest thing to me is some of the questions that people would answer as strongly agree, when it’s something basically like ‘everyone should have to be like me’. That scares the bejeebus fuck outta me…..

  26. says

    Crimson Clupeidae@#25:
    it’s something basically like ‘everyone should have to be like me’

    Agreed. And that’s, basically, the hallmark of authoritarianism, as I understand the term.

    My grandfather, a dear man who grew up raising a family during the depression, changed profoundly as he got older. The short form is exactly what you describe: he didn’t like or trust anyone who wasn’t pretty much like him. It was really disturbing. About 10 years after that, the Alzheimer’s symptoms started to surface. I have no idea what the connection is or if there was one but I reflexively equate political authoritarianism with creeping brain rot. (it is also one of the reasons I try to avoid ableist insults about people being ‘brain damaged’ etc)

  27. John Morales says

    Authoritarianism in the sense of a psychosocial phenomenon can be thought of as a trait (the proclivity) or as a state of mind (the actuality) — at least two different senses which should not be confused.

Leave a Reply