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Examining “The Authoritarians” for Political Bias

John on February 8, 2007 at 12:35 pm

Recently, a reader made us aware that a book by Dr. Bob Altemeyer, professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, which was recently made available on the internet. You may not have heard of Dr. Altemeyer, but his work on authoritarianism was the basis of John Dean’s bestseller Conservatives Without Conscience.

I and some of my readers were invited to take a quiz personality test that appears in chapter one of Dr. Altemeyer’s book. I took the quiz test and scored a 88, which according to the chapter is about average for American adults. Average in this case does not seem too good. Who wants to be considered “moderately authoritarian”? No one I know.

However, I noticed in looking at the questions (22 in all) that they seem to be particularly biased against certain viewpoints. For instance, question #4:

Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.

Obviously this question (which is really a statement) is testing for a specific viewpoint on homosexuality. I’m not sure how Americans, who’ve witnessed what AIDS has done to the gay community, could honestly answer that gays are just as healthy as anybody else. In fact, homosexuals have a significantly higher rate of suicide and (largely because of AIDS) a shorter life expectancy. [Note to readers: I'm not suggesting homosexuals deserve any of this or that I'm at all pleased about it.] So, “healthy” is not the word that comes to mind when I think of gays and lesbians. In any case, to be a non-authoritarian on Dr. Altemeyer’s test, one needs to agree strongly with that statement.

Here’s question #13:

You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting or women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.

I strongly support free speech, so I’m biased in favor of people who excercise that right. However, in this case I’m asked to respond to free speech in favor of three specific causes. As it happens I am strongly against “abortion rights”, moderate on “animal rights” and somewhat neutral on “school prayer” (I wouldn’t automatically eradicate it given that the vast majority of people do pray, nor would I wish to force it on anyone against their will). But again, asking if I admire pro-choice protesters? Sorry, I’ve talked to these people one on one, I find them some of the most media-programmed dolts you’re ever likely to encounter. So because I’m pro-life, I’m authoritarian.

There are other questions which seem to involve the same social issues. I noticed that 5 of the 20 questions (only 20 of the 22 are scored) seem designed to push anyone who holds conservative social views toward a high RWA score. Those are questions #4,6,8,13 and 20.So, for example, 39 of my total 88 points on the quiz derived from these five questions (out of 20). If I take the average score I recieved on the other 15 questions and extend it, my RWA score would have been around 65, which is to say not very authoritarian at all.

I raised a couple questions about this in the comments. For convenience sake I’ll restate them here. First, why is it that those who are against abortion, which as we’re frequently told is the settled law of the land, are authoritarians? Why aren’t those who argue for the pro-choice side based on the fact that “it’s the law” the true authoritarians in this case? Since when are protesters “authoritarian” in any usual sense of the word?

Similarly, why is it authoritarian to suggest that homosexuality is less healthy for the individual and less beneficial to society than marriage (as it produces no children and at least arguably may contribute to the decline of marriage as an institution)? And why is it not authoritarian to say that marriage should be redefined (for everyone) to include the union of any two consenting adults? It seems to me the resistance to gay marriage is only marginally greater than the support for it. Both sides argue that they are doing what is best for the whole of society. But only one view (the conservative one) is stigmatized in Dr. Altemeyer’s quiz as authoritarian.

As an experiment of my own, I’ve decided to rewrite the questions I found most biased against social conservatives and point them in the other direction. Hopefully, Dr. Altemeyer — who genuinely seems willing to engage critics of his work — will explain how the revised questions fail to measure authoritarian impulses. Here are the original questions, followed by my revision.

#4:

Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.

Revised: Those who of their own volition attempt to change their sexual orientation through therapy are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.

#6:

Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.

Revised: Those who subscribe to the theory known as “intelligent design” are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who choose not to do so.

#8:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.

Revised: There is absolutely nothing wrong with strip clubs that offer “pole dancing” and “lap dances” for men looking to relax.

#13:

You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting or women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.

Revised: You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting against Roe vs. Wade, for civil rights for black Americans, or in support of the war in Iraq.

#20:

There is no “ONE right way” to live life; everybody has to create their own way.

Revised: When it comes to how one lives, sprawling suburbs and large SUVs are just as valid as more moderate, ecologically sensitive approaches.

In each case, I’ve tried to maintain the subtext of the original question which assumes that those making individual decisions for their own lives should be left alone to do so. Furthermore, where possible the questions still place the interests of the minority against those who hold the “traditional” views. What has changed is the political assumptions behind the questions. Now it’s feminists, pro-choice advocates, homosexual rights advocates, pacificts and greens who are being asked to put aside their cherished views for the sake of individual freedoms.

I don’t know, but I stronly suspect that Dr. Altemeyer’s students would have a very different reaction to these questions than the ones he has been asking. Suddenly, concerns for the unbounded rights of individuals, rejection of authority and free association would seem threatening. I encourage him, as an experiment, to offer this revised test to a group of student and see if the numbers aren’t significantly different than those he usually receives.

To be fair, Dr. Altemeyer is clear up front that there is such a thing as “left wing authoritarianism” it’s just that he believes it has all melted away. This is my major issue with his book, thus far. He seems to have been desensitized to the myriad of ways in which those LWAs who were considered radicals in the ’60s are now de rigeur. This blindspot means that, at least in my view, he is only measuring RWA and ignoring the equally strong LWA that may exist across the divide. I strongly suspect that many of those with low RWA scores would score high on an appropriately tuned LWA quiz. The problem is Dr. Altemeyer isn’t offering that quiz to his students because he doesn’t believe there’s anything there to test.

There is another problem at work in his definitions. In chapter one Dr. Altemeyer describes two groups of students who play a game which involves running the earth for a simulated period of years. He notes that those who score lowest on his quiz immediately sought consensus and produced a good outcome for the earth. By contrast, those who score high on his quiz led the world to a nuclear holocaust. He has this to say about the first group:

Low RWAs do not typically see the world as “Us versus Them.” They are more interested in ooperation than most people are, and they are often genuinely concerned about the environment. Within their regional groups, and in the interactions of the Elites, these first-year students would have usually found themselves “on the same page”–and writ large on that page was, “Let’s Work Together and Clean Up This Mess.” The game’s facilitators said they had never seen as much international cooperation in previous runs of the simulation. With the exception of the richest region, North America, the lows saw themselves as interdependent and all riding on the same merry-go-round.

Another way to look at this is that the lows came into the game with certain assumptions about what the result should be. Since they all agreed, essentially, that a) there was a mess and b) “cleaning up the mess” was the desired result it’s not all that surprising that they managed to accomplish this. But where did they get these ideas? From some source of authority, no doubt. Perhaps it was Al Gore or the Audobon society. Whatever the case, it’s not as if they originated these ideas completely on their own.

At some point these low RWA individuals became convinced that the outcome for the group was more important than the success of any individual nation. It’s a perfectly acceptable view, maybe even a beneficial one. It’s certainly one conducive to success in the world simulation game. What the simulation fails to note, of course, is that achieving a “good outcome” requires the “elites” to behave in ways which strictly limit the freedoms of their citizens. Citizens of “Eurabia” (or whatever), are presumably not allowed to operate indepedently (by forming corporations for instance) in ways that violate the shared ecological dictates of the elites. So, getting back to the definitons, this form of strictly managed affairs is “non-authoritarian.”

By contrast, the high RWA studets clearly approached the game as a game. Dr. Altemeyer notes that the individual playing the role of middle-east elite immeditaely called for a doubling in the price of oil. Why? First, he probably wanted to stir something up because it might be fun, second he assumes that individuals (whether nations or people) tend to do what is in their own best interest. This lassez-faire approach is what Dr. Altemeyer labels “authoritarian.”

Do you see the irony here. The group who enters the room in agreement on the fundamental values that should guide all pursuits on earth is less authoritarian than the group that assumes individuals are free to behave in their own best interests. We can extend this to the real world and see how it might apply.

Presumably a nation like Sweden, which taxes 50-90% of an individual’s wages to pay for expansive social welfare programs, and which (I believe but will double-check) mandates even the relative wages between CEO and janitor, would fit the “less authoritarian model. Meanwhile, nations like the United States which have lower tax burdens and far greater economic freedoms for individuals and corporations would be considered “authoritarian.” The fact that the US is undoubtedly one of if not the most successful nation in the world at fostering small businesses seems to call into question which society is more free.

In sum, I think we’re doing a lot more than measuring authoritarian impulse here. It seems to me, we’re testing for one side of a bell shaped distribution and then redefining words to mean something approaching their opposite. In addition to the revised questions above, I would suggest Dr. Altemeyer run the world simulation game again at some point. This time, tell the the low RWA students that their goal is to offer maximum personal freedom for their citizens no matter what their personal feelings are about the outcomes. I suspect you’ll see a bit more disagreement between nations. And when the high RWA students arrive, tell them that their goal is to maximize the earth’s resources to raise the standard of living for the largest number of people AND that they will all share the total revenue generated based on their performance in accomplishing this goal (a corporate profit-sharing incentive). I suspect you will see a great deal more cooperation and an outstanding outcome for the earth.

Personally, I’m not suggesting that Dr. Altemeyer isn’t measuring something with his test. I’m sure he is. However, I’m not convinced it isn’t heavily front-loaded to produce a “bad score” for those who don’t share his political assumptions (which are more than evident in the book) and a “good score” for those who do. Rewording the questions to catch more strains of “left wing authoritarianism” would, I suspect, produce much different results (something like a bell curve distribution in which authoritarian impulses are more equally distributed among conservatives and liberals).

I think there’s more than a little truth to old song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Update: Two more questions for the revised personality test.

#15:

Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the “normal way things are supposed to be done.”

Revised: Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging the UN, criticizing the media and ignoring the consensus of academia.

#21:

Homosexuals and feminists should be praised for being brave enough to defy “traditional family values.

Revised: Christians should be praised for being brave enough to defy “social conventions” when they prostelytize.

Again, I’ve placed the freedom of the individual against the will of the group (or groups). All I’ve done is gore the other ox, so to speak. Will liberal students and parents be just as “un-authoritarian” when asked these questions? I don’t think so.

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