What Does It Mean To Have An Authoritarian Personality?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The word “authoritarian” has sometimes been used to describe politics or parenting styles. Authoritarian parenting describes a parent who holds rigid ideals and structures and demands that children in the home follow those structures and embody those ideals. Authoritarian personalities are similar. People embodying authoritarian personalities often have high standards for themselves and others and expect those standards to be met at every opportunity. To understand what it means to have this personality type, looking at examples of the traits can be helpful. 

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Authoritarian traits can affect people in different ways

Authoritarianism: Roots and current expressions

The theories surrounding authoritarianism have roots in the 1950s when mental health professionals and researchers sought to understand more about what leads people to commit atrocities and what markers indicate the presence of personality traits that can be measured and identified as possible links to violence, abuse of power, war, and lawlessness.

At its outset, research into authoritarianism was measured according to the “F scale,” also called the fascist scale. It comprised nine specific traits that could measure the likelihood of an individual leaning toward fascism or totalitarian behavior. Although the work was, in its time, considered a unique work, much of its methodology has been criticized, and its conclusions have not been found to have a scientific base. The way traits were evaluated and measured was one cause of this conclusion. The “F scale” is conducted via question-and-answer format. It does not cross-reference other known indicators of psychopathic or potentially harmful traits, making it easy to “fool” the test.

Currently, the original work delving into authoritarianism, titled “The Authoritarian Personality,” which was released in 1950, is regarded as an essential peek into the fusion of psychology and political ideology. However, it may not be entirely reliable either. Current research into authoritarian personality types and what they might yield focuses on the personality traits that have consistently been tied to law-breaking behavior, such as rigidity and lack of empathy.

Commonalities among authoritarian personalities

Although the original theories surrounding authoritarian personalities are not considered the final say on the subject, there may be interest in investigating these personality traits and how they can influence behavior. Current evaluations of authoritarian personalities often focus on several components, including the following. 

Strict adherence to conventional values

Conventional values are often aligned with specific political ideologies and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, conventional values vary from place to place. For this reason, the rigidity of adherence to those values makes an individual an authoritarian personality rather than the values themselves. From culture to culture, conventional values differ, which means that from culture to culture, authoritarian personalities differ. 

Deference toward those considered authority figures

Deference toward authority figures is another trait found in authoritarian personalities. Deference often means accepting the mandates or decrees of people in authority without question. This trait can be problematic if the authority figure suggests illegal, unhealthy, or inappropriate practices or ideals. This trait may be common in some people living in dictatorships. 

Insistence on obedience from people of “lower” status

Authoritarian personalities often create hierarchies wherein they and those like them are at the top, and anyone who disagrees with their way of life or ideas is at the bottom. People with these personality types may believe they “deserve” obedience from people they consider beneath them.

Hostility toward people from different belief systems or backgrounds

In addition to demanding obedience, authoritarian personalities may demonstrate hostility toward people from other backgrounds or belief systems. Hostility can come in the form of physical violence, including bullying and mocking.

These traits are linked to authoritarian personalities and may point to the likelihood of an individual engaging in unhealthy behaviors with others, including bullying and demeaning. Authoritarian personality traits do not always precede these behaviors, but some practitioners have found identifying these traits helpful in predicting or explaining behavior.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Criticisms of the authoritarian theory 

It may seem that psychology professionals unanimously support authoritarian personalities and that this personality can unequivocally point to people who might become problematic with the law. However, this may not be the case, as there is some debate about the validity of the authoritarian personality as it was initially developed. Far from personality traits, these are responses to different occurrences throughout an individual’s life.

Criticisms of the theory have also focused on the political leanings of the original work and its series of questions. Authoritarian traits can be found in people from all political backgrounds and leanings. Still, the book primarily focuses on the traits that might be found in someone of a specific political persuasion. By only highlighting that political party and its traits, the original does not acknowledge the possibility of problematic or potentially hazardous traits in other political ideologies—a suggestion unsupported by up-to-date psychological research.

Criticisms of the original body of work have also pointed to the ease of “fooling” the test or answering in a way that sways your results. Because the personality measurements ask questions directly and without examples, responders may easily deduce what each question aims to uncover. By asking questions plainly and without examples, you may not receive an unbiased and honest result. Accurate tests more often utilize examples in their questioning process to obscure the purpose of the question and procure a more honest answer from the individual answering the questions.

The future of authoritarian personality research

Presently, authoritarian personality research deviates from the heavily political framing of the original research. Instead, it focuses on identifying traits and patterns that can be seen in people from all walks of life from the time people are young. These traits have been linked to a greater likelihood of mental illnesses like antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which may predict the likelihood of certain behaviors more accurately than outdated tools like the F scale.

Modern personality evaluation and typing are used less to classify individuals to isolate “problematic” people and instead as a means of learning more about how people function and their primary motivations. Authoritarian typing was unique in its time but is now used more to identify similar traits within a more significant subset of people who do not offer empathy or tolerance for opinions that deviate from their own. Typing someone as “authoritarian” may not yield definitive ties to certain political parties or social values. Instead, it offers insight into how individuals might respond to the world around them.

Authoritarianism is also part of a core of potential traits ascribed to parents. This core comprises four parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved (or neglectful). Like the current iteration of authoritarian personality typing systems, this system is utilized to understand and guide parenting practices and habits. Authoritarian parents focus on obedience, strict adherence to a specific set of values, and a clear hierarchy within the home.

Researching authoritarianism in these ways has allowed researchers and mental health professionals to move past the narrow scope of initial authoritarian personality research and develop a more extensive understanding of the different habits and traits that define this personality type.

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Authoritarian traits can affect people in different ways

Support options 

While the origins of authoritarian personality testing may be contradictory, some people may be uncomfortable when they find themselves or someone close to them exhibiting traits identified as authoritarian. Rigidity is one of the most significant factors considered to be a part of authoritarian personalities, and people who hold rigid beliefs leading to stereotyping and prejudice may benefit from mental health intervention to learn empathy and broaden the scope of their understanding of themselves and others.

If you want to enlist therapy for yourself or a loved one exhibiting authoritarian traits, you might be more comfortable with an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. With the same licensing and practice requirements as standard in-office therapy, online therapists provide mental health services from the comfort of your home (or another remote location). In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your provider. 

Online cognitive-behavioral therapy may be effective at helping individuals recognize thoughts, process them, and find new ways of expressing them.  A therapist may be able to help you develop your sense of empathy, evaluate your subscription to the belief that you (or someone close to you) are superior to others, and explore other interpersonal habits. Studies also back up the effectiveness of online CBT, showcasing it can be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression for a wide range of clients, with results similar to in-person studies. 

Takeaway

Authoritarian personality types may struggle to be open-minded to new beliefs or ideas and often feel safest prescribing to one following or way of life. They may struggle with accepting the differences in others or showing empathy. If you think you might have this personality type, there are a few ways you can find support. Consider reaching out to an online or in-person therapist to get started.

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