What Does it Mean to Have an Authoritarian Personality?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 13, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

The word “authoritarian” has enjoyed some time in the spotlight recently, primarily for its links to different styles of parenting. Authoritarian parenting is a style of parenting that has been likened to a drill sergeant, or someone who holds rigid ideals and structures, and demands that children in the home follow those structures and embody those ideals. Authoritarian personalities are similar, in that people embodying authoritarian personalities usually have extremely high standards for themselves and others, and expect those standards to be met at every opportunity.

What exactly does it mean to be an authoritarian personality?

Authoritarianism: Roots and Current Expressions

The theories surrounding authoritarianism actually have roots in the 1950s, as 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, and other issues relating to war and lawlessness.

At its outset, research into authoritarianism was measured according to the “F scale,” or Fascist scale, and was made up of 9 specific traits that could then measure the likelihood of an individual leaning toward fascism or totalitarian behavior. Although the work was, in its time, considered a unique and important work, much of its methodology has been criticized, and its conclusions have not been found to be correct. A significant reason for this is the manner in which traits were evaluated and measured; the “F scale” is conducted via simple question-and-answer format, and does not cross reference any 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” and released in 1950) is regarded as an important peek into the fusion of psychology and political ideology, if not an entirely reliable one. Instead, current research into authoritarian personality types and what that 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 is still plenty of interest in investigating these personality traits and how they might influence behavior. Current evaluations of authoritarian personalities typically focus on several important components, including:

  • Strong adherence to conventional values. Conventional values are often aligned with specific political ideologies and socioeconomic backgrounds, but conventional values vary from place to place, and it is the rigidity of adherence to those values that 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 important trait found in authoritarian personalities. Deference often means accepting the mandates or decrees of people in authority without question. This can be particularly problematic if the authority figure in question is suggesting illegal, unhealthy, or in any way inappropriate practices or ideals.
  • Insistence on obedience from people of “lower” status. Authoritarian personalities typically create hierarchies wherein they and those like them are at the top and anyone who does not agree with their way of life or ideas are on the bottom. People with these personality types may feel as though they are others “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 outright hostility toward people from other backgrounds or belief systems. Hostility can come in the form of physical violence, but can also come in the form of 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 necessarily always precede these types of behaviors, but some practitioners have found identifying these traits a useful practice in predicting or explaining behavior.

Criticisms of the Theory

It may seem that authoritarian personalities are unanimously supported by psychology professionals, and that this particular personality can unequivocally point to people who might become problematic to the law. This is not the case, however, as there is some debate as to the validity of the authoritarian personality as it was originally developed. While it is certainly true that there are some traits shared among people who might demonstrate dangerous ideas or incite others to violence, these are not indicators of a personality type, but are instead typically ascribed to certain traumas and exposures in childhood and beyond. 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 but 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 work fails to acknowledge the possibility of problematic or potentially hazardous traits in other political ideologies—a suggestion that is not supported by up-to-date psychological research.

Criticism of the original body of work have also pointed to the ease of “fooling” the test, or answering in a way that easily sways your results. Because the personality measurements ask questions directly and without examples, it is easy to deduce what each question is aiming to uncover. By asking questions like this plainly and without examples, it is less likely that you will get a result that is largely unbiased and honest about what is actually occurring. True tests more often utilize examples in their questioning process in order 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, and instead 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 definitively been linked to greater likelihoods of disorders such as Antisocial Personality Disorder, which may more accurately predict the likelihood of certain behaviors more effectively and consistently than outdated tools like the F scale.

Personality evaluation and typing nowadays is used less as a means of classifying individuals in order to isolate “problematic” people and instead as a means of learning more about how people function and what their primary motivations are. Authoritarian typing was unique in its time, but is now used more as a means of identifying similar traits within a larger subset of people who do not offer empathy or tolerance for people and opinions that deviate from their own. Typing someone as “authoritarian” will not yield definitive ties to certain political parties or even social values, but instead offers insight into how an individual might respond to and react with the world around them.

Authoritarianism is also used more now as part of a core of potential traits ascribed to parents. This core is made up of 4 different types of parents: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved (or neglectful). Like the current iteration of authoritarian personality typing systems, this system is utilized to both understand and guide parenting practices and habits. As has been described above, 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 outdated and narrow scope of initial authoritarian personality research and develop a greater understanding of the different habits and traits that lend themselves to this personality type.

Seeking Help

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

If you are interested in enlisting therapy for either yourself or a loved one exhibiting authoritarian traits, consider BetterHelp. With the same licensing and practice requirements as standard in-office therapy, BetterHelp provides mental health services from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or other remote location). 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) is superior to others, and explore other thought patterns and interpersonal habits to effectively replace the authoritarian patterns and habits currently being indulged in to create a more equitable series of thoughts and patterns.

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