The Mother of the Loch Ness Monster of Political Ideas

Authoritarianism has been the subject of scientific inquiry for nearly a century. Academic studies can be traced back to 1930s Germany, when and where psychoanalysts and social scientists strove to understand the psychological processes underlying Hitler’s virulent appeal.

For some not-completely-clear-to-me reason1 the vast majority of authoritarianism research has focused on right-wing authoritarianism. Bob Altemeyer defined a right-wing authoritarian as someone who:

  • is naturally submissive to authority figures that they consider to be legitimate,
  • acts aggressively in the name of said authority figures, and/or
  • is very conventional (i.e. conformist) in thought and behavior.

You can test yourselft here: RWA TEST2

Bob went further and, after investigating data of 2,544 Canadian participants, concluded that he could not identify one single left-wing authoritarian, calling Left Wing Authoritarianism (LWA) the “Loch Ness monster of political psychology.”

A new study investigates the nature, structure, and nomological network of the Loch Ness Monster (meaning LWA) and concludes that3

Our results point to the fruitfulness of a tripartite conceptualization of LWA comprising three correlated dimensions—anti-hierarchical aggression, top-down censorship, and anti-conventionalism—that broadly and inexactly reflect authoritarian dominance (e.g.,SDO), authoritarian submission (e.g., RWA), and morally absolutist and intolerant desires for coercive forms of social organization, respectively.

By and large, LWA and RWA/SDO seem to reflect a shared constellation of traits that might be considered the “heart” of authoritarianism. These traits include preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.

Nevertheless, several notable differences between LWA and RWA/SDO also emerged. These differences can be broadly characterized as personological (i.e., variables reflecting a stable pattern of affect, cognition, and desires/ motives that manifest in behavior), ideological (i.e., beliefs, attitudes, worldviews), and both personological and ideological (e.g., partisan violence). On the personological front, the most pronounced differences between LWA and RWA were negative affect (larger for LWA), confirmatory thinking (larger for RWA), and the DOG Scale (larger for RWA) 22. Further, RWA was more strongly related to cognitive rigidity and low openness than was LWA prior to controlling for political ideology. This finding is consistent with the possibility that cognitive rigidity is functionally related to social conservatism in WEIRD samples.

Costello, T.H., Bowes, S.M., Stevens, S.T., Waldman, I.D., Tasimi, A., and Lilienfeld, S.O. (2021). Clarifying the structure and nature of left-wing authoritarianism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology No Pagination Specified-No Pagination Specified.
Fig 5. Op. Cit.

Let me put it my way. The true Loch Ness monster is oversimplification. The Left – Right Simplication is the mother of all authoritarianism in the world of political ideas!

____________________

(1) According to Wikipedia, as of Oct 16, 2021, the phrase right-wing in right-wing authoritarianism “does not necessarily refer to one’s specific political beliefs, but to one’s general preference vis-à-vis social equality and hierarchy. The classic definition of left-wing describes somebody who believes in social equality and right-wing describes somebody who believes in social hierarchy.”

(2) In case your score is too high, I strongly recommend that you subscribe to this blog.

(3) Please do notice that RWA = Right Wing Authoritarianism, SDO = Social Dominance Orientation, and DOG Scale = Bob Altemeyer’s Dogmatism (DOG) scale. (Bob loves scales and defined at least 7 in his book)

Featured Image: Famous Loch Ness Monster “surgeon’s photograph” of 1934, known to have been a hoax.

2 comments

  1. “Your score on the RWA scale is 36.” Not quite clear on what that means, though I think it says I’m not an authoritarian, and if that’s so, I’m glad of the confirmation.

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