Authoritarianism (Adorno et al (1950)

Handout: authoritarian-personality

Powerpoint:authoritarian-personality (3)

Adorno et al (1950) believed that prejudice was caused by a flaw in the personality, an ego-weakness, that meant the person was “maladjusted”. Like Milgram (1974), he too was Jewish, and his work was also triggered by a desire to understand what lead to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and his ideas fit with the “Germans as different” hypothesis.  However, unlike writers such as William Shirer, Adorno believed that this personality style developed from early childhood experiences, and therefore his theory can be described as developmental.

He says that highly prejudiced people have an “Authoritarian Personality”, and he developed a questionnaire including many items which would assess people on a variety of scales relating to Anti-Semitism, Ethnocentrism, Conservatism and receptivity to fascist ideals.

How did Adorno do his research?

  • Questions about upbringing, politics and prejudices
  • In-depth interviews of high and low scorers on the questionnaires, including Larry and Mack
  • He analyses the transcripts and uses them to design further questionnaire (the F-scale) to measure “Authoritarian Personality”
  • It is discovered that AP is able to predict levels of both obedience and prejudice to outgroups
  • Adorno has been criticized for his subjective interpretation of the transcripts

Independent research:

  1. Use the internet and your textbooks to find out more about the items included in the F-scale and the individual subscales
  2. You can find a version of the F-scale online here:  you should have a go at filling this in for yourself in order to understand what this personality type is all about – at the end of the questionnaire is a useful table which breaks the F scale into its constituent sub-scales; print this of as its very useful.
  3. Use the film strip: ap-film-strip to create a story board of images to demonstrate how Adorno believed that the Authoritarian Personality develops in early infancy due to a particularly harsh style of parenting, that may exist in some families more than others, and some cultures more than others.

“Authoritarian Personality Theory” as a possible cause of individual differences in levels of obedience in some individuals

  • This personality style can be measured using F scale, which has concurrent validity meaning it is positively correlated with other scales measuring that measure prejudice, indicating that the F-scale also measures prejudice. However, this does not make is a valid measure specifically of obedience.
  • This said, Milgram (1974) found that those scoring higher on the F-scale also gave higher shocks in his experimental paradigm, indicating that the F-scale can be used to predict levels of obedience, (1974)
  • However, authoritarian personality can only be a partial explanation of Milgram’s study, as 65% obeyed up to 450 V and the percentage of people who score highly on the F scale is far lower than this.
  • However, it may help to explain why some people found it easier to resist obedience and showed higher levels of defiance/dissent…
Explaining low levels of obedience using Adorno’s developmental theory:Some people administered only low levels of shock; they defied the authority figure.

1.      What sort of parenting do you think they might have been exposed to?

2.      What words can you think of to describe their experiences?

3.      How would these styles of parenting affect the developing child’s self-image and self-esteem?

4.      How might this sort of child interact with other people?

5.      Would this child take risks when exploring their world?

6.      Why is it easier for a child with high self-esteem to take risks?

7.      How would their parents respond if thy made a mistake or “failed”?

8.      Now think about children of highly punitive parents?

9.      Do they take risks? Do they explore their world and learn that it is NOT a dangerous and threatening place to be?

10.  How would you design a study to test the theory that parenting experiences impact obedience to authority in later life? What are the strengths and limitations of a study like this?

Evaluating Authoritarian Personality (Adorno, 1950) as a theory of obedience


1.      Who were the Pps in Adorno’s studies?

2.      What are the problems associated with this sort of sample?

3.      What sort of interviewing method did Adorno carry out in his work with people like Larry and Mack?

4.      What are the strengths and weaknesses associated with this sort of methodology?

5.      What type of data did he collect in these interviews?

6.      How psychologists do analyse this type of data?

7.      What are the strengths and weaknesses of using this approach to data analysis?

8.      Adorno also collected a lot of data using questionnaires, most of the questions used likert scales. Describe the nature of these questions and the data that they provide?

9.      What are the strengths and weaknesses of this type of data collection?

10.  Adorno’s work suggests that obedience levels in adulthood can be explained by looking at childhood experiences and parenting styles, but what issues are there with accepting this view?

We will study Authoritarian Personality again when we look at factors affecting prejudice. We will examine the work of  Gordon Allport who also had a theory very similar to Adorno’s, however he believed that Authoritarian Personality was not just a product of early developmental experiences but also of social factors including the role of “demagogues”. Adorno has been criticized for not looking at the role of social environmental factors, as it certainly seems that high levels of destructive obedience and prejudice are more common at times of socio-economic and political upheaval.