Personality and prejudice

Please note: Amongst other things, this handout draws upon material cited in Chapter 24 by Duckitt (2005), entitled “Personality and Prejudice” in “On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport”. Edited by Dovidio et al. Backwell Publishing.

Before we start…

  1. Can you remember your definition of personality?
  2. How do psychologists measure personality?
  3. Can you think of any specific personality tests?
  4. What are the Big 5? (Think OCEAN)
  5. Which of the Big 5 trait(s) is positively correlated with prejudice?
  6. Which the Big 5 trait(s) is negatively correlated with prejudice?
  7. What can you recall about Authoritarian Personality and Adorno’s developmental theory of prejudice?

In 1954, Gordon Allport published a landmark book called “On the Nature of Prejudice.” Like Adorno he also felt that individual differences in personality were a fundamental determinant of prejudice and noted how oftentimes individuals expressed prejudiced attitudes towards a wide range of different outgroups and minorities, suggesting a more “generalised prejudice” rather than basing one’s prejudices on any specific knowledge of specific groups. He said:

“One of the facts of which we are most certain is that people who reject one outgroup will tend to reject other outgroups. If a person is anti-Jewish he is likely to be anti- Catholic, anti-Negro, anti any outgroup.” (1954/1979).

He argued that the generality of prejudice suggested that prejudice is basically a “trait of personality”. He argues that there are two diametrically opposed personality types that could be seen as “the generalised prejudice” type and the “generalised tolerance” type.

He agreed with Adorno et al (1950) saying that the generalised prejudice type relates to deep-seated belief system which serves some underlying psychological purpose. He says that these people have an “ego weakness” relating to feelings of insecurity, fearfulness, anxiety and a lack of ability to cope effectively with one’s own inner tensions , conflicts and anxieties, or with uncertainty, threat, change and ambiguity in the external world. He describes these people as exhibiting traits such as …

  • emotional ambivalence
  • moralism
  • rigid conventionality
  • black and white thinking
  • needs for definiteness, structure, order, intolerance of ambiguity
  • looking for reason for events outside of themselves (externalisation)
  • finding comfort in “institutions”
  • essentially exhibiting an authoritarian personality.

Allport describes the more “Tolerant types” as have a sense of inner security, freedom from threat, ego maturity, inner confidence,  and strength to cope adequately with threat believing that such tolerance was fostered in a more permissive home environment, characterised by security, unconditional acceptance from parents and leading to an empathic  and accepting orientation towards others.

He believed this sort of person would have a more liberal ideological outlook, be more tolerant of ambiguity, be psychologically more sophisticated and have the capacity to think in shades of grey rather than simple rigid categories.

People with Authoritarian personalities see the social world as a threatening place where dangerous people are found whereas tolerant types have a more trusting, optimistic and positive view of others.

Allport however did not think that Authoritarian Personalities would turn necessarily be prejudiced without exposure to racist, ethnocentric and fascist demagogy.

What is a demagogue?

A demagogue or rabble-rouser is a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of others in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness.

A demagogue’s rhetoric will intensify the Authoritarian Personality ‘s yearnings for stability, security, cohesion, nationalism, and traditionalism and fuel their fears, channelling them towards specific and particular targets.

Demagogues will be especially successful in social conditions characterised by insecurity, change, innovation, diversity, unconventionality, and instability. Because APs, find indefiniteness, unconventionality and loss of familiar anchorage so challenging, the demagogues messages are readily accepted particularly if they appeal to preservation of the past. Duckitt explains that dissatisfaction, frustration, and fearfulness is channelled into blame and hate, directed at minorities, immigrants, outgroups, liberals, intellectuals and radicals.

Demagogues essentially facilitate the Freudian defence mechanism of “projection”, whereby the Authoritarian Personality is saved from conscious awareness of inner anxieties regarding his/her own inadequacy as these are externalised and transferred to outgroups in society.  Duckitt also explains that demagogues are motivated by power, wealth and success and they are often cynical, manipulative and charismatic enough to use others to try and achieve these goals.

Research has shown that the Fscale is a good predictor of prejudice. A high score on the F-Scale (Authoritarian Personality) has been found to be highly correlated with:

  • anti-Semitism
  • generalised prejudice
  • chauvinism
  • nationalism
  • conservatism
  • right wing extremism

Why did Adorno’s work become less popular in the 1960s?

  • Freudian or the psychanalytic approach in psychology had been shown to lack empirical support and was becoming increasingly unpopular
  • The F-Scale was shown to be “a psychometrically weak measure”; the questions were worded in such a way as lean towards positive answers and when this was balanced out using careful statistical measures, the questionnaire was no longer internally reliable
  • The scale focused too much on beliefs and attitudes; other personality tests measured behaviours and so some people felt that it was not really a “personality test” at all.
  • Also the F-scale seemed to focus too much on right-wing authoritarianism and in the 1960s the greater threat to America democracy was left-wing authoritarianism (Communism); communists scored very low on the fscale but might still be considered authoritarian in their views

Further research

Rokeach’s Dogmatism (D) Scale: This a way of thinking (cognitive style) where people have a relatively closed set of beliefs about reality that provide a framework for patterns of intolerance towards others. People who score high on the D scale are highly susceptible to authoritarian ideologies of left of right and likely to reject those who held different views to them. Unfortunately interest in the D scale was short lived as although it measure both left and right wing authoritarianism it also had poor internal consistency, poor concurrent validity and was too highly correlated with f-scale to suggest that it was measuring any new at all!

Thinking styles and prejudice: Allport’s ideas about Authoritarian Personality differed from Adorno in that he also listed two cognitive styles associated with AP including a restricted/limited cognitive style, “black and white” thinking, the need for structure and cognitive closure or finding solutions and answers rather than generating further questions. He said they were intolerant of ambiguity, inflexible and craved structure. However his research suggested it was not necessarily this thinking style that was the predictor of prejudice. He was convinvced that it was their fearfulness and insecurity that was the major predictor or prejudice in those with APs.

Right Wing Authoritarianism (Altemeyer, 1981)

What is meant by this key term?

  • A reliable psychometric measure that powerfully predicts a wide range of political, social, ideological and intergroup phenomena including generalised prejudice towards outgroups and minorities and chauvinistic ethnocentrism
  • Altemeyer does not believe RWA comes from child rearing styles, it results from social learning theory;
  • he says people who score high on RWA are socialised to see the world as “dangerous and threatening place”
  • g. they have been exposed to role models who lead them to believe that the world is dangerous
  • Altemeyer’s work suggests that this AP is not a problem of personal maladjustment and inadequacy but a learned set of beliefs about others and society
  • Evaluation: This theory implies that exposure to role models who demonstrate that the world is not dangerous and threatening could be helpful in combatting and reducing prejudice in society

Social dominance orientation, Pratto et al (1994)

What is meant by this key term?

This personality dimension relates to whether people prefer to see social situations as equal or hierarchical, i.e. how is the power distributed between the individuals in any given social situation.

It also refers to the extent to which a person desires that members of their own group are seen as superior/dominant to other groups, i.e. that they are at the top of the power hierarchy.

Research into RWA and SDO

SDO seems to be a separate dimension to RWA although both predict prejudice more effectively than any other personality trait. Altemeyer says that RWA and SDO are different parts of Adorno’s original Authoritarian Personality. However, again other researchers have said that both RWA and SDO are not personality types they are ways of thinking. This has led researchers to attempt to find personality traits correlated with RWA and SDO. Saucier (1994) has detected that “social conformity” (from the Big 5) is correlated with RWA but not SDO for example.  Similarly Duckitt has identified a personality trait he calls “Tough-Mindedness” which correlates with SDO but not RWA.

It seems that RWA is trait that helps the individual to maintain social order, cohesion and security in a world they perceive as dangerous and threatening. They are therefore motivated to find and hold on to existing social order in a situation and be overly aware of potential threats to social order.

In contrast SDO is associated with tough-mindedness, a trait that serves to help the individual to cope in a world s/he perceives as “ a competitive jungle” where the strong win and the weak lose. These individuals seek to establish in-group power, dominance and superiority in social situation.

Therefore those high in SDO can be seen as “aggressive” or “on the attack” in order to take the power in a situation whereas those high in RWA may be seen as “defensive” or seeking to reveal existing power in a situation and fight to maintain the existing status quo, seeking incomers as potential threats.

RWA and SDO can be seen as consistent behavioural styles (traits) that reflect certain motivation goals based on enduring world views but they are also open to social situation too, so when the social world “shifts” these traits become more central and prominent.

Differing levels of RWA and SDO predict the amount of prejudice directed at different groups as prejudice is fuelled by different causes e.g. RWA and anti-gay prejudice is due to perceived threat, whilst SDO and anti-immigration prejudice is caused by economic competitiveness. RWA could be seen to predict prejudice towards rock-stars and drug dealers (social threat) although they are not social subordinates whilst people high on SDO would not have these prejudices. SDO on the other hand might predict prejudice towards social subordinates who are not a  threat e.g. housewives, the disabled etc. whereas people high on RWA would not be prejudiced towards these groups. Social groups who are both “threatening” to the status quo and currently socially subordinate e.g. feminists will attract prejudice from people high on either SDO or RWA.

Its seems that RWA and SDO are two empirically distinct individual difference syndromes consisting of interrelated personality dispositions, social belief systems or world views, motivational goals or values and social or ideological attitudes that interact with particularly environmental and outgroup characteristics to cause prejudice. Interestingly RWA (fear of a supposedly threatening world) and SDO (need to establish power in a highly competitive world) seem to match up with social psychological or group based theories of prejudice, for example social identity theory suggests that prejudice arises because the ingroup feels that their identity is threatened by the outgroup, whereas realistic conflict theory suggest that prejudice is intensified when groups come into competition.

Stretch and Challenge!

Do you find this area of study fascinating and want to take it further?!

If so create an APFC poster on Cohrs et al (2012) a great study showing the modern day relevance of this topic, which had its roots in the explaining Holocaust behaviour, yet resonates more than ever as we face the greatest refugee crisis since WW2. What is your take on the daily bombardment of anti-immigration messages in the right-wing press? How does this link with Islamophobia, the rise of UKIP and radicalisation?

You might find this link on RWA helpful as further reading. Likewise, this link on SDO! 😀

For a bang up to date and fascinating if frightening study, try this on the personalities and attitudes of the Alt-Right in America. Forscher and Kteily (2017)