The Authoritarian Personality
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The Authoritarian Personality

Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik

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The Authoritarian Personality

Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik

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What makes a fascist? Are there character traits that make someone more likely to vote for the far right? The Authoritarian Personality, written in the shadow of Fascism and the Holocaust, looked to analyse the rise of Fascism in Europe through the specific psychological traits that make people prone to authoritarianism. Based on extensive empirical studies of Americans conducted by a team which included the leading member of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality ranked a range of character traits on what it called the 'F scale' (F for fascist). These included conventionalism, anti-intellectualism, superstition and occultism, power and toughness, destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity, and exaggerated concerns over sex. The Authoritarian Personality is not only one of the most influential works of social psychology ever written, it also marks a milestone in the development of Adorno's thought, showing him grabbling with the problem of fascism and the reasons for Europe's turn to reaction. Over half a century later and with the rise of right-wing populism and the reemergence of the far-right in recent years, this hugely influential study remains as insightful and relevant as ever.

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The research to be reported in this volume was guided by the following major hypothesis: that the political, economic, and social convictions of an individual often form a broad and coherent pattern, as if bound together by a “mentality” or “spirit,” and that this pattern is an expression of deep-lying trends in his personality.
The major concern was with the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to antidemocratic propaganda. We say “potential” because we have not studied individuals who were avowedly fascistic or who belonged to known fascist organizations. At the time when most of our data were collected fascism had just been defeated in war and, hence, we could not expect to find subjects who would openly identify themselves with it; yet there was no difficulty in finding subjects whose outlook was such as to indicate that they would readily accept fascism if it should become a strong or respectable social movement.
In concentrating upon the potential fascist we do not wish to imply that other patterns of personality and ideology might not profitably be studied in the same way. It is our opinion, however, that no politico-social trend imposes a graver threat to our traditional values and institutions than does fascism, and that knowledge of the personality forces that favor its acceptance may ultimately prove useful in combating it. A question may be raised as to why, if we wish to explore new resources for combating fascism, we do not give as much attention to the “potential antifascist.” The answer is that we do study trends that stand in opposition to fascism, but we do not conceive that they constitute any single pattern. It is one of the major findings of the present study that individuals who show extreme susceptibility to fascist propaganda have a great deal in common. (They exhibit numerous characteristics that go together to form a “syndrome” although typical variations within this major pattern can be distinguished.) Individuals who are extreme in the opposite direction are much more diverse. The task of diagnosing potential fascism and studying its determinants required techniques especially designed for these purposes; it could not be asked of them that they serve as well for various other patterns. Nevertheless, it was possible to distinguish several types of personality structure that seemed particularly resistant to antidemocratic ideas, and these are given due attention in later chapters.
If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person? If such a person exists, how commonly does he exist in our society? And if such a person exists, what have been the determinants and what the course of his development?
These are questions upon which the present research was designed to throw some light. Though the notion that the potentially antidemocratic individual is a totality may be accepted as a plausible hypothesis, some analysis is called for at the start. In most approaches to the problem of political types two essential conceptions may be distinguished: the conception of ideology and the conception of underlying needs in the person. Though the two may be thought of as forming an organized whole within the individual, they may nonetheless be studied separately. The same ideological trends may in different individuals have different sources, and the same personal needs may express themselves in different ideological trends.
The term ideology is used in this book, in the way that is common in current literature, to stand for an organization of opinions, attitudes, and values—a way of thinking about man and society. We may speak of an individual’s total ideology or of his ideology with respect to different areas of social life: politics, economics, religion, minority groups, and so forth. Ideologies have an existence independent of any single individual; and those which exist at a particular time are results both of historical processes and of contemporary social events. These ideologies have for different individuals, different degrees of appeal, a matter that depends upon the individual’s needs and the degree to which these needs are being satisfied or frustrated.
There are, to be sure, individuals who take unto themselves ideas from more than one existing ideological system and weave them into patterns that are more or less uniquely their own. It can be assumed, however, that when the opinions, attitudes, and values of numerous individuals are examined, common patterns will be discovered. These patterns may not in all cases correspond to the familiar, current ideologies, but they will fulfill the definition of ideology given above and in each case be found to have a function within the over-all adjustment of the individual.
The present inquiry into the nature of the potentially fascistic individual began with anti-Semitism in the focus of attention. The authors, in common with most social scientists, hold the view that anti-Semitism is based more largely upon factors in the subject and in his total situation than upon actual characteristics of Jews, and that one place to look for determinants of anti-Semitic opinions and attitudes is within the persons who express them. Since this emphasis on personality required a focusing of attention on psychology rather than on sociology or history—though in the last analysis the three can be separated only artificially—there could be no attempt to account for the existence of anti-Semitic ideas in our society. The question was, rather, why is it that certain individuals accept these ideas while others do not? And since from the start the research was guided by the hypotheses stated above, it was supposed (1) that anti-Semitism probably is not a specific or isolated phenomenon but a part of a broader ideological framework, and (2) that an individual’s susceptibility to this ideology depends primarily upon his psychological needs.
The insights and hypotheses concerning the antidemocratic individual, which are present in our general cultural climate, must be supported by a great deal of painstaking observation, and in many instances by quantification, before they can be regarded as conclusive. How can one say with assurance that the numerous opinions, attitudes, and values expressed by an individual actually constitute a consistent pattern or organized totality? The most intensive investigation of that individual would seem to be necessary. How can one say that opinions, attitudes, and values found in groups of people go together to form patterns, some of which are more common than others? There is no adequate way to proceed other than by actually measuring, in populations, a wide variety of thought contents and determining by means of standard statistical methods which ones go together.
To many social psychologists the scientific study of ideology, as it has been defined, seems a hopeless task. To measure with suitable accuracy a single, specific, isolated attitude is a long and arduous proceeding for both subject and experimenter. (It is frequently argued that unless the attitude is specific and isolated, it cannot properly be measured at all.) How then can we hope to survey within a reasonable period of time the numerous attitudes and ideas that go to make up an ideology? Obviously, some kind of selection is necessary. The investigator must limit himself to what is most significant, and judgments of significance can only be made on the basis of theory.
The theories that have guided the present research will be presented in suitable contexts later. Though theoretical considerations had a role at every stage of the work, a beginning had to be made with the objective study of the most observable and relatively specific opinions, attitudes, and values.
Opinions, attitudes, and values, as we conceive of them, are expressed more or less openly in words. Psychologically they are “on the surface.” It must be recognized, however, that when it comes to such affect-laden questions as those concerning minority groups and current political issues, the degree of openness with which a person speaks will depend upon the situation in which he finds himself. There may be a discrepancy between what he says on a particular occasion and what he “really thinks.” Let us say that what he really thinks he can express in confidential discussion with his intimates. This much, which is still relatively superficial psychologically, may still be observed directly by the psychologist if he uses appropriate techniques—and this we have attempted to do.
It is to be recognized, however, that the individual may have “secret” thoughts which he will under no circumstances reveal to anyone else if he can help it; he may have thoughts which he cannot admit to himself, and he may have thoughts which he does not express because they are so vague and ill-formed that he cannot put them into words. To gain access to these deeper trends is particularly important, for precisely here may lie the individual’s potential for democratic or antidemocratic thought and action in crucial situations.
What people say and, to a lesser degree, what they really think depends very largely upon the climate of opinion in which they are living; but when that climate changes, some individuals adapt themselves much more quickly than others. If there should be a marked increase in antidemocratic propaganda, we should expect some people to accept and repeat it at once, others when it seemed that “everybody believed it,” and still others not at all. In other words, individuals differ in their susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda, in their readiness to exhibit antidemocratic tendencies. It seems necessary to study ideology at this “readiness level” in order to gauge the potential for fascism in this country. Observers have noted that the amount of outspoken anti-Semitism in pre-Hitler Germany was less than that in this country at the present time; one might hope that the potentiality is less in this country, but this can be known only through intensive investigation, through the detailed survey of what is on the surface and the thorough probing of what lies beneath it.
A question may be raised as to what is the degree of relationship between ideology and action. If an individual is making antidemocratic propaganda or engaging in overt attacks upon minority group members, it is usually assumed that his opinions, attitudes, and values are congruent with his action; but comfort is sometimes found in the thought that though another individual expresses antidemocratic ideas verbally, he does not, and perhaps will not, put them into overt action. Here, once again, there is a question of potentialities. Overt action, like open verbal expression, depends very largely upon the situation of the moment—something that is best described in socioeconomic and political terms—but individuals differ very widely with respect to their readiness to be provoked into action. The study of this potential is a part of the study of the individual’s over-all ideology; to know what kinds and what intensities of belief, attitude, and value are likely to lead to action, and to know what forces within the individual serve as inhibitions upon action are matters of the greatest practical importance.
There seems little reason to doubt that ideology-in-readiness (ideological receptivity) and ideology-in-words and in action are essentially the same stuff. The description of an individual’s total ideology must portray not only the organization on each level but organization among levels. What the individual consistently says in public, what he says when he feels safe from criticism, what he thinks but will not say at all, what he thinks but will not admit to himself, what he is disposed to think or to do when various kinds of appeal are made to him—all these phenomena may be conceived of as constituting a single structure. The structure ...

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Citation styles for The Authoritarian Personality
APA 6 Citation
Adorno, T., & Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (2019). The Authoritarian Personality ([edition unavailable]). Verso. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Adorno, Theodor, and Else Frenkel-Brunswik. (2019) 2019. The Authoritarian Personality. [Edition unavailable]. Verso.
Harvard Citation
Adorno, T. and Frenkel-Brunswik, E. (2019) The Authoritarian Personality. [edition unavailable]. Verso. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Adorno, Theodor, and Else Frenkel-Brunswik. The Authoritarian Personality. [edition unavailable]. Verso, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.