Essentials: Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”

Maha recently wrote about conservatives and pseudo conservatives, here and here.

I would like to use this as a springboard to highlight Bob Altemeyer, an American psychologist working at the University of Manitoba, whose world renown work on authoritarian psychology illuminates much of what the far right mentality is about, how it works, and why it is so antithetical to democracy. John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience is an effort to make this same subject much more widely known, and is largely based on Altemeyer’s work. At Dean’s behest, Altemeyer distilled his life’s work into a very readable, free book (a series of pdfs) you can download from his website.

Authoritarianism is a personality style that often underlies conservativism in general, and pseudo conservativism in particular. However, it’s important to note that historically, there have been both left and right wing authoritarians. Altemeyer explains:

Authoritarian followers…support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

  • a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
  • high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
  • a high level of conventionalism.

Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwing authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said.

In North America, people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics.

And so in Altemeyer’s view, authoritarianism is a psychological trait that often underlies a particular political view. How does authoritarianism work?

Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I’m going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the

Authoritarian followers seem to have a “Daddy and mommy know best” attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not–just as parents can when one is young. But in a democracy no one is supposed to be above the law. Still, authoritarians quite
easily put that aside. They also believe that only criminals and terrorists would object to having their phones tapped, their mail opened, and their lives put under surveillance. They have bought their tickets and are standing in line waiting for 1984, The Real Thing. There might as well not be a Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. And when the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is used to deny people the right of habeas corpus–one of the oldest rights in western law–it is unlikely that right-wing authoritarians will object to the loss of this constitutional guarantee either.

There is much I could quote from Altemeyer, but a comment Maha made in an earlier post:

…a government run by current conservative dogmas is not sustainable. Perpetually cutting taxes, eliminating social welfare programs, allowing infrastructure to rot, encouraging income inequality, squandering public resources to enrich private enterprise, starting pointless wars all over the planet, restricting civil liberty in the name of “freedom” — this is just nuts.

…prompts me to focus on an amazing experiment Altemeyer conducted in 1994, described in his free book, which looked at what happens When Authoritarians Rule the World:

Global Change Game

The setting involved a rather sophisticated simulation of the earth’s future called the Global Change Game, which is played on a big map of the world by 50-70 participants who have been split into various regions such as North America, Africa, India and China. The players are divided up according to current populations, so a lot more students hunker down in India than in North America….

Then the facilitators…call for some member, any member of each region, to assume the role of team leader by simply standing up. Once the “Elites" in the world have risen to the task they are taken aside and given control of their region’s bank account. They can use this to buy factories, hospitals, armies, and so on from the game bank, and they can travel the world making deals with other Elites. They also discover they can discreetly put some of their region’s wealth into their own pockets, to vie for a prize to be given out at the end of the simulation to the World’s Richest Person. Then the game begins, and the world goes wherever the players take it for the next forty years which, because time flies in a simulation, takes about two and a half hours.

Altemeyer ran two distinct groups through this simulation. First, he came up with a simple twenty-two question test to score how much right wing authoritarianism ("RWA") an individual has in their personality. Next, he created two distinctly opposite groups of subjects: those who scored low in RWA, versus those who scored high in RWA. In turn, he let each group run the world:

The Low RWA Game

..67 low RWA students played the game together on October 18th . (They had no idea they had been funneled into this run of the experiment according to their RWA scale scores; indeed they had probably never heard of right-wing authoritarianism.) Seven men and three women made themselves Elites. As soon as the simulation began, the Pacific Rim Elite called for a summit on the “Island Paradise of Tasmania.” All the Elites attended and agreed to meet there again whenever big issues arose. A world-wide organization was thus immediately created by mutual consent.

Regions set to work on their individual problems. Swords were converted to ploughshares as the number of armies in the world dropped. No wars or threats of wars occurred during the simulation. [At one point the North American Elite suggested starting a war to his fellow region-aires (two women and one guy), but they told him to go fly a kite–or words to that effect.]

An hour into the game the facilitators announced a (scheduled) crisis in the earth’s ozone layer. All the Elites met in Tasmania and contributed enough money to buy new technology to replenish the ozone layer.

Other examples of international cooperation occurred, but the problems of the Third World mounted in Africa and India. Europe gave some aid but North America refused to help. Africa eventually lost 300 million people to starvation and disease, and India 100 million. Populations had grown and by the time forty years had passed the earth held 8.7 billion people, but the players were able to provide food, health facilities, and jobs for almost all of them. They did so by demilitarizing, by making a lot of trades that benefited both parties, by developing sustainable economic programs, and because the Elites diverted only small amounts of the treasury into their own pockets. (The North American Elite hoarded the most.)

One cannot blow off four hundred million deaths, but this was actually a highly successful run of the game, compared to most. …Low RWAs do not typically see the world as “Us versus Them.” They are more interested in cooperation than most people are, and they are often genuinely concerned about the environment. Within their regional groups, and in the interactions of the Elites, these first-year students would have usually found themselves “on the same page”–and writ large on that page was, “Let’s Work Together and Clean Up This Mess.” The game’s facilitators said they had never seen as much international cooperation in previous runs of the simulation. With the exception of the richest region, North America, the lows saw themselves as interdependent and all riding on the same merry-go-round.

The High RWA Game

The next night, 68 high RWAs showed up for their ride, just as ignorant of how they had been funneled into this run of the experiment as the low RWA students had been…. The game proceeded as usual. Elites (all males) nominated themselves, and the Elites were briefed. Then the“wedgies” started. As soon as the game began, the Elite from the Middle East announced the price of oil had just doubled. A little later the former Soviet Union (known as the CIS in 1994) bought a lot of armies and invaded North America. The latter had insufficient conventional forces to defend itself, and so retaliated with nuclear weapons. A nuclear holocaust ensued which killed everyone on earth–7.4 billion people–and almost all other forms of life which had the misfortune of co-habitating the same planet as a species with nukes.

When this happens in the Global Change Game, the facilitators turn out all the lights and explain what a nuclear war would produce. Then the players are given a second chance to determine the future, turning back the clock to two years before the hounds of war were loosed. The former Soviet Union however rebuilt its armies and invaded China this time, killing 400 million people. The Middle East Elite then called for a “United Nations” meeting to discuss handling future crises, but no agreements were reached. At this point the ozone-layer crisis occurred but–perhaps because of the recent failure of the United Nations meeting–no one called for a summit. Only Europe took steps to reduce its harmful gas emissions, so the crisis got worse. Poverty was spreading unchecked in the underdeveloped regions, which could not control their population growth. Instead of dealing with the social and economic problems “back home,” Elites began jockeying among themselves for power and protection, forming military alliances to confront other budding alliances. Threats raced around the room and the CIS warned it was ready to start another nuclear war. Partly because their Elites had used their meager resources to buy into alliances, Africa and Asia were on the point of collapse. An Elite called for a United Nations meeting to deal with the crises–take your pick–and nobody came.

By the time forty years had passed the world was divided into armed camps threatening each other with another nuclear destruction. One billion, seven hundred thousand people had died of starvation and disease. Throw in the 400 million who died in the Soviet-China war and casualties reached 2.1 billion. Throw in the 7.4 billion who died in the nuclear holocaust, and the high RWAs managed to kill 9.5 billion people in their world–although we, like some battlefield news releases, are counting some of the corpses twice.

The authoritarian world ended in disaster for many reasons. One was likely the character of their Elites, who put more than twice as much money in their own pockets as the low RWA Elites had. (The Middle East Elite ended up the World’s Richest Man; part of his wealth came from money he had conned from Third World Elites as payment for joining his alliance.) But more importantly, the high RWAs proved incredibly ethnocentric. There they were, in a big room full of people just like themselves, and they all turned their backs on each other and paid attention only to their own group. They too were all reading from the same page, but writ large on their page was, “Care About Your Own; We Are NOT All In This Together.”

The high RWAs also suffered because, while they say on surveys that they care about the environment, when push comes to shove they usually push and shove for the bucks. That is, they didn’t care much about the long-term environmental consequences of their economic acts. For example a facilitator told Latin America that converting much of the region’s forests to a single species of tree would make the ecosystem vulnerable. But the players decided to do it anyway because the tree’s lumber was very profitable just then. And the highs proved quite inflexible when it came to birth control. Advised that “just letting things go” would cause the populations in underdeveloped areas to explode, the authoritarians just let things go.

Now the Global Change Game is not the world stage, university students are not world leaders, and starting a nuclear holocaust in a gymnasium is not the same thing as launching real missiles from Siberia and North Dakota. So the students’ behavior on those two successive nights in 1994 provides little basis for drawing conclusions about the future of the planet. But some of what happened in this experiment rang true to me. I especially thought, “I’ve seen this show before” as I sat on the sidelines and watched the high RWAs create their very own October crisis.

Please read Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. Is there any question that people of this bent are completely unfit to be managing anything more complicated than their own sorry lives? How our world groans and suffers simply because so many of the people in power lack the empathy and basic orientation to connect with others who share with them this tiny blue green planet.

107 thoughts on “Essentials: Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”

  1. Moonbat (#99) (I’m getting the hang of this, but quotations and other markup elude me. I posed the question you suggested.

    That same person and I had exchanges (remarkably civil and for that he gets my respect) regarding those exact same 14 points. He thought that ’14 characteristics of fascism’ != ‘threat’. His replies are terse and are typically limited only to small bits of the total argument…like saying “I’m not convinced”.

    So thanks for calling me to the task. Asking is a lot better form of discussion than is accusing. It is a non-threatening way to rid the discussion of “because I said so”. There always has to be reasons and at the core, values. Once the argument comes down to values (which few rarely do) the only remaining resort is to be gentle…exhibit your values. Patience has been the only thing that has nurtured the discussion enough for it to continue.

  2. moonbat, this is a great post. I also found Altemeyer’s Global Change Game one of the more illuminating things I’d ever read. Altemeyer has provided some very important warnings about the state of our country. I wish we could have a “RWA” test for all of our Presidential candidates – we can’t afford another one.

  3. It’s pretty clear that the Low RWA strategy beats the High RWA strategy on its own. But what happens when you have both in the game? Are Low RWAs dependent on an absence of peope seeking to exploit the system? In a game that both are playing, does it make sense–on an individual basis–to be evil? Does the Global Change Game suffer from the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

    I really wish Altemeyer had done this experiment, because High-only and Low-only sorts of games don’t tell us much about how good these strategies are outside of a sandbox. I mean, of course the world works better if everyone cooperates and deals fairly. But does it only take one bad apple to screw everyone else?

    On another note, Mary (#102), it’s important to note–and Altemeyer makes a considerable deal of it–that right-wing authoritarianism is a tendency, and one’s propensity in that direction changes depending on a number of factors. People aren’t inherently RWAs; they acquire the trait in a number of ways, which Altemeyer explains.

  4. Pingback: Eat Our Brains » Blog Archive » Social Dominance + Power = Hell in a Handbasket

  5. Pingback: The Mahablog » Bob Altemeyer Interview

  6. Cherry Hill Publishing is honored to have produced the audiobook version of Dr. Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians, and I am hoping you can assist in getting the word out.

    The audiobook is read by Dr. Altemeyer himself, with the foreword provided by John W. Dean. The CD version of the audiobook is available now at the Cherry Hill Publishing on-line bookstore ( A downloadable version will be available at in the coming days.

    Those, like you, who are familiar with Dr. Altemeyer’s research understand how important this information is to the future of society. We believe that dissemination of this knowledge is the key to preventing a further slide into the totalitarian nightmare secretly longed for by the millions of authoritarians among us.

    Please drop me a line if you have any questions or comments about this project. Thanks much.

    Rick at Cherry Hill Publishing

Comments are closed.