Left-Wing Authoritarianism Is Real And Needs To Be Taken Seriously In Political Psychology, Study Argues

By Emma Young

Authoritarianism has been well-studied by psychologists. Well, right-wing authoritarianism has. In fact, as that’s typically the only type that’s studied, you might be forgiven for thinking that’s what authoritarianism is. The very idea of left-wing authoritarianism (LWA) has received not only little academic attention, but a lot of scepticism from psychologists. “I think I have not found any authoritarians on the left because if there ever were any, most of them have dried up and blown away….” wrote Bob Altemeyer, pioneer of work on right-wing authoritarianism, in 1996.

But as Thomas Costello at Emory University and colleagues write in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, “From Maoist China to the Khmer Rouge (and perhaps even the French Reign of Terror), history abounds with examples of LWA at the broader societal level, rendering psychology’s inability to identify left-wing authoritarians puzzling.”

Puzzling is right. Perhaps predominantly left-leaning researchers have been unwilling to even go there…. But in their new paper, Costello and his colleagues absolutely go there. They conclude that LWA does indeed exist, and they define not only its characteristics but the characteristics of the people who subscribe to it. They also reveal substantial similarities between authoritarians on the political right and the left.

First, the team used a bottom-up approach to devise a scale to get at LWA. As well as scouring research papers for items that might relate to authoritarianism, they solicited ideas for items from psychologists, political scientists and philosophers. Using multiple batches of online participants, the team gradually whittled down and revised these items. They ended up with 39 items that reflected three conceptually distinct dimensions of LWA. I’ll take the definitions directly from the paper: 

  • Antihierarchical Aggressionthe belief that those currently in power should be punished, the established order should be overthrown, and that extreme actions, such as political violence, are justifiable to achieve these aims.
  • Anticonventionalismthe rejection of traditional values, a moral absolutism concerning progressive values and concomitant dismissal of conservatives as inherently immoral, and a need for political homogeneity in one’s social environment.
  • Top-Down Censorshippreferences for the use of governmental and institutional authority to quash opposition and bar offensive and intolerant speech.

Looking over that list, I certainly know some people who I’m sure think of themselves as being extremely liberal but who would score pretty highly on the anti-conventionalism dimension, at least.

The researchers then ran studies using fresh batches of participants and an impressive array of self-report scales to look at everything from personality, to mood, to cognition. They found a few differences between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians. People who scored highly on the LWA scale reported more negative emotions and were more neurotic than average (unlike RWAs). They were also more likely to report schadenfreude. The RWAs, meanwhile, scored higher for unjustified certainty in their beliefs and confirmatory thinking (a tendency to favour information that supports your beliefs). RWA was also more strongly linked to cognitive rigidity and low openness, as well as a lower than typical belief in science.

However, there were a lot more similarities between the two groups than differences. So much so, that it seems there is a shared constellation of traits “that might be considered the ‘heart’ of authoritarianism”, the team writes. These shared traits include (and again, I’ll quote directly from the paper): a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behaviour, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy and moral absolutism.”

In terms of potentially dangerous implications for others, both left- and ring-wing authoritarianism was linked to the endorsement of political violence; but for the LWAs, that was violence directed at the state (violent protests, for example), whereas for the RWAs, it was in support of the state (supporting police crackdowns, say).

As well as analysing this self-report data, the team ran a study designed to look at LWA and actual behaviour. Online participants selected the difficulty level of a set of puzzles that they believed they were giving to another participant to complete. Before they chose the puzzles, though, they were shown what they were told was the Facebook profile of this ‘partner’. Those who’d scored highly for LWA ‘punished’ partners with right-wing profiles with harder puzzles and ‘helped’ those with left-wing profiles with easier puzzles. This was the case even when participants’ political ideology was taken into account, showing that LWA can be linked to actual aggressive behaviour towards the political outgroup above and beyond any effects of political ideology, the team concluded.

None of these studies were on groups of participants who were representative of a general population, however. So the researchers ran a fresh study on 834 who were selected to be representative of the population of the US. Again, they found large correlations between LWA scores and dogmatism, as well as schadenfreude, moral disengagement and violence towards out-groups. This included actual participation in the use of force for a political cause over the preceding five years. It also included support of violent group action during protests against police brutality towards Black Americans over the summer of 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. 

All in all, then, the team present a lot of studies — and a lot of analyses. There are some limitations to the work, however. Because of the nature of the scales, it’s not possible to tell whether right-wing authoritarians are more authoritarian than the left-wing type, or vice versa, say. Also, the route to LWA may be more well-meaning than the route to RWA, the researchers write; for example, someone who wants passionately to challenge inequality in society may end up thinking violent protest is the only option. “Any similarities across LWA and RWA notwithstanding, we endorse no claims of motivational or moral equivalence (or lack thereof) across the two constructs at present,” they write.

Their body of results surely suggests, though, that arguments that the search for LWA should be abandoned should themselves be abandoned. In fact, excluding left-wing features from studies of authoritarianism “has limited the kinds of knowledge we can produce as psychological scientists,” the team argues. And given the relevance of authoritarianism to politics, globally, and to how societies respond to and fight for change, surely it’s high time for that to shift.

Clarifying the structure and nature of left-wing authoritarianism.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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