Right-wing authoritarianism is a well-studied personality construct characterized by adherence to conventional values, submission to authority, and aggression towards those who deviate from social norms. New research provides evidence that a similar construct could help to explain authoritarian attitudes and behaviors among those on the left side of the political spectrum.
The study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that left-wing authoritarianism not only exists, it is also a strong predictor of participation in political violence.
“Authoritarianism has really only been studied in one group of people: conservatives,” said study author Thomas H. Costello, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Emory University.
“The reasons for this are a little circular — namely, lots of scholars have theorized and argued that only conservatives can be authoritarian. But if this isn’t the case, and authoritarian individuals also exist on the left — as I think we show in the study — then the lack of research concerning left-wing authoritarianism becomes a big deal.”
“We’ve only been studying a subset of authoritarians, which can provide a limited or incorrect view of the phenomenon as a whole,” Costello explained. “I’d argue that we still don’t entirely know what authoritarianism really is, psychologically speaking. Imagine trying to study a certain disease using only samples of men. This would lead to lots of problems.”
“Now, with this new work, we can study both left- and right-wing authoritarianism and, hopefully, isolate the psychological core of authoritarianism by comparing and contrasting them in future research.”
In six studies, which included 7,258 individuals in total, the researchers validated their measure of left-wing authoritarianism, which they called the Left-Wing Authoritarianism Index. The results indicated that left-wing authoritarianism was comprised of three primary dimensions.
The first is anti-hierarchical aggression. People who score high on this dimension agree with statements such as “The rich should be stripped of their belongings and status” and “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary.”
The second is top-down censorship. People who score high on this dimension agree with statements such as “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views” and “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech.”
The third is anti-conventionalism. People who score high on this dimension agree with statements such as “All political conservatives are fools” and “The ‘old-fashioned ways’ and ‘old-fashioned values’ need to be abolished.”
Costello and his colleagues also found a large overlap in personality traits, cognitive styles, and beliefs among those who scored high on left-wing authoritarianism and those who scored high on right-wing authoritarianism. Both groups had heightened levels of psychopathic meanness and boldness, dogmatism, disinhibition, conscientiousness, need for closure, fatalistic determinism beliefs, belief in conspiracy theories, and belief in a dangerous world.
Moreover, both forms of authoritarianism were predictors of heightened scores on a laboratory-based measure of behavioral aggression against political opponents.
“People with authoritarian attitudes — whether they are on the far left or far right — have characteristically similar psychological profiles. Specifically, they seem to share a constellation of personality traits, cognitive features, and motivations that might be considered the ‘heart’ of authoritarianism,” Costello told PsyPost.
“There’s a lot more work to be done scientifically. We’re hoping that researchers are able to use the work we present in the article as a foundation for all sorts of new and interesting questions.”
The findings are in line with a previous study that attempted to measure left-wing authoritarianism. That study found that authoritarians on both sides of the political divide tended to score higher on measures of dogmatism and prejudice against political rivals.
But the new research points to several important differences between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians. For instance, left-wing authoritarians consistently scored higher than their right-wing counterparts on measures of neuroticism, belief in science, and willingness to ban opposing views.
Those who scored higher on the measure of left-wing authoritarianism were also more likely to have used force on behalf of a political cause within the last five years and to have participated in violent protests during the summer of 2020.
“Our study doesn’t mean that left-wing authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism are equally prevalent or equally dangerous (in the U.S. or elsewhere),” Costello said. “It doesn’t mean that there is a moral equivalence across the far-left and far-right. We simply show that (1) left-wing authoritarianism exists and (2) left-wing authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism seem to overlap quite a bit. Readers should not use our paper to score political points (though, sadly, they almost certainly will). ”
The study, “Clarifying the Structure and Nature of Left-wing Authoritarianism“, was authored by Thomas H. Costello, Shauna M. Bowes, Sean T. Stevens, Irwin D. Waldman, Arber Tasimi, and Scott O. Lilienfeld.