Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Thoughts on "The Authoritarians"

It's not often that a book makes me feel naive. I've felt enlightened, when reading good philosophy; enriched, when reading good biology; depressed, when reading about the dirty tricks of advertising psychology; stupid, when reading beyond my ken. But Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians is the first book I can recall that made me feel naive.

Mainly, I suppose, this is because I was already halfway there, but at the same time only halfway there. See, back when I wrote Boss of Bosses, I was joking. Now, it's a well-known fact that nothing is just a joke, but even my inner cynic was saying, "Yeah, sure, it plays out as if this were the case a whole lot - but I deliberately invented a just-so story, nobody actually believes this shit if you'd straight-up ask 'em."

See, that's where I went wrong.

Allow me to introduce you to the RWA scale. I'll be using that acronym a lot, so you'd do well to have your inner Morgan Freeman pronounce that as, "arwah." You can read the whole thing on page 11 of the book (17 in the .pdf), but here are a a few of the items:
  • Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.
  • It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds.
  • There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.
  • Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.
  • This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s traditional place in society.
OK, so agreement with those sorts of statements correlates very highly with disagreement on these other sorts of statements from the same test:
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.
  • Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.
  • A “woman’s place” should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.
There are twenty questions and on a nine-point response scale, this means scores can range from 20 to 180. Now, this is disguised as a public opinion survey and given to people who are not told that they're being psychologically profiled based on their responses, which means I was already a leg up and it's not really that impressive when I score a 26.

As an aside, what did surprise me was that although I scored absurdly low on the RWA scale (intro psych students in Altemeyer's classes average 75, their parents and also members of the USA's Libertarian Party averaged 90), and also on most of the other tests which are for things like how dogmatic or socially dominant you are, I paradoxically scored absurdly high on his test for zealotry (p. 124 book, 130 .pdf): "normal people" score in the 10-20 range on that scale, religious fundamentalists score around 40, and I scored a whopping fifty-four (it only goes to 72). Huh. I'm an un-authoritarian zealot*.

Anyway, what's important about the RWA scale is that high scores on it correlate very strongly to three types of behaviors: submission to authority, aggression on behalf of authority, and belief that everyone else ought to abide by one's own conventions. What's depressing to me is how much these things seem to "go together," and what infuriates me is how difficult it is to change this in people. There are ways to do that, of course: going to college, for example. Altemeyer writes,
"The drop [in authoritarianism] does not come from reading Marx in Political Science or from the philosophy prof who wears his atheism as a badge. These attempts at influence can be easily dismissed by the well-inoculated high RWA student. It probably comes more from the late night bull-sessions, where you have to defend your ideas, not just silently reject the prof’s, and other activities that take place in the dorms, I’ll bet."
Hanging out with other people, in other words. And it turns out that people tend to turn out a little less authoritarian than their parents, regardless. And what does every parent tend to want for every child? To go to a good college! So the good news is that, as we can see with this whole "civilization" thing that's been going on around us, authoritarianism tends to go down over time. I mean, we have to interact with different people, so as long as we stop any one monolithic culture from literally taking over the world, we ought to be in pretty good shape (in the long run, that is - if there is a long run).

One of the more interesting things Altemeyer talks about is the Global Change Game. Basically, it's Axis & Allies for grown-ups, but with money and birth control and climate change and such: you take five-dozen people and divvy them up among nations, have self-appointed leaders (called "Elites") select themselves in each region, then tell the Elites they're allowed to embezzle and whoever embezzles the most wins, and let them all go! When Altemeyer had groups play with like-scoring persons on the RWA scale, fun things happened: the low-RWA game had a record-low death toll, a huge amount of cooperation, and improvements in all areas of life for all regions; the high-RWA game ended prematurely in nuclear war, had the clock turned back two years to try again, and continued down a path of bickering and one-upmanship.

But then Altemeyer ran two different high-RWA games, one completely devoid of social dominators (people who tend to be low-RWAs but tend also to be cynical opportunists - the test is on page 164, 170 in the .pdf), and one with social dominators sprinkled about. Now, you see, about 5-10% of people score highly on both the RWA scale and the Social Dominance scales, and so some of these "Double Highs" would have made it into the first high-RWA game. As Altemeyer puts it, Double Highs "win the gold medal in the Prejudice Olympics," and their authoritarianism seemed to make up for the amorality of the low-RWA dominators, so the dominant game went about as awfully as you'd expect it would (oddly, much less embezzling - the more money in your pocket, the less you can use to get your team ahead of the next guy's, apparently).

But take away the dominators, and what do you get? A whole lot of boring nothing. No fighting. No teamwork. When stripped of their leaders, the high-RWA folks proved a rather uncreative and insular lot. The crises that reared their heads more or less ran rampant, nobody thought outside the box to solve their problems, everyone just tried to work on improving things for their own in-game in-group and they pretty much stagnated their way into mediocrity.

There's a whole lot more that I didn't cover (politics is what you'd expect, religion is what you'd expect, but the numbers show some alarming things), which is why you should go read it. Did I mention it's free? Go read it! Also, Altemeyer bares good portions of his methodology in the footnotes, and I found his numbers very convincing - his results lead to the conclusions he concludes, so long as he didn't falsify his data. He also holds himself to higher standards than other researchers, again, so long as he's not outright lying about what the generally accepted standards are. All in all, I found it a very accessible and rather gripping read, which is not something I ever thought I'd say about a psychology book.

* - Altemeyer opens the zealotry test by asking respondents, "Now I want to know, in my constantly nosey way, what you believe in. Do you have a most important outlook or way of understanding things? Maybe it’s a religion, a philosophy, a social perspective like socialism or capitalism. What do you use, more than anything else, to make sense out of things, to understand 'life'?" I thought about it and answered, "critical thinking." I read the first question, "This outlook colors and shapes almost everything I experience in life," and had the immediate knee-jerk reaction, "This is stupid. I'm not a zealot." But then I caught myself reacting to the threat of cognitive dissonance, and forced myself through the test, thinking carefully about what I really think, and yeah. I'm a critical thinking zealot - but I also know that acting like one won't get me my way most of the time (because being right and being successful don't always go together - thanks, critical thinking!), so I deliberately hold those types of urges in check.

So maybe it makes sense that when Silver Garou told me that everything written is true with a straight face at that one party, I nearly vomited. (True story.)


KarateMonkey said...

One of my favorit blogs, Orcinus, deals alot with the extreme rightwing fringe. So they actually end up touching on Altmeyer's work quite a bit. One of their more interesting series was on how people can be brought out of the RWA mindset. It begins here. The second and third parts are linked from the sidbar on the left.

D said...

Ooh, thanks for the link! That looks like some interesting reading, I can't wait to check it out!