Authoritarian Personalities and Further Experiments

Authoritarian Personalities and Further Experiments


  • When we stereotype people we make an assumption about the kind of person someone is based on clichd or popular thinking. According to the popular image, for example, librarians are quiet, shy, enjoy reading and lead predictable lifestyles. This is a shortcut way of thinking and is very often inaccurate. Most stereotypes are negative, some are positive e.g. all people who wear glasses are intelligent.
  • Discrimination is when someone is treated differently, often negatively, as a result of their physical appearance or their social or cultural background. People of near retirement age, for example, find it more difficult to find a job because they are discriminated against in the employment market. This may be because they are seen to be less productive and less economically useful. Black people in the UK still find that they are not given the same opportunities in life as white people. This is because they are discriminated against socially and professionally.
  • Prejudice is an unreasonably negative attitude held towards usually a social, national, cultural or religious group. Such an attitude is usually automatic and has been formed without much thought having gone into it.

Authoritarian personalities

An authoritarian personality is someone who has faith in authority. They believe that authority is an important feature of a successful society. An authoritarian personality believes that some people are more important than others. They may also believe that some people are not at all important and can be treated badly. After the Second World War a questionnaire called the F-scale was developed by Theodor W. Adorno to test where people were on the authoritarian scale.

Adorno (1950) wanted to know if there was a clear link between an authoritarian personality and prejudicial attitudes. He did this by interviewing and testing hundreds of people using the F-scale. He discovered that individuals with an authoritarian personality were more likely to hold prejudiced views. Part of this prejudicial thinking involved

  • Showing obedience to authority
  • Being resistance to change
  • Disliking Jews
  • Looking down on those who were seen to have a lower status.

Limitations: The research was done in America and so was focused on one particular culture. The phrasing of these F-scale questions have been criticised for being leading i.e. pushing the respondent towards one answer over another. The research does not show what causes prejudice, only that those with authoritarian personalities tend to me more prejudiced. The study also fails to explain why authoritarian personalities are prejudiced against Jews more than other religious groups.


More experiments on discrimination and prejudice

Sherif (1961) wanted to know if one of the causes of prejudice is a conflict between groups for limited resources. He devised an experiment whereby a summer camp was set up for 22 boys. He split them into two teams and gave them time to bond. They were kept separate from each other and at first weren’t even aware that the other existed. When they became aware of each other competitions were introduced with a silver cup offered as an incentive. Soon the boys started being verbally confrontational and fights broke out between them.

  • Conclusion and limitations: Sheriff saw this as evidence that competition is the cause of prejudice. However the boys were all white, middle class and American. The results of this experiment may not have applied to other ages, cultures, social groups or nationalities. The set-up was artificial and may have lacked ecological validity. It did at least show, however, that prejudice can arise between groups who are competing for a common object.
  • Sheriff’s further experimentation: In order to understand what would help to reduce prejudice Sherrif gave the boys trips out together and other shared treats. He found that this did little to resolve the conflict. On the other hand when he gave them a shared task of pulling their truck out of mud in order to earn their dinner, he found that they cooperated to earn a common reward. Sherrif understood this to indicate that cooperation between groups on a critical task can help to reduce prejudice.

Aronson (2000) also set up a system he hoped would help to reduce prejudice, this time in a ‘real world’ situation. The trial took place in a school in Texas where there was some conflict between black and white students. He split the students into mixed race groups, each of which were responsible for teaching the other groups the subject that had been allocated. He found this process of cooperation increased how much they liked and valued each other.

  • Limitations: Although this experiment worked within the small groups, it didn’t seem to extend beyond the group and through the college as a whole.

Harwood (2003) conducted an experiment in which children were asked about their views on elderly people. He found that the children who had regular contact with their grandparents were positive about the elderly. He therefore concluded that grandparental contact was a good indication that a child would perceive the elderly in positive terms.

  • Limitations: This experiment doesn’t explain why some children who don’t have regular contact with their grandparents do have a positive perception of elderly people.

What are the practical applications of this research?

Aronson’s success indicates that prejudice in schools and workplaces can be tackled, although this solution may not have an effect beyond the group it is applied to. Sherif’s truck experimentation is difficult to apply in a real context, but this approach has been used in team building exercises. Harwood’s experiment shows one positive effect of regular contact between children and their grandparents.