Authoritarian Personality Theory of Prejudice Explained


An authoritarian personality is either an attitude or a mind-state that can be characterized through a belief of submission or total obedience to a specific authority figure. This authority could then be distributed through that figure’s subordinates as well. This personality is often thought of as being strict, oppressive, and authoritative toward those who are viewed as being a subordinate.

Theodor Adorno published a work in 1950 that looked at this psychological state. He viewed this personality as having a very strict superego, which had to be in place because the individual had a weak ego that was unable to cope with strong impulses or temptations brought about by the id. The conflict between the strict superego and the weak ego would create insecurities, which then created the prejudice seen in people with an authoritarian personality type.

What Is Prejudice Within an Authoritarian Personality?

Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is formed without a basis in reasoning or specific experiences. It could be called a preconception, a prejudgment, or an idea that is believed to be fact without facts backing it up. Within the authoritarian personality, this prejudice creates a separation of boundaries. On one side, the “correct” side, is the individual with the authoritarian personality.

On the other side, the “wrong” side, are the individuals or groups that have been prejudged.

Although this type of personality can be seen in the workplace, especially when there is a hierarchal chain of command, it is most commonly seen in family structures.

Some parents feel that they have a need for domination. They threaten their children harshly with consequences or punishments in their efforts to prove that they are in the role of dominator. Additional rules regarding social behaviors are enforced with the same rigidity, which then fosters characteristics of the authoritarian personality within the child as well, so the cycle repeats itself.

The harsh treatment creates aggression and resentment within the child, but those feelings are repressed because the child has been taught to view the authoritarian world with reverence.

What Is the World Like Under the Theory of Prejudice?

Under the authoritarian personality theory of prejudice, there are two groups of people: those who think like the authoritarian and those who do not. There are no shades of grey. You’re either “with” that person or you’re “against” them.

This means there is a need for the authoritarian to maintain control, using their vision of superiority, to promote a specific worldview. There is no empathy, thoughts of equality, or an effort to create something to the mutual benefit of all. The world is filled with enemies and the superego demands their compliance based on the prejudice that has developed over time because of the weaker ego.

There are three specific areas where people with these traits tend to score consistently high. Projectivity, intraception, and superstition or stereotyping are all traits that are seen in those who see prejudice through the rose-colored glasses of authoritarianism. This results in the individual affected by such a personality to struggle with specific facts in certain fields, especially humanities and the sciences, if those facts are different from their own world view.

Is There Prejudice Found Within This Theory?

If you’ve looked at the idea of an authoritarian personality and the theory of prejudice and thought, “That sounds like a lot of politicians I know,” you’re not alone. One of the harshest criticisms of this theory is that it was built to apply to the political spectrum only. This would mean in its attempt to remove bias, it created a new bias toward those who have political ambitions.

People who have an authoritarian personality and have outward prejudice tend to exhibit four specific character traits.

1. There is a need to have order.
2. There is a need to have power.
3. There are impulses acted upon based on acceptance or rejection.
4. There is a preference for complete extroversion or complete introversion.

Adorno proposed in 1950 that ideological beliefs that are created within a culture can shape the prejudices that are being experience by those with this personality construction. In a Christian culture, for example, there might be a prejudice against Muslims or Atheists. In a US anti-immigration culture, there might be a prejudice against Mexicans.

Many would call this prejudice “racism” or “bigotry.” A more accurate description would be that the attitude is an ingrained prejudice that is based on an authoritarian personality complex. This is why a logical argument, filled with facts, can be completely ignored. Because it doesn’t fit in with the perceived facts, it must be “wrong.”