The dispositional explanation of the authoritarian personality (AP) - Social influence

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The dispositional explanation of the authoritarian personality (AP)
Social influence


The dispositional explanation is an internal explanation, as it centres on the idea that certain internal personality characteristics are associated with high levels of obedience (as opposed to the situational explanation, which believes external situational factors determine obedience levels). The authoritarian personality (AP) was proposed by Fromm (1941) as an attempt to categorise individuals who held right-wing, conservative views. He saw such individuals as having a belief in unquestioning obedience, submission to authority and domination of minorities. Adorno et al. (1950) additionally saw such individuals as having insecurities, formed in childhood through having domineering, authoritarian (controlling) parents, which led them to be hostile to non-conventional people and to have a belief in the need for power and toughness that made them very obedient to authority figures. In order to measure an individual’s level of AP, Adorno created the F-scale questionnaire (the ’F’ stands for fascist). It has 30 questions that assess 9 personality dimensions. More recently, Jost et al. (2003) suggested a more cognitive explanation of AP. They saw it as being motivated by thought processes that underpin a desire to reduce the anxieties and fears that social change brings — obedience is seen to help prevent such disruptive social change.

Focal study

Adorno et al. (1950) designed a questionnaire to measure levels of AP. Nine personality dimensions were assessed: conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, superstition, power and toughness, stereotyping, destructiveness and cynicism, anti-intraception, and sexuality. The questionnaire was given to 2,000 Americans, with 30 questions in total, such as ’Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn’. The degree to which individuals agreed with such statements was measured, so that individuals’ attitudes towards religious and ethnic minorities, as well as political, economic and moral views, could be determined. A sub-sample of 1 in 10 participants, comprising the most and least prejudiced, with an equal number of males and females, was compared in order to identify factors that gave rise to an AP. These proved to be: a strong belief in absolute obedience, submitting to authority figures, and a mistrust of minorities — supporting the idea that certain personality characteristics are associated with high obedience.


• Zillmer et al. (1995) examined the personality characteristics of 16 Nazi war criminals (comprising both high-ranking officers and lower-ranking soldiers), who were tried at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, to ascertain whether a ’Nazi personality’ existed — similar to Fromm’s idea of the AP. The Nazis scored high on 3 of the 9 F-scale dimensions, but not on all 9 as expected, giving limited support for the concept of an AP.

• Elms & Milgram (1966) found that highly obedient participants in Milgram’s study scored significantly higher for authoritarianism on the F-scale than participants who disobeyed and refused to deliver shocks. These findings give stronger support for the idea of an AP that makes people more unquestioningly obedient.

• Altemeyer (1988) found that participants who scored high on the F-scale, who were ordered to give themselves shocks, gave stronger shocks than those who scored low on the F-scale, providing additional support to the existence of an AP type.

Positive evaluation

Image Supporting research for the AP shows that dispositional factors (personality) affect obedience levels, as well as situational factors. However, for the best understanding of obedience behaviour, dispositional and situational factors should be considered together.

Image Milgram found situational factors were stronger than dispositional ones, which led him to conclude that the ’Germans are different’ hypothesis was wrong (that Germans have personality traits that make them highly obedient to destructive orders — see page 10). However, research into the AP suggests that some people might be more naturally obedient than others, though whether this can be generalised to all people of a certain culture is debatable.

Negative evaluation

Image Hyman & Sheatsley (1954) found that lower educational level was a better explanation of high F-scale scores than an authoritarian personality. Cultural and social norms have also been shown to be better predictors of prejudice than personality variables.

Image Authoritarian individuals do not always score high on F-scale dimensions, while domineering parents do not always produce children with an AP. Nor can the AP explain why individuals may be prejudiced against some minorities, but not others. This lowers support for the concept.

Image The theory is also politically biased, as it has a negative viewpoint of individuals who hold right-wing, conservative views.

Practical application

If the concept of the AP being a negative personality type formed in childhood is valid, then promoting less domineering and controlling parenting styles should result in fewer people developing the personality type. This in turn should result in the creation of more individuals able to resist orders with potentially negative consequences.