This Is Your Brain On Authoritarianism

By Towanda Gondwana | 17 May 2020
Daily Kos

Anti-lockdown protesters in Tennessee were spotted with posters calling for the weak to be sacrificed to coronavirus. (Credit: WKRN / AP)

Every now and again I read an article purporting to explain the loyalty of Trump’s followers. Racism. Low education level. Employment in dying industries that he promises to restore. Each make a good point, but I’d like to address an area I haven’t seen covered.


After WWII, many psychologists addressed the question, “How could a nation of good, Christian, responsible, hardworking shopkeepers, schoolteachers, chemists, and accountants turn into bloodthirsty death camp guards?” Yes, I understand that this is an overstatement. Many Germans were only marginally aware of (or willfully blind to) the most revolting aspects of the Nazi regime and only knew that they had jobs again and could hold up their heads with National Pride. But still, they watched their neighbors be rounded up and hauled off.

I was introduced to the work of Dr. Robert Altemeyer (Dr. Bob) by way of John Dean and his book Conservatives Without Conscience. Dr. Bob spent his academic career investigating this question and published his results. You can download it at

It’s a great read, but for those of you in a hurry, I will sum up:

Dr. Bob invented a 9-point scale (ranging from “very strongly agree” through “neutral” to “very strongly disagree.”) He then administered a list of questions to thousands of subjects over the course of his 40-some year career at the University of Alberta. The questions included things like “The world would be a better place if people were treated more equally.” and “The world would be a better place if everyone knew their place and stayed in it.” This allowed him to get a read on that person’s authoritarian tendencies. Authoritarian/non-authoritarian is not an on/off switch. It’s a continuum, with most people falling somwhere in the middle, thinking some things through themselves, but deferring to the authority of others in areas of expertise foreign to them. Once he had a read on his subjects’ basic attitudes, he then asked other questions. According to his research, there are several qualities that go along with the authoritarian mindset.

Inability to cope with uncertainty

I can give an example from personal experience. One day my mother and I were in the car. The song, Oh Happy Day, then the latest hit, came on the radio.

“That’s a nice tune,” she said. “Does he usually do that kind of music, or does he do other kinds as well?”

“You know, Mom, this is the only song of his I’ve heard. I don’t know,”

A moment’s silence. “Does he usually do this kind of music, or does he do other kinds?”

“Mom, I’ve never heard anything else by him. I’d have no way of knowing.”

Before the song was over, she’d asked the question three times. And keep in mind that this was not some Alzheimer’s thing. She was really made that uncomfortable by not getting a definitive answer.

Dr. Bob notes that people with authoritarian mindsets gravitate toward fundamentalist religions, not just Christian fundamentalism, but fundamentalist sects of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. This demand for certainty also makes sense of the anti-science bias of authoritarians. Scientists are always saying things like, ‘We hypothesize it may be this, but we have not yet definitively proven….” There are continual academic snit wars over whose Theory of X will be accepted, and occasionally established scientific truths get turned on their heads. (Gallleo, Einstein, et al.)

Do as I say, not as I do

Another authoritarian trait is a tendency to believe what one is told over the evidence of one’s own senses. Another anecdotal Mom story: In my teens, I painted in oils. One evening, I watched a glorious sunset from the living room window. Huge orange sun, pink sky, irridescent cirrus clouds. I called her attention to it and she agreed it was beautiful. The next day, I bought a canvas and set it up after dinner and began to paint. I was nearly finished when Mom looked over my shoulder.

“Teri, the sky is blue.”

“Yes, I know, Mom, but this is how it looked last night at sunset. Don’t you remember?”

“Teri, the sky is blue.”

“Yes, Mom, I know it’s usually blue, but this is how it looked last night.”



Then Dad freighted in from behind the newspaper, on account of my tone of voice, ending the argument.

Six months later, after washing the dinner dishes in front of a west-facing window for–did I mention, six months?–she came to me and said, “Teri, you were right about the sky.”

All her life, she had been told that the sky is blue. Therefore it must be blue, eyesight be damned.

This is your brain on authoritarianism.

So don’t be surprised if logic and direct observation of fact is not enough to persuade an authoritarian. The programming is deep, and it takes time and repeated exposure to break through.

Once an authoritarian has developed respect for an information source, they tend to accept his (and it’s generally his) every pronouncement unequivocally.  So one of their leaders’ tricks is to tell their followers that those who disagree are some combination of evil, stupid, degenerate, or Out To Get You, in other words, not worthy of respect, thus insuring that their own pronouncements will continue to be accepted unquestioned and opposing points of view dismissed out of hand.  So even though your Trump-loving co-worker may respect your on-the-job compentence, he or she will automatically dismiss any political opinion you might have that disagrees with theirs. This is also the reason that the Catholic Church (and other denominations) were able to get away with so much for so long. Authoritarians will value the word of someone in a position above themselves over evidence presented by someone they perceive as inferior, or what Reality, with its documented liberal bias, offers.

Belief in hierarchy

There are people who simply cannot comprehend the concept of equality. They are either above you, and entitled to do whatever they want of you, or below you and quite obsequious. A historical example is pro-slavery supporters insisting that the anti-slavery movement was not about equality for negroes, but an attempt to set up a social order in which blacks would dominate whites and enslave them. (Not joking here, and this zombie still stalks the back alleys of the internet.) They simply cannot comprehend the concept of equality. I heard one speaker go so far as to say that “Equality cannot apply to humans, since it is a mathematical concept.”

Lack of Critical Thinking Skills

I wonder if this is the cart or the horse. Do authoritarians lack these skills because they have been trained by their authoritarian parents, teachers, and clergy that to question authority is the Royal Road to Hell, or do they gravitate to authoritarian institutions because they are not capable of figuring things out, or have perhaps failed at figuring things out in the past and are relying on others to give them direction? I read the following years ago, and wish I could remember which right-wing pastor originally said this. (It may have been the father of Christian Reconstructionism, R.J. Rushdooney.) “Obedience is freedom and independent thought is slavery.” (If you enter that sentence into the Google, you will find beaucoup websites proclaiming it.) The logic is that obedience means you are following God’s Will and figuring it out for yourself means you are resisting God’s Will, i.e. following Satan. If that makes sense to you, I suspect you may be lacking critical thinking skills. (And I have a bridge to sell you.)

Rigidity in the face of change

If you have been taught that there is one right way to do things, and things change (like, for example, the market for coal cratering due to cheap natural gas) it’s natural to think that the way out of the problem is to retreat back a few decades when the underlying inputs were different, particularly if, say, research and thinking things through is a skill with which you are not familiar. And of course, if your thought leaders tell you it’s Obama’s fault, well, there you are. (Even though it’s the Invisble Hand of the Market moving the shells on the little table. Somebody must be to blame. It certainly can’t be the Capitalists.)

But wait! There’s more!

After WWII, most psychologists were concerned with authoritarian followers, but Altemeyer’s interests went beyond asking why certain individuals would blindly follow the Dear Leader. Why, exactly, would one want to be the Dear Leader? He developed a second test, one designed to test for social dominance, which he called the Power Mad Scale. And behold! Roughly 5% of humans have socially dominant personalities. Once again, this is a continuum, ranging from those who would never, ever consider taking on a position of authority (“Just tell me what to do.”) through the person who will offer to run the scout troop if no one else will take it on, the individual who will kill (metaphorically) to be PTA president, all the way up the scale to your Stalins and Hitlers. Altemeyer discovered social dominance in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that the ones that create the problems are the ones he calls “Double Highs” who rate as both authoritarian and socially dominant. There is only one way to do anything, according to these people, and that is their way. There is a place for everyone and their place is at the top. In addition to this, they also share the general authoritarian traits listed above.

Voila! A leader who lacks critical thinking skills, has rigid beliefs, whose first priority is buttressing his dominant position, and who speaks the same language as the authoritarian followers who are actively looking for someone to do their thinking for them.

This has been a long post. There will be a Part Two, dealing with how this psychology is weaponized.

The Power Worshippers: The Rise of Religious Nationalism (with Katherine Stewart)

Authoritarianism: The political science that explains Trump

Psychological Study Of Trump Voters Reveals Creepy Common Traits They Share

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