Opinion by PsyPost 

New research provides evidence that left-wing authoritarianism is a valid concept that predicts important real-world phenomena, including restrictive communication norms and dogmatism. The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, are based on data collected from more than 8,000 U.S. residents and more than 60,000 individuals from around the world.

“I think authoritarianism is bad no matter what political color it wears,” said study author Lucian Gideon Conway III (@LGConwayIII), a professor of psychology at Grove City College and author of the book “Complex Simplicity: How Psychology Suggests Atheists are Wrong About Christianity.”

“It’s obvious to a lot of people that left-wing persons can be just as authoritarian as right-wing persons, and yet academics have been curiously reluctant to admit that, or even to show interest in studying it. We wanted to provide more definitive scientific evidence that left-wing authoritarianism was a real and pervasive problem, not just in the United States, but around the world.”

“Our set of 12 studies is an answer to critics who have claimed our prior award-winning work wasn’t enough to sway them to take left-wing authoritarianism seriously,” Conway said.

In previous research, Conway and his colleagues developed a measure of left-wing authoritarianism, which was adapted from the Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale developed by psychologist Bob Altemeyer. The RWA Scale was designed to measure psychological traits and attitudes that are associated with right-wing authoritarianism, such as a preference for strong leaders, a belief in traditional values and social hierarchies, and a tendency to view people who are different from oneself with suspicion or hostility.

The RWA Scale asks participants how much they agree with statements such as: “It’s 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 doubts in people’s minds” and “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.”

Respondents rate their level of agreement with each statement on a scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Based on the responses, researchers can calculate a person’s overall RWA score, which reflects their level of authoritarianism.

The new LWA Scale, on the other hand, includes items such as: “It’s always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in science with respect to issues like global warming and evolution than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubts in people’s minds” and “Our country desperately needs a mighty and liberal leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical traditional ways of doing things that are ruining us.”

The researchers first recruited 441 U.S. adults through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to investigate how individuals perceive authoritarianism among people with left-wing and right-wing political beliefs. Participants were asked to identify the number of liberal and conservative authoritarian individuals they knew among their family, friends or acquaintances, co-workers, and news/TV/movie/sports personalities.

Results showed that participants reported significantly more right-wing authoritarianism than left-wing authoritarianism across all measures. However, participants still identified a substantial number of left-wing authoritarians. The findings suggests that authoritarianism is not exclusively associated with right-wing political orientations.

“We asked American participants to identify the number of left-wing authoritarians in their lives, and I was very surprised at the sheer number they identified,” Conway told PsyPost. “I had predicted the average American would identify 1 or 2, and I laughed at a non-academic who predicted closer to 15. But the truth was very much closer to 15 than to 1.”

“In fact, even liberal participants identified on average quite a large number of liberal authoritarians in their lives. So, while I was of course expecting some left-wing authoritarianism, I was frankly shocked at the sheer numbers that people reported. This debate about ‘is there a left-wing authoritarian person’ is obviously something unique to academia. The average citizen already believes there is indeed such a thing.”

Next, the researchers sought to test whether the RWA Scale and the LWA Scale measured what they purported to measure. To this end, they recruited a sample of 417 U.S. adults using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The researchers directly asked participants to rate the degree that items from the two scales were descriptive of authoritarianism.

To assess discriminant validity, meaning how well a measure or test is able to distinguish between two different constructs or concepts that are theoretically distinct, the participants also rated items from the MINI Big 5 Inventory, a common measure of personality traits.

Both liberal and conservative participants rated items from the LWA Scale as measuring authoritarianism. The scale also showed strong discriminant validity. The participants rated it as substantially more descriptive of authoritarianism compared to the MINI Big 5 Inventory.

In a series of eight additional studies, which included 8,487 participants in total, Conway and his colleagues found that those who scored higher on the LWA Scale tended to exhibit heightened levels of ecological threat, COVID-19 threat, belief in a dangerous world, and outgroup political threat.

In other words, left-wing authoritarians were more likely to agree with statements such as “I feel the primary area where I live has a lot of disease,” “Thinking about the coronavirus (COVID-19) makes me feel threatened,” “If our society keeps degenerating the way it has been lately, it’s liable to collapse like a rotten log and everything will be in chaos,” and “When I think of Donald Trump, it makes me feel a sense of threat.”

Left-wing authoritarians were also more supportive of restricting what people in society can say, displayed a stronger dislike of “Bible-believing” African-Americans and Jews who were “strong supporters of the nation of Israel,” and scored higher on a measure of dogmatism.

Finally, Conway and his colleagues examined data from Wave 6 of the World Values Survey, which included 66,000 participants across 54 nations who had completed an assessment of endorsement of authoritarian governance along with a measure of political ideology.

In many countries, especially those in Western Europe and South America, there was a strong link between being politically conservative and endorsing an authoritarian style of government. However, there were also many countries where being politically liberal was linked to endorsing an authoritarian government. The findings provide evidence that authoritarianism can exist in both conservative and liberal political systems around the world.

“In my field, the idea that there is really a ‘left-wing authoritarian’ problem has been called a ‘myth’ on par with the Loch Ness Monster,” Conway told PsyPost. “But our recent paper leaves no doubt: Left-wing authoritarianism is no myth, but a real and pervasive issue. When people (including some scientists) say authoritarianism is mostly a right-wing problem, they are simply wrong. They aren’t saying that because it is scientific; they are saying that because of wishful thinking.”

“Our definitive set of 12 studies shows that average citizens identify a lot of liberal authoritarians in their lives; that left-wing authoritarians are dogmatic, fearful, and punitive; and that left-wing authoritarians dislike representative Jews and African-Americans. These data answer critics’ questions about scale validity with resounding proof that our LWA Scale is a very good measurement of authoritarianism, and further show world-wide evidence of left-wing authoritarianism across the globe.”

“It’s time to move on from ‘should be worried about liberal bullies?’ to ‘what should we do about liberal bullies?’” Conway added. “Our 12 studies provide definitive scientific evidence of left-wing authoritarianism in the United States and beyond.”

Previous research, which developed an alternative measure of left-wing authoritarianism (known as the Left-Wing Authoritarianism Index), found a large overlap in personality traits, cognitive styles, and beliefs among those who scored high on left-wing authoritarianism and those who scored high on right-wing authoritarianism. Both groups had heightened levels of psychopathic meanness and boldness, dogmatism, disinhibition, need for closure, fatalistic determinism beliefs, belief in conspiracy theories, and belief in a dangerous world.

“I’m excited to move on from the question ‘are there left-wing authoritarians?’ to important academic questions such as ‘in what ways are left-wing and right-wing authoritarians similar to, and different from, each other?’” Conway said. “People high in RWA and LWA share a common set of traits around authoritarianism, but they aren’t the same in every way. So it is important to better understand what contributes to (and might change) authoritarianism on each side of the aisle.”

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“Also, people can be authoritarian to anything, so we need to move beyond just ‘left’ and ‘right’ and talk about more specific forms of authoritarianism that don’t fit either moniker very well,” the researcher added.

The study, “Is the myth of left-wing authoritarianism itself a myth?“, was authored by Lucian Gideon Conway III, Alivia Zubrod, Linus Chan, James D. McFarland, and Evert Van de Vliert.

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