August 11th, 2009


The authoritarian personality

In 1950 Theodor Adorno published what was, for him, an unusually empirical book, a psychometric study of fascism called The Authoritarian Personality. The project began as research into how anti-semitism happens, but became something much wider: a study of the personality traits associated with authoritarianism. The book was a big influence on me when I was a student; this was everything I didn't want to be. So what did Adorno and his fellow researchers discover?

Here's the list of personal characteristics they found to correlate positively with authoritarianism:

1. Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values.
2. Authoritarian submission: submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.
3. Authoritarian aggression: tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.
4. Anti-intraception: opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tenderminded.
5. Superstition and stereotypy: the belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.
6. Power and "toughness“: Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.
7. Destructiveness and cynicism: generalized hostility, vilification of the human.
8. Projectivity: the disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.
9. Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual "goings-on".

Now, maybe you could have been forgiven, fifteen years after the publication of The Authoritarian Personality, for thinking that these traits were a thing of the past. But sixty years on many of these attitudes are still very prevalent on the internet, on TV, in politics, in the tabloid press. The authoritarians crept back.

Here's what humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow thought correlated with the authoritarian character:

1. Hierarchical consciousness; the tendency to perceive other people as competitors who occupy either a higher or a lower position than the authoritarian personality in question. The external attributes of power, rather than internal qualities of the individual, are important.
2. The tendency to generalize the characteristics of dominance and discomfort.
3. Striving for external attributes of prestige, such as power, money, status, etc.
4. Presence of animosity, hate and prejudices in the person’s character.
5. Identification of goodness with weakness and an attempt to use it for one’s own benefit.
6. Sadomasochistic tendencies.
7. Incessant discontent and an inability to achieve gratification in life.
8. Intra-psychic conflict.
9. Feelings of guilt which produce animosity.

If, for the 20 year-old me, the Authoritarian Personality was who not to be, the Creative Personality was the thing to aim for. Creativity researchers MacKinnon and Barron listed these as personality traits associated with this personality:

1. Autonomy.
2. A high degree of feminine orientation in males.
3. Intuition.
4. An orientation to perception rather than judgment.
5. Flexibility.
6. Self-acceptance.
7. Psychological richness and complexity.

Barron painted a slightly darker picture: the creative person felt " the paradoxical presence of high degrees of ego strength along with psychopathic qualities". For Maslow and Rogers it was all about openness to experience, a locus of evaluation within the person, and the ability to toy with elements and concepts.

Psychologist J.P. Guilford came up with this checklist of traits associated with the creative personality, things more focused on actual creative activity than wider personality orientations. Creative people have:

1. The ability to see or sensitivity to problems: Can state difficulties or deficiencies in common products or in social institutions, make judgement that desired goals in a described situation have not been achieved.
2. Fluency of thinking: Able to think well and effortlessly.
3. Word fluency: Can easily state words containing a given letter or combination of letters.
4. Associational fluency: Can easily state synonyms for a given word.
5. Expressional fluency: Can easily write well-formed sentences with a specified content.
6. Ideational fluency: Can easily produce ideas to fulfill certain requirements, for example to name objects that are hard, white and edible, or to write an appropriate title for a given story.
7. Flexibility of thinking: Can easily abandon old ways of thinking and adopt new ones.
8. Spontaneous flexibility: Can produce a great variety of ideas. For example in suggesting uses for a brick, subject can jump among categories, from building material to weight to missile to source of red powder.
9. Adaptive flexibility: Can generalize requirements of a problem to find a solution. For example, in a problem of forming squares using a minimum number of lines, can abandon the usual idea that all squares have to be the same size.
10. Originality: Comes up with ideas that are statistically unusual.
11. Remote associations: Forms associations between elements that are remote from each other in time, or remote from each other logically.
12. Responses are judged to be clever.
13. Redefinition: Gives up old interpretations of familiar objects and uses them in new ways.
14. Elaboration: Can fill in details given a general scheme. Given a general task, fill in the detailed steps. Given two simple lines, draw a more complex object.
15. Tolerance of ambiguity: Willingness to accept some uncertainty in conclusions, not using rigid categories.
16. Interest in convergent thinking: Thinking towards one right answer, as in solving a mathematical problem stated in a textbook.
17. Interest in divergent thinking: Open-ended thinking, where there is not a single right answer.

It seems to me that these are still traits that correspond with accomplishment in the arts, in design, in making and re-making stuff. They're also pretty good things to aim for in your life.