Study suggests authoritarianism can make people less prejudice towards minorities

Whether people with a highly conformist personality type are more prejudiced towards minority groups or more accepting of them depends on the political culture they live in, according to a report published in Psychological Science.

Authoritarianism refers to a set of personality traits held by people who place a great deal of importance on obedience to authority and conformity to social conventions and rules. A long history of research on people with this authoritarian personalities has consistently found that they are more prejudiced views towards minorities and other groups that they see as deviating from social norms. This research has primarily been conducted in Western democratic nations.

A team of researchers led by Arne Roets, of Ghent University, tested whether people with authoritarian personalities would still show greater prejudice when they lived in a society where a strong central authority explicitly promotes tolerance and inclusion of minority groups. Their study compared 245 college students from Belgium, which has a democratic government, with 249 college students from Singapore, which has a longstanding single-party government that has acted to strongly enforce minority rights and tolerance.

Students in both countries responded to questions measuring authoritarian personality traits, their values about multiculturalism and their tolerance of minority groups in their countries, and their views of their governments’ official position on treatment of minority groups.

Among Belgians, as others have previously found in studies of residents of Western nations, people with more authoritarian personalities tended to have more negative views of minority groups, and to be more opposed to the values of multiculturalism in general. Among Singaporeans, however, the results were exactly the opposite. People with more authoritarian personalities were both more supportive of multicultural values and had more favorable views of minority groups.

The authors of the study followed up these findings by using a technique called mediation analysis to determine whether these differences in the effects of authoritarian personality on people’s personal values might be due to differences in their views of official government policy.

In Singapore, people with more authoritarian personality traits were the most likely to think that the government was in favor of multiculturalism, and viewing the government as pro-multiculturalist was in turn strongly related to personally valuing multiculturalism and being tolerant towards minority groups. In Belgium, perceptions of the government’s official position had no influence on either of these sets of personal values.

Although authoritarian personality traits are still believed to have a generally negative impact on values related to acceptance of minority groups, this study raises the possibility that certain types of government can take advantage of authoritarian people’s needs for obedience and conformity to promote values of tolerance and understanding.