Psychological measures of authoritarianism were first developed in politically stable nations, but new research from Brazil indicates that the measures need to be tweaked to better reflect the situation in politically unstable nations.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows how right-wing authoritarianism can manifest differently across nations.

“At least since 2016, when the former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached, a lot of Brazilians got interested in politics. Many people engaged in political discussions and everybody had an opinion about different subjects. However, a lot of authoritarian attitudes became widely visible in those discussions, so I was interested in the psychological mechanisms underlying authoritarianism and how we could change it,” said study author Felipe Vilanova, a MSc candidate at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul.

Right-wing authoritarianism is typically conceptualized as having three factors: conservatism (the tendency to obey institutions and the government), authoritarianism (the tendency to support the use of harsh and coercive methods of social control), and traditionalism (the tendency to uncritically adhere to traditional moral values).

In a previous study of 518 Brazilian individuals, however, Vilanova and his colleagues found that splitting conservatism into submission to authority and contestation to authority better fit the data.

While those who score high on submission to authority agree with statements such as “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn,” those who score high on contestation to authority agree with statements such as “People should be ready to protest against and challenge laws they don’t agree with.”

The researchers’ new study, which included 1,083 Brazilians, replicated their previous findings and also indicated that contestation to authority was less stable than the other three factors across a 3-year period, reflecting the abrupt political changes in the country.

“As government and laws frequently change (as happened in Brazil in the last three years), it may not be considered a fundamentally stable aspect of society and thus not be considered something that demands uncritical submission,” the researchers explained.

The findings highlight “that authoritarianism is not the same everywhere,” Vilanova told PsyPost.

“Whereas in countries as New Zealand or United States, right-wing authoritarians tend to believe that entities such as ‘the government’ or ‘the laws’ should be always respected because they help maintaining social order and harmony, this is not the case in Brazil. Thus, people should be careful when reading international texts about ‘authoritarianism’ because the conclusions might not be valid for their own context.”

“The major caveat of our study is the lack of data from different countries. Maybe authoritarianism in Argentina, Perú, Venezuela, Colombia or Chile is differently manifested than in those countries of the global North. Thus, one important question to be addressed by future studies is: How cross-culturally valid and reliable are the instruments developed in the global North to assess authoritarianism?” Vilanova added.

“I’d like to stress the importance of cross-cultural open-science networks. If researchers from different parts of the world engage in open scientific consortia, we will be able to tackle cultural specificities and understand phenomena more accurately. Understanding it more accurately, we might have more feasible and effective ways to deal with social issues. Regarding authoritarianism, this consortium seems urgent considering recent events worldwide.”

The study, “Evidence for Cultural Variability in Right-Wing Authoritarianism Factor Structure in a Politically Unstable Context“, was authored by Felipe Vilanova, Taciano L. Milfont, Clara Cantal, Silvia Helena Koller, and Angelo Brandelli Costa.