Right-wing authoritarianism is not necessarily associated with hostility toward outgroups, according to new research published in the scientific journal Political Psychology. Instead, authoritarian individuals appear to “go with the flow” of the prevailing culture.
Although a well-documented link has been established between right-wing authoritarianism and intergroup prejudice, the new research indicates this relationship is sometimes contingent on social norms.
Right-wing authoritarianism is a psychological construct developed in the aftermath of World War II that is characterized by submission to authority and strong adherence to conventions, along with aggression directed at those seen as violating social norms. Because of their preference for social conformity, researcher Paulina Górska and her colleagues hypothesized that right-wing authoritarians should be particularly susceptible to perceived social norms.
The researchers conducted three separate studies to investigate the relationship between authoritarianism, social norms, and prejudice. The first study included 997 Polish residents and investigated their attitudes toward Jews. The second study included 1,011 British individuals and investigated their attitudes toward immigrants. The third study included another 1,992 Polish residents and investigated their attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women.
Górska and her colleagues found a similar pattern of results across all three studies. Perceiving social norms toward an outgroup as favorable weakened the positive relationship between right-wing authoritarianism and prejudice. In some cases, the relationship between right-wing authoritarianism and prejudice was even reversed.
For example, right-wing authoritarianism had a positive effect on feelings toward Jews among Poles who believed that people around them had friendly attitudes toward Jews, but it had a negative effect on feelings toward Jews among those who believed that people around them had unfriendly attitudes toward Jews. Similarly, British authoritarians who perceived that it was socially acceptable to have positive feelings about immigrants reported feeling more sympathy and admiration for immigrants compared to authoritarians who did not perceive that such positive feelings were socially acceptable.
The findings suggest “that people who are high in RWA will be prejudiced in prejudiced societies but may be tolerant in tolerant ones,” the researchers wrote in their study. “We also showed that the indirect effect of RWA on behavioral intentions toward outgroups (via prejudice) is moderated by social norms. Overall, this pattern of results contributes to the literature on RWA by establishing the particular sensitivity of authoritarians’ intergroup sentiments to the normative cues present in the social context. This strengthens our initial claim, expressed in the title of this work, that rather than being rigidly opposed to outgroups as such, authoritarians go with the (social) flow and reject only those outgroups that the society rejects as well.”
The results held even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, education, and social, economic, and political conservatism. But Górska and her colleagues noted that the findings are correlational, meaning they cannot discern cause-and-effect relationships between the variables.
“The limitations of the present research point to potential future developments. In particular, we would like to see the causality issue addressed by employing experimental methodology,” the researchers said.
The study, “Authoritarians Go with the Flow: Social Norms Moderate the Link between Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Outgroup-Directed Attitudes“, was authored by Paulina Górska, Anna Stefaniak, Katarzyna Lipowska, Katarzyna Malinowska, Magdalena Skrodzka, and Marta Marchlewska.