Politics, Partisanship and Personality Types

by John Holbo on August 3, 2018

What are the best writings about politics, partisanship and personality types? To what degree can large-scale political formations – ideologies, partisan outlooks, temperaments – be credibly treated as a partial function of variation in personality at the individual level; variation we have reason to believe is measurable, moderately stable, independent and prior? (The Big Five and all that, I expect.) I can see why it’s going to be hard to tease it apart empirically. You are going to be chasing your tail, cause and effect-wise. If you find that members of Party X score relatively high for trait Y, which causes which? I have read a bit in this area but not a lot, and nothing that really seemed terribly convincing. (I am aware that Adorno and co. wrote a book called The Authoritarian Personality, for example.) If you don’t like the way I just framed the issue – fine, fine. It isn’t that I’m necessarily evil, as you were perhaps about to type, angrily. It might be that I’m just unsure how best to frame the issue. I’m interested in general discussions – popular explainers, such as there may be – and recent more technical research papers. I can well believe that a lot of bad, or highly speculative stuff has probably been written about this area of political psychology. I have a preference for good over bad, if available.



Elyss 08.03.18 at 12:35 pm

The Authoritarians by Bob Altermeyer might be of interest



jrkrideau 08.03.18 at 1:01 pm

I second the Altemeyer recommendation. The Adorno book is about 60 years out of date and based on some dubious theoretical assumptions (Freudian theory).

See http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

For a very brief TL:DR version of the book see https://archive.org/details/DonaldTrump_201603


John Holbo 08.03.18 at 1:18 pm

Thanks. I am neither pro nor anti Adorno but I know if I don’t show awareness in this area someone’s going to come correct on me for not knowing there’s a history!

Actually I used to be anti Adorno but now I’m more in the ‘it’s important but too old to be a good starting point’ school of thinking.


TKD 08.03.18 at 2:09 pm

I think this would be very much a “starter for 10”:

and then some Gelman:



and the team at The Black Goat http://www.theblackgoatpodcast.com seem to be worth talking to about what personality types might mean and who has done some decent research on the topic. They ask all to please email them at: etters@theblackgoatpodcast.com.


WLGR 08.03.18 at 2:09 pm

My impression as an amateur who’s done some dives into cognitive science literature is that personality typing tends to be regarded more and more skeptically the further you get toward the harder empirical side of experimental psychology, to say nothing of social and cultural psychology where these kinds of traits are understood to be highly contingent. Personality measures like the “big five” might garner somewhat less snickering than more antiquated forms of typography like Adorno’s “f-scale” or Jungian archetypes, which in turn at least have some history of scholarly credibility lacking in Cosmo-quiz quackery like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but much like the distinctions between alleged personality types themselves, the distinctions between which of these prognostications have scientific credibility and which don’t are more a matter of degree than of rigidly compartmentalized types. (Of course sometimes a certain strain of hyper-empiricism can go too far in the other direction, as in the over-the-top trendiness of fMRI neuroimaging before people started realizing that it doesn’t necessarily always measure the things they thought it does, but that’s another can of worms.)

That being said, I was fond of a neat little study that came out a few years back called “Metaphors We Think With” (alluding to the book Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson) where the experimenters quizzed people on their preferred policy solutions to the issue of crime after priming them with passages invoking either of two metaphors, crime as a “beast” needing to be “hunted” or crime as a “virus” needing to be “cured.” The relevant bit here is that even when they cut out all the flowery metaphorical language and made the passages completely identical apart from the single word choice of “beast” or “virus,” the difference in metaphor invoked was still a better predictor of people’s proposed policy response than the difference between self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans. Score one for neuroplasticity and the social construction of human nature!


Luke Roelofs 08.03.18 at 2:15 pm

In the 70s, William Kreml wrote a short book, bouncing off Adorno, called ‘the Anti-Authoritarian Personality’. It didn’t get picked up as much, and I read it too long ago to really say whether it stands up to scrutiny.

I think the tl;dr is: there’s different sorts of trait-authoritarianism, one which correlates with right-wing affiliations (and which is negatively correlated with impulsiveness and open-mindedness) and one which has a ‘horseshoe’ distribution symmetrically clustered around political extremes (and which has more to do with intolerance of dissent and aggression towards opponents). But don’t quote me on that.



Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.03.18 at 3:01 pm

I want to note that well before Adorno, et al., Erich Fromm and his colleagues conducted pioneering research at the Frankfurt Institute on the “character structure” of the Weimar working class, which was not published in English until 1984 (see the full reference below). I am not an expert on this subject (although I’ve had a longstanding ardent avocational interest), so the following merely reflects what I’ve found helpful. Lacking any academic affiliation for several years now (I was only a very part-time instructor prior to that), I have little or no access to the relevant scholarly literature, hence there are only books listed here. I happen to find much of value in Freudian (and post-Freudian) psychology, as my bibliography for same will attest, and I’ve left out most of the titles that treat Marxist ideology with some psychological sophistication and nuance, as those are found in my bibliography on Marxism (both this and the Freudian psychology bibliography are found on my Academia page).

• Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005).
• Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (Pantheon Books, 1988).
• Burston, Daniel. The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991). See, especially, the respective chapters, “Studies in Social Character,” and “Consensus, Conformity, and False Consciousness: ‘The Pathology of Normalcy,’” pp. 98-158.
• Coady, C.A.J. Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics (Oxford University Press, 2008).
• Cohen, Stanely. States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Polity Press, 2001).
• Dilman, Ilham. Raskolnikov’s Rebirth: Psychology and the Understanding of Good and Evil (Open Court, 2000).
• Elster, Jon. Political Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 1993).
• Fontana, Benedetto, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer, eds. Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).
• Fromm, Erich (Barbara Weinberger, tr. and Wolfgang Bonss, ed.) The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study (Harvard University Press, 1984).
• Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press, 2006).
• Gorringe, Timothy. God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
• Hinshelwood, R.D. What Happens in Groups: Psychoanalysis, the Individual, and the Community (Free Association Books, 1987).
• Iyer, Raghavan. Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (Oxford University Press, 1979).
• Kakar, Sudhir. The Colors of Violence: Cultural Identities, Religion, and Conflict (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
• Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006).
• Miller, William Ian. Faking It (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
• Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994).
• Nussbaum, Martha C. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016).
• Reich, Wilhelm (Vincent R. Carfagno, tr.) The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 3rd ed., 1970).
• Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988), in particular, the four chapters in the section, “Community as the Context of Character,” pp. 269-345.
• Rustin, Michael. The Good Society and the Inner World: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Culture (Verso, 1991).
• Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (Free Association Books, 1989).
• Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. Psychoanalytic-Marxism: Groundwork (Free Association Books/Guilford Press, 1993).


a82 08.03.18 at 4:08 pm


Lee A. Arnold 08.03.18 at 4:25 pm


Peter Dorman 08.03.18 at 6:14 pm

The problem with the political psychology literature I’ve seen (a random smattering) is that it tries to go directly from what’s in your head to affiliation with political positions or groupings. These relationships are all profoundly mediated. If you have authoritarian tendencies, that will condition how you engage with a given political environment, but in conjunction with a host of other factors like upbringing, class/race/gender positions (also mediated by experience, which varies), cultural and social affiliations, etc.

I’m not saying everything is determined by everything, also that is a mostly true statement. Rather that the separable causation that people look for in statistical studies (what’s the coefficient on this variable?) is not the right approach. Case studies are helpful here. In the end, what we can identify are processes and not stable relationships between factors and outcomes, like your score on an authoritarianism index and whether you’re a Republican or what you think about immigration.

An example that interests me is tolerance for cognitive dissonance. It appears to me, based on my slice of experience, that individuals vary in their ability to entertain information and ideas that conflict with their self-understood identity or prior commitments. You might call it openmindedness. From what I’ve seen, these differences don’t correspond in any direct way to political orientation, but they do express themselves in the way people perform their beliefs, and also the aspects of those beliefs they are most attached to.

Or think about personality factors and the racial ideology of the Third Reich. Eugenic thinking was ubiquitous in the early 20th century. It took a range of forms, from natalist policy to sterilizations to, ultimately, mass murder. If you gave someone a personality test and then asked them what they thought about the existence of racial or other genetic hierarchies, you would be missing what made Nazi exterminism different from, say, Swedish selective sterilization. And even this is too simple, since a wide range of personality types was attracted to both of these “causes”. It is not about correspondence but process: how people are engaged with the institutions that implement these practices, the interplay with the structural context (political economic and hermeneutic), etc.

This is getting too entangled for a blog comment.


Scott Ashworth 08.03.18 at 7:17 pm

Cosma Shalizi says most of what you need to know about the Big Five as an aside in one of the IQ posts Henry linked to recently:


Michael 08.03.18 at 7:47 pm

This is just a tidbit, not a general answer. You may remember a study that came out in 2016 that showed that “authoritarian” answers on 4 child-rearing questions were an astoundingly good predictor of Trump support. What made that meaningful was that these were not the usual “duh” associations- e.g. racists support racists. The types of children desired by the authoritarians had absolutely nothing in common with Trump and in some ways were opposite to him.
The results looked too good to be true. Fortunately, a close acquaintance conducted a follow-on in a huge-sample anonymous survey of a fairly homogeneous group of college students. The results were an equally striking confirmation.
Again, since the surface interpretation would look anomalous, I suspect there’s something to the deeper “authoritarian personality” interpretation, which motivated the experiments and predicted the results. The authoritarians assign extremely asymmetrical roles to people, and choose qualities in leaders that they would punish in children.


Sebastian H 08.03.18 at 7:49 pm

The best thing to keep in mind is effect sizes. With psychology analyzing a bunch of different traits across a bunch of different dimensions, you can often find something with ‘statistical significance’. But you want things with practical significance. A 95% chance that we’ve detected a correlation where 50.5% of people are found in one category and 49.5% are in the other isn’t all that interesting. Those kind of effects don’t need to solve for causation direction, because who cares?

Another thing to look for is international comparisons. If there is a deep psychological fact about how we sort into politics, it shouldn’t just show up in one or two countries.


Gabriel 08.03.18 at 9:23 pm

This might not be precisely what you are looking for, but there’s a (non-woo) sociological theory that sensitivity to response to parasites and infection partially explains political orientation:




likbez 08.03.18 at 9:48 pm

This looks like a complex cluster of triats which suggest some particular type of brain wiring.

Here is yet another link that suggest a link between Authoritarism and “Type X management”


It is not easy to detect authoritarian unless you are his/her direct report. They are quintessential “Kiss up, kick down” personalities, so they behave differently to equal and higher up, then to subordinates. To equal and higher up they successfully pretend to be “nice people”.

Here are some warning signs:

1. Narrow, rigid outlook, (“either/or” thinking “With us or against us” view.)

2. Eagerness to apply the punishment even for a minor transgression. Hidden sadism. They want to punish even when there is no proof of committed offense and without listening the other side version.

3. Preoccupation with control and power. Cynicism and arrogance toward lower status people… “Kiss up, kick down” mentality. They despise those who are weak or of lesser status (feature also common to sociopaths)… One of the most telling signs is their attitude toward those of lower rank: they despise those who are weak or of lesser status. Like psychopaths they typically create their own network of sycophants (patsies), who channel information to them about what is happening in the group.

4. The belief that others should see the world as they do. Intolerance to social deviations. “My way or highway” attitude.

5. Lack of introspection and insight

Preoccupation with punishment even for minor transgressions might be a good diagnostic criterion. Authoritarians in management positions tend to abuse performance reviews to inflict revenge on people who are not fully compliant with their wishes and/or tried to demonstrate some independence. They generally rarely give good performance reviews unless this somehow positively reflects on them. By destabilizing relationships among team members, an authoritarian manager tries to stay on top.

Authoritarians have a set of insecurities, and they try to create social systems that they can control and in which those insecurities are suppressed. They are also invariably bullies, often with a very short fuse and temper tantrums (authoritarian anger), but they are directed only to subordinates or family members, never to equal or higher up.

The passive-authoritarian, or in other words, the masochistic and submissive character aims — at least subconsciously — to become a part of a larger unit, a pendant, a particle, at least a small one, of this “great” person, this “great” institution, or this “great” idea. The person, institution, or idea may actually be significant, powerful, or just incredibly inflated by the individual believing in them. What is necessary, is that — in a subjective manner — the individual is convinced that “his” leader, party, state, or idea is all-powerful and supreme, that he himself is strong and great, that he is a part of something “greater.”

The paradox of this passive form of the authoritarian character is: the individual belittles himself so that he can — as part of something greater — become great himself. The individual wants to receive commands, so that he does not have the necessity to make decisions and carry responsibility. This masochistic individual looking for dependency is in his depth frightened -often only subconsciously — a feeling of inferiority, powerlessness, aloneness. Because of this, he is looking for the “leader,” the great power, to feel safe and protected through participation and to overcome his own inferiority. Subconsciously, he feels his own powerlessness and needs the leader to control this feeling. This masochistic and submissive individual, who fears freedom and escapes into idolatry, is the person on which the authoritarian systems — Nazism and Stalinism — rest.

More difficult than understanding the passive-authoritarian, masochistic character is understanding the active-authoritarian, the sadistic character. To his followers he seems self-confident and powerful but yet he is as frightened and alone as the masochistic character. While the masochist feels strong because he is a small part of something greater, the sadist feels strong because he has incorporated others — if possible many others; he has devoured them, so to speak. The sadistic-authoritarian character is as dependent on the ruled as the masochistic -authoritarian character on the ruler. However the image is misleading. As long as he holds power, the leader appears — to himself and to others — strong and powerful. His powerlessness becomes only apparent when he has lost his power, when he can no longer devour others, when he is on his own.

When I speak of sadism as the active side of the authoritarian personality, many people may be surprised because sadism is usually understood as the tendency to torment and to cause pain. But actually, this is not the point of sadism. The different forms of sadism which we can observe have their root in a striving, which is to master and control another individual, to make him a helpless object of one’s will, to become his ruler, to dispose over him as one sees fit and without limitations. Humiliation and enslavement are just means to this purpose, and the most radical means to this is to make him suffer; as there is no greater power over a person than to make him suffer, to force him to endure pains without resistance.

The fact that both forms of the authoritarian personality can be traced back to one final common point — the symbiotic tendency — demonstrates why one can find both the sadistic and masochistic component in so many authoritarian personalities. Usually, only the objects differ. We all have heard of the family tyrant, who treats his wife and children in an sadistic manner but when he faces his superior in the office he becomes the submissive employee.

Douglas McGregor in his seminal book 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise” divided management styles into two main types: Theory X and Theory Y. Here’s how The Economist describes this concept:

“Theory X was the classic command-and-control type of management, the authoritarian style which (McGregor wrote) “reflects an underlying belief that management must counteract an inherent human tendency to avoid work”.

Theory Y is the antithesis of X. It “assumes that people will exercise self-direction and self control in the achievement of organizational objectives to the degree that they are committed to those objectives”.

Theory X is bent on devising the right sticks with which to prod work-shy labor; Theory Y looks for the carrots that will induce them to stay.

McGregor’s dichotomy has been hugely influential in management thinking ever since his death in 1964. The new organization lies firmly at the Theory Y end of his spectrum. It challenges employees, in his words, “to innovate, to discover new ways of organizing and directing human effort, even though we recognize that the perfect organization, like the perfect vacuum, is practically out of reach.”


alfredlordbleep 08.04.18 at 12:07 am

And then there’s this tidbit—

Sessions’ vision of religious liberty as, fundamentally, active and interventionist government support of religious identity seems to be in line with his wider political philosophy. Last month, for example, Sessions used the Bible verse Romans 13 to justify separating migrant families at the US-Mexico border. He used it on the grounds that the verse — part of a letter written by St. Paul urging an early Christian Roman community not to participate in a political uprising — legitimized absolute submission to government authority.

. . . Sessions’ own religious tradition, the United Methodist Church, recently formally censured him, calling for an ecclesiastical trial against him for, among other charges, inaccurately publicly representing the Christian faith.

[emphasis added]


Ronan 08.04.18 at 1:21 am

I havent read it yet but ‘Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution’ by Christopher D. Johnston and Howard G. Lavine is meant to be good.


LFC 08.04.18 at 2:27 am

Peter Dorman @10 makes considerable sense, at least IMO.


engels 08.04.18 at 2:41 am

My gut feeling is there’s something in this but all of the stuff I read was a bit disappointing (thought Adorno and Altemeyer were interesting up to a point). Isn’t this Jonathan Haidt’s thing? Thought you’d written about that before.


Kurt Schuler 08.04.18 at 2:49 am

King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership by Arnold M. Ludwig looks at 20th century rulers of all countries and their characteristics. It has nothing about partisanship, but may be worth your while because Ludwig is a psychiatrist. To summarize, for him we are in large measure hairless apes when it comes to the relationship between rulers and ruled.


engels 08.04.18 at 2:59 am

Did you know about this?

If you look at someone’s class status and their income, and you try and use that to guess whether or not they voted Remain, it turns out it’s not that much better than guesswork. It gives you around 55% accuracy, and obviously a guess would give you 50% accuracy,” Westlake says. … “If you look at attitudes to questions such as, ‘Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?’ or ‘Are you in favour of the death penalty?’ – those things are much better predictors, and you get over 70% accuracy,” he says.



mclaren 08.04.18 at 3:44 am

Considering the recent exposure of the replication crisis in psychology, and inasmuch as the standard pop-sci Meyer-Briggs “personality” test turns out to be the confection of a pair of uneducated amateurs and has been systematically debunked,





Someone already mentioned this one, but it’s worth repeating:

Bottom line? Empirical evidence seems lacking to support the hypothesis that people have fixed personality traits which can be revealed through repeatable objective testing:




So the entire question “What are the best writings about politics, partisanship and personality types?” seems bogus and highly suspect. What evidence has science provided that any such thing as fixed identifiable quantifiable “personality types” exist?

Psychometric testing has been shown to produce age-, economic class-, race- and gender-biased results.




Psychometric testing consistently fails to predict behavior. To what extent, then, can psychometric testing be said to amount to anything more than mathematized haruspicy?

Questions about politics and so-called “personality traits” fall into the same category as questions about how political beliefs are influenced by the humours in a person’s blood, or how their politic beliefs result from their location in the luminiferous aether. The sooner people stop asking these kind of foolish questions, the better off we’ll be in dealing with politics and people.

Starve some subgroup of the population, target them with constant police harassment, force them to live in ghettos and prevent them from entering prestigious colleges or getting good jobs, and I guarantee you that subgroup will start showing some interesting and apparently “objectively measurable” personality traits. Take this same subgroup and suddenly put in good neighborhoods with excellent K-12 schools and stable families with good jobs and guaranteed legacy admissions to prestigious colleges and high-paying prestigious jobs, and those allegedly objectively measurable personality traits will suddenly and magically undergo a mysterious transformation.

Personality is situational, therefore mainly dependent on socioeconomic circumstances and socioeconomic background. Change the person’s situation, and the personality traits become unrecognizable.


bad Jim 08.04.18 at 5:30 am

I’m as fond of Altemeyer as anyone else, but when I look at the American electoral landscape, and consider my outlier nephew, I’m inclined to favor cultural over psychological explanations. People tend to align with their neighbors. Opinions are contagious.

Consider the opposition to vaccinations, which so far doesn’t divide neatly right and left but clusters in certain communities. Neighbors share stories, and narratives are more convincing than arguments or evidence, so resistance to vaccination spreads, and resistance to pathogens shrinks, leading to outbreaks. In Europe and the U.S. it’s measles, in Pakistan, Syria and the Congo, it’s polio.

Sure, not everyone is wired exactly alike, but we are such social animals that our thinking and our behavior tends not to vary far from its local norm.


John Quiggin 08.04.18 at 7:32 am

@23 Among the politically active, anti-vaxerism is now clearly associated with the Republicans, as you would expect based on attitudes to science in general. However, there’s still a large group of politically disengaged but vaguely liberal alternative medicine types in the community at large, and they are concentrated in particular locations – Kieran had a post on this, I think. For both groups, antivaxerism is part of a consistent worldview rather than a belief acquired by chance exposure.

The only recent cases of a random cluster of which I’m aware are among Somali immigrants in Minnesota, and in Pakistan following the CIA’s wizard idea of posing as a vaccination team while they looked for Bin Laden.


BenK 08.04.18 at 10:16 am

There have been a whole bunch of theories bandied about to denigrate the people with whom one disagrees; and that, combined with a strong leftist tilt in the academy has created a cascading problem. Why should you a priori choose to agree with someone who despises you? It’s paradoxical!

As a result, the experts who demand default deference find instead default skepticism and take it as some sort of bizarre rejection of their self-obvious, God-given authority.

The skepticism isn’t people being per se anti-science. But a close observation of the state of science today doesn’t end up working out too well for scientists demanding deference to all randomized clinical trial conclusions, either.

That leads us to the problem of using science to judge how people who disagree with us politically are foolish, overwhelmed by fear, rigid in their thinking, using outmoded ideas, etc. It’s largely motivated reasoning. Experts in prediction are debating these issues right now and having a hard time finding solid ground in the polarization debates. People are more heterogeneous than one would imagine.

When someone asks ‘what’s the matter with Kansas’ the right response is not a reflex slap on the back and a reinforcing judgement of Kansas, but a puzzled reproach about the assumptions underlying the question – and the appropriateness of the condemnation implicit in the question.


Lee A. Arnold 08.04.18 at 11:30 am


Robert 08.04.18 at 1:13 pm

Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain is a pop science account, which John Quiggin once reviewed on here.

I probably pick among this literature based on my priors. There is at least one study that argues people are more right wing when they are “cognitively overloaded”. One way to be so overloaded is to be drunk. So that study includes fieldwork in a bar.

There’s an unrelated study in economics with another interesting setting. Lotteries and gambles look different because of framing effects. Experimental subjects would willingly sign up to a money pump they could not perceive. Such an experiment was conducted outside a Las Vegas casino.

These must have been interesting experiments to propose.


jrkrideau 08.04.18 at 3:00 pm

@ 23 John Q

The only recent cases of a random cluster of which I’m aware are among Somali immigrants in Minnesota,

From what I have read the antivax cluster of Somalis in Minnesota was the outcome of deliberate targeting by antivax activists including Andrew Wakefield.


jrkrideau 08.04.18 at 3:48 pm

@ 22 mclaren
Just in passing, for anyone in the psychometrics business it has been clear for at least 30 or 40 years that the Myers-Briggs is crap. It is something like homeopathy, a true believer knows it works. I would have just as much faith in Tarot cards.

a82 @8 posted a link to an interview with Bob Altemeyer and, at one point, the interviewer, a former US diplomat, mentioned that the US State Department used or had used it! But then, the last I heard, the US Gov’t uses polygraph testing too.


jrkrideau 08.04.18 at 3:55 pm

@ 12 Michael

Would you have a reference or link to those studies. I remember reading part of the book that described the first study but it was in a university library and I have lost the reference. I do remember being extremely dubious of the author’s claim about the 4 child-rearing questions. Her attitude to psychometric principles seemed, shall I say, a bit cavalier.

It would be very interesting to see the follow-up study.


Whirrlaway 08.04.18 at 4:07 pm

It seems to me that the characteristics Altemeyer lays out for authoritarian followers are nice-to-have characteristics for a species busy nucleating ethnic societies out of a generic herd of simians, as a driver for cultural development; the wonder is that we aren’t all like that all the time. In these days of advanced cognition authoritarianism can coalesce around relatively abstract ideas such as Nationhood or Secularism or Niceness; Trump is more of an authoritarian follower than a leader himself. A leader would be more deliberate.

The lack of self-awareness … blind-sight … is a critical feature, ensures against impersonation and that citizens will feel good about the pro patria mori thing and like altruisms when called upon. When times are sweet we are easy and like to mingle with the neighbors, but as whatever stress accumulates not so much. The point being, this isn’t just a right-wing thing although in the present situation they are the vanguard. Apparent “personality” issues are highly contingent. Humans are human, mainly.


bianca steele 08.04.18 at 5:55 pm

I agree that Peter Dorman makes good sense @10. As important as the insights of the mid 20th century were, it’s 70 years since then, and it would be unusual if we hadn’t had to learn anything additional since then. Also, I’ve come to feel that the humanistic psychology, fulfillment potential etc., has become pretty widespread, to the point where exposure to the Streisand “evolved” nonsense might be a kind of inoculation to it. IOW, the sense that either you’re “evolved” in the way a celebrity like her is able to not worry about bad stuff happening, or you’re a Morlock who probably would vote for Hitler. That’s badly expressed but maybe you know what I mean.

The tendency to do psychological studies on narrow ranges of subjects surely does have effects, beyond what Haidt and his group find it convenient to take note of. People who have conservative personalities aren’t people who grasp a Platonic Conservatism, they’re people who react in certain ways within family and group life, relative to the groups’ other beliefs. And those are not the same as they were in 1950 either.


John Holbo 08.05.18 at 2:41 am

Thanks for all this. I appreciate the suggestions.


Dr. Hilarius 08.05.18 at 5:31 am

jrkrideau @ 29: Agreed Myers-Brigss is junk. Law enforcement and government agencies continue to use polygraphs but usually more as a method of interrogation than as a tool to determine truth. People, fearful of a polygraph, will often volunteer damaging information just prior to taking one. Police will confront suspects with “failed” polygraphs to coerce confessions. Every polygrapher I’ve encountered is a true believer (at least they think they can make it work) but many police who use them are indifferent to their ability to determine truthfulness.


bad Jim 08.05.18 at 6:17 am

Responding to John Quiggin @24: Maybe. Looking at vaccination rates at different schools and pre-schools in Southern California, it was clear that attendees of Waldorf schools are especially at risk; fine, that’s anthroposophy at work.

What’s going on in my wealthy, liberal town is less clear; of our two primary schools, one boasts a vaccination rate of over 90%, the other just over 60%. The various campuses of the liberal pre-school my nieces and nephews attended are all over the lot. Two of my family members, liberal mothers with college degrees, exhibit at least some vaccine skepticism.


stephen 08.05.18 at 6:45 pm

mclaren@22: I think you’re right. One of the things the “personality” tests don’t seem to appreciate is that the same person’s opinions may change as time passes and experience changes: does the personality also change? Surely not.

Consider the case of the death penalty in the Netherlands. Abolished, in a fine moment of progressive anti-authoritarianism, in 1870. Serious change of opinion after 1940, many people reckoning that when it was abolished nobody believed that what had happened under German occupation was remotely possible. After liberation, a rather neat legal loophole was discovered: execution by firing squad was still legal, after conviction by a military court. The Netherlands being still officially at war, 1940-45, military courts were deemed to have jurisdiction over acts committed in that period, by military personnel or Dutch civilians. Hence the Bijzonder Gerechtshof, the Special Court of Justice, which sentenced 146 men and women to death, of whom 42 were shot. Could you grieve for them?

Likewise in Belgium: only one convicted murderer was executed between 1863 and 1944, after which 242 collaborators were shot. Some might regret that these did not include the pro-German and anti-Semitic, and subsequently eminent Harvard literary theorist, Paul de Man.

So there we are. Many people who in 1935 were certainly against the death penalty were, by 1945, in favour in some circumstances. Did their personalities change in response to changing circumstances? If so, as mclaren says, current personality tests have zero long-term predictive value. If their personalities remained the same while their opinions changed in response to circumstances, ditto.

PS I would not have wanted to see Paul de Man shot. Just exposed in his lifetime, and thrown out of Harvard amid universal ridicule and contempt. Alas.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.05.18 at 8:10 pm

Should anyone be interested, I have since expanded my list and prefaced it with an introduction and apologia (which makes clear my differences with the standard political science and ‘scientific psychology’ literature on this topic) and posted it on my Academia page.


Jim Harrison 08.06.18 at 12:17 am

@36 Paul de Man took his doctorate at Harvard, but he was a Yale prof when he got famous—I took one of his courses. I remember thinking at the time, “This is a frightened guy,” though I didn’t know what he had to be so afraid.


Matt 08.06.18 at 2:42 am

Polygraphs obviously work, as showing in this documentary:


engels 08.06.18 at 3:46 pm

One of the things the “personality” tests don’t seem to appreciate is that the same person’s opinions may change as time passes and experience changes: does the personality also change?



Sebastian H 08.06.18 at 4:30 pm

Paul de Man might be an interesting case study/counterexample to the idea that personality types fall naturally into political parties. A very active Nazi collaborator and propagandist in Europe but more on the left in the US.

But with that history (combined with the fact that he lied his way into various prestigious professorships) one of the champions of irreducible interpretive undecidability feels like an excellent case for investigating motivated reasoning.


engels 08.06.18 at 4:53 pm

…In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.” What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)…



WLGR 08.06.18 at 4:59 pm

Dr. Hilarius @ 34, not only is polygraph testing junk, so is the vast majority of “forensic science” as used by law enforcement, so is a great deal of eyewitness testimony as used by prosecutors and law enforcement (not to mention testimony from police officers themselves), and even DNA testing can be questionable depending on how well or badly law enforcement understands the methods they’re using. Rule of thumb, if you’ve ever seen a method used by the “good guys” on CSI or NCIS, it’s probably bullshit.

Here’s a possible take-home lesson from that set of facts about “forensic science”: we should be deeply suspicious whenever a small group of scientific practitioners takes broad methods and conclusions from a scientific field or set of fields, uses them as raw material to create a more narrowly “practical” applied subfield with clear instrumental utility for a set of wealthy and/or powerful actors in the broader society, and over time begins to associate their reputational and financial interests more and more with these outside actors at the expense of their credibility within the field of scientific research itself.

Wait a sec, I thought this thread was supposed to be about the issue of politically-driven personality psychology as advanced by figures like Jonathan Haidt… how did I manage to drift so far off topic?


Chris Martin 08.06.18 at 7:44 pm

This is article is about the interaction between education and openness to experience, one of the Big Five traits:


It includes an introduction the topic of personality and politics.


LFC 08.07.18 at 12:20 am

WLGR @43

DNA testing has been used not only by police and prosecutors but also by groups like the Innocence Project (I think that’s the name) whose mission is freeing those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, including those wrongly convicted of capital crimes. No doubt DNA testing can be used well or badly (haven’t followed the link yet), but it has helped overturn some wrong convictions (as well as probably helping to generate some justified convictions).


Dee 08.07.18 at 5:02 am

Many thanks, BenK @25 for nailing the enterprise of pathologizing those who disagree with us.


bad Jim 08.07.18 at 6:07 am

how did I manage to drift so far off topic?

Said no one ever at Crooked Timber. o 8


Z 08.07.18 at 11:44 am

The best work on political partisanship treated as a function of variation of personality at the individual level is Emmanuel Todd’s The Invention of Europe, by far. It employs a rather idiosyncratic definition of individual level, but you’ll have to read the book to find out (and then you’ll be so full of gratitude towards me that you’ll forgive me for the equivocation on individual).

Starting with anything else would be positively evil.


jrkrideau 08.07.18 at 2:30 pm

@34 Dr. Hilarius

Indeed. Polygraph sessions can work but as you say. “People, fearful of a polygraph, will often volunteer damaging information just prior to taking one”. One of my professors pointed out that a psychopath should be able to ace something like a polygraph.

But they can, I think, work in actual use. I believe the key issue is the operator. A good “reader”, I’m groping for a term here, let’s say a good poker player as polygraph operator, is likely to obtain great results just as a witch doctor can. There is, likely an excellent chance that a good operator can discriminate truthfulness in many cases just as the witch doctor can. In both cases, it is the subject’s belief not the tool that is the key.

As a university student several (cough, cough) years ago I remember a TA telling me that, amazingly, Dr. X, a local academic clinical psychologist, was obtaining excellent results in identifying and locating brain tumors using the Rorschach. He was rivaling the results of medical specialists. He, then, mentioned that he figured a cigarette package would be just as good as the Rorschach.


jrkrideau 08.07.18 at 2:56 pm

@ 43 WLGR

Rule of thumb, if you’ve ever seen a method used by the “good guys” on CSI or NCIS, it’s probably bullshit.
Well said!

Have you read Strengthening forensic science in the United States: a path forward. National Research Council (U.S.). https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228091.pdf.
Read carefully, it seems to suggest that “forensic science” is an oxymoron. The tone of disbelief is palpable . As far as I can see no “forensic science” procedure has been properly subjected to the equivalent of a blind RCT study. I am out of date though.

I do disagree with your conclusion about small group of scientific practitioners takes broad methods and conclusions from a scientific field or set of fields, uses them as raw material to create a more narrowly “practical” applied subfield “ in this case, though certainly not in others.

Assuming the information in the above reference is true, there is close to zero scientific input into “forensic science. It has been some time since I read that reference, but my memory says than most of originators of the various branches of forensic science had no scientific basis for the technique, invented it out of whole cloth, or accepted the statement of a scientist as gospel without any evidence (Galton & fingerprints) and then proceeded to bugger things up even worse by poor implementation of bad ideas.


Michael 08.07.18 at 5:30 pm


casmilus 08.08.18 at 8:28 am

In defence of TV cops: there was an episode of “Law And Order” about a crooked fingerprint-identifier who was found out to have been giving the results the DA required.


Michael 08.09.18 at 12:25 am

@30 Whoops. That link obviously didn’t work. Try
for an open starter toward the paper.


WLGR 08.09.18 at 3:11 am

jrkrideau, I haven’t read that report if only because it sounds like a long summary of the same obvious points people in the relevant fields have been shouting from the rooftops for decades. It’s perfectly clear why we haven’t stamped out all the pseudoscientific horseshit that gets treated as unimpeachable truth in courtrooms: because doing so would cut the legs out from under the entire criminal “justice” system as it presently exists, hinging as it does on the procedural precedents through which prosecutors and law enforcement can obtain more or less any set of outcomes they want, at least when facing poor defendants. (Especially important is to maintain these methods’ perceived legitimacy among potential jurors, hence the overwhelming flood of pro-cop and pro-prosecutor propaganda in mainstream media and pop culture.) As long as this system remains an indispensable tool for keeping the lower orders in line, the pseudoscientific horseshit must and shall remain unchecked.

Courtroom-style forensics may be extreme in how far it’s drifted over time from any scientific anchor, but historically speaking it does present some clear examples of the phenomenon I’m talking about, especially since much of its “scientific” lineage comes from 19th-century psychology and sociology. The most obvious epoch-making example of an opportunistic scholar lighting out from rarefied psychological circles to make their living serving moneyed/powerful interests is Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays departing psychoanalysis to found the modern field of advertising and public relations (itself a PR-infused buzzphrase for what might have once been called “propaganda”), but more relevant here are the interconnected histories of dubious science-adjacent practices like criminal psychology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral profiling, and eugenics, a legacy being carried forth even today by celebrity scholars like Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, or Charles Murray.

Compared to that breed of popsci pundit, at least advertising and PR have the bare-bones dignity of claiming some kind of meaningful market incentive (in lieu of rigorous institutional peer review) to guide practitioners toward a correct theoretical understanding of the thought processes they claim to interpret. On the other hand, much like forensic science is about producing whatever propaganda narratives are most immediately useful for prosecutors and law enforcement to justify punishing alleged criminals, Haidt-style political psychology is about producing whatever propaganda narratives are most immediately useful for well-funded ruling-class political actors to justify wedging themselves in the way of leftist inquiry in the academy. In Haidt’s case the most obvious tell is the way he reifies a peculiarly US-exclusive version of the dichotomy between “liberal” and “conservative” from sloppy poorly-defined pejoratives into paradigm-defining units of scientific analysis, which is nothing but a vaguely “scientistic” version of the exact same maneuver mainstream capitalist ideology in the US has been employing for at least a century now in its long effort to stuff any semblance of a left-of-liberal political tradition completely down the memory hole.


Collin Street 08.09.18 at 7:09 am

I’m reminded of something I read once about criminal procedure in edo japan: they needed confessions to punish, apparently, but most people didn’t confess voluntarilly, so they had to be encouraged. By, you know, brutal torture. Which we know now is worthless as evidence, but… they couldn’t just torture anybody, obviously. They needed good reason to suspect somebody, which they got by, you know, investigating, as conscienciously as they could given the tools and framework they had.

Pretty bad by modern standards, of course, but we’re supposed to get better at these things.

And then they’d say, “we reckon this guy did it”, and they’d torture him, and they’d get a confession. But they thought that it was the confession that mattered, not the conclusion that lead to the decision to torture… and so every so often it’d all go horrifically wrong for reasons they weren’t really equipped to handle.

I think forensic science serves the same role as torture here.


casmilus 08.09.18 at 9:27 am


“Edward Bernays departing psychoanalysis to found the modern field of advertising and public relations (itself a PR-infused buzzphrase for what might have once been called “propaganda”)”

Indeed – Bernays’s own book on the subject was called “Propaganda”.


casmilus 08.09.18 at 9:31 am

A few years ago I read Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders”, having seen an extract from it in a school “comprehension” exercise long before.

What I learnt from it was that in the 50s quite a few people with connections to psychoanalysis and related fields could get nice consultancy work purporting to explain how advertising could and should work with various audiences, with absolutely no validation of whether their ideas were even vaguely correct.

The most interesting aspects of the book are the incidentals and background details mentioned in passing – for example, that there was already a “woman problem” about female roles and identity, created by the workforce expansion during WW2. And also that quite a few Americans didn’t like being reminded of F.D.Roosevelt, possibly because he was associated with a bad period of history.


WLGR 08.09.18 at 1:23 pm

After a bit of thought, the right analogy with advertising isn’t whether or not advertisers correctly understand how to appeal to people, it’s whether the content of the ad itself is correct. So now we can build a cumbersome triple analogy that goes something like:

“advertising” is to “the beer tasting great and being less filling” is to “successfully convincing people to buy the beer”


“courtroom forensics” is to “the defendant being guilty” is to “successfully convincing a jury to convict the defendant”


“Haidtian political psychology” is to “US liberalism and US conservatism corresponding to fixed psychological personality types” is to “successfully convincing the US academy to weight its ideological scales to benefit conservatism and marginalize the left-of-liberal left”

[in Alex-Jones-diagramming-conspiracy-theories-on-a-chalkboard voice] Folks, it’s all connected! Jonathan Haidt is putting fluoride in the water and turning the frogs gay, folks!

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