💭 The Authoritarian Dynamic

Why is authoritarianism on the rise, and what can we do about it?
💭 The Authoritarian Dynamic


For our tenth State of the Exponential Briefing, we welcomed Dr Karen Stenner, renowned behavioral economist, to talk about the science and real-world implications of authoritarianism on liberal democracies. I’ve found Karen’s framework clarifying—although it does demand some attention to grasp.

A former Princeton University and Duke University academic, Karen published ‘The Authoritarian Dynamic’ in 2005, a landmark book on the topic of authoritarianism.

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Authoritarianism: nature or nurture?

Karen is best known for predicting the rise of authoritarianism and far right attitudes across liberal democracies. For the past 25 years, Karen’s work has been focused on understanding why authoritarianism arises and how it plays out in the real world.

Initially, the general consensus held that authoritarianism was generated by an inherent predisposition to be intolerant—a political personality of some sorts. However, that view fell out of favor as it was challenged by the observation that intolerant social behaviours such as racially-motivated hate crimes and political violence behavior rises and falls over time across societies.

An individual can behave very differently in different circumstances, despite having these enduring predispositions.  If authoritarianism were a stable personality trait, then there would be little to no changes in incidence over time. This apparent contraction or ‘puzzle’ sparked Karen’s interest in pursuing on this very topic. As Karen cogently explains:

The authoritarian dynamic is a description of the idea that intolerance is a function of the interaction between two variables: authoritarian predispositions and perceptions of what I call ‘normative threat’.

              “intolerance = authoritarianism × threat”

It maintains the idea of an enduring predisposition to be intolerant to difference, but says that it will be expressed differently under different circumstances. In particular, under the conditions of normative pressure or reassurance, there will be a greater or lesser manifestation of authoritarianism. Normative threat increases the return to authoritarianismit’s one way to think about it.

Identical twin studies, the gold standard for separating out the impact of nature versus nurture, show that an authoritarian predisposition is around 50% heritable.

Authoritarianism is linked to a lack of openness to experience, one of the five pillars of the Big Five model of personality. Someone with a high openness to experience novelty also appreciates complexity, diversity, and new puzzles. Conversely, somebody low on openness to experience, prefers things to be simple and predictable. The latter might find it quite a stretch to live in a diverse, modern and politically vibrant model of democracy.

As Karen emphasises, it’s not the case that all intolerance of difference comes from authoritarianism. But around the world, authoritarianism is the primary source.

How can we distinguish authoritarianism from conservatism?

Karen has a useful framework to think about how authoritarianism is different from conservatism:

Authoritarianism is a dimension that ranges from a strong preference for obedience and conformity to autonomy and diversity at the other end. So I call authoritarianism having a very strong preference for oneness and sameness. And it's an individual’s conception of the appropriate balance between group authority and individual autonomy. And group authority produces conformity. And individual autonomy produces diversity. There's a preferred state at one end and a preferred in state at the other. So authority will produce conformity. Individual autonomy tends to produce society for greater diversity.

All of us are located somewhere along that dimension. People who have strong predisposition to authoritarianism just feel extremely uncomfortable with different ways of life, people who look different, and people who believe different things. Authoritarians have a very strong need to be part of a collective, to have everyone else in the collective along with themselves. And it’s not just about themselves, it’s about their demands for the behaviour of othersthey desire to use the authority of the state and coercion to bring everyone’s behavior you're into conformity with the collective norm.

But how are authoritarianism and conservatism similar?

They share a tendency to be averse to difference. While authoritarianism is an aversion to difference across space, conservatism is an aversion to difference over time. The former one is aversion to novelty, variety, and complexity and the latter is aversion to change.

On the upside, conservatives can be supportive of democracy in the sense that they are likely to be strongly invested in protecting and defending a well-established, stable, liberal democracy.

In her experiments, Karen creates conditions that allow her to gather proof to support her theories on authoritarianism. In one of her randomised control experiments, she found that there is

  • no relationship between authoritarianism and conservatism,
  • no necessary relationship either between authoritarianism and attitudes towards change versus stability, and
  • no relationship between that and attitudes towards government intervention.

Fear as the basis of authoritarianism

In a diverse modern liberal democracy or any diverse modern society with little to no racial and ethnic uniformity, what make us an ‘us’ are shared authority and shared beliefs? Once a society is not based upon race and ethnicity, the things that bind us are twofold: first, our beliefs; and second, leadership. For someone with authoritarian tendencies who is strongly invested in the idea of ‘us’, the loss of respect and confidence in leaders, institutions and wider sources of authority are distressing.

“Normative threats” are threats to this feeling of oneness and sameness.

Karen’s experiments illustrate well the notion that authoritarian predispositions increase with normative threat. For example, in one experiment, participants’ authoritarian predispositions or lack thereof were measured prior to being asked to read a newspaper article on one of the two classic noted threats: belief diversity, and then the loss of confidence in leaders and institutions. Finally, participants’ attitudes and behavior are measured to see how reading the article affected them.

A key finding is that reading a short article can make someone with an authoritarian predisposition to be strongly intolerant even if initially they were almost indifferent or moderate, or even moderately tolerant in their beliefs.

This echoes what we see now in mainstream media: articles that deplore how no one agrees on anything anymore, how we lost the things that made us and how leaders and institutions have failed. This negative narrative in the mainstream media creates a perfect storm to activate predispositions toward authoritarianism.

A more positive message is that, although people’s authoritarian predispositions are difficult to change, it is possible to change people’s perceptions of normative threat: they can either be reassured or threatened.

Karen puts forward two solutions for countering or diminishing authoritarianism:

Reduce perception of normative threat and provide reassurance by sharing greater belief conformity and good leadership stories. This makes authoritarians appear more tolerant—although their predispositions have not been altered, the manner in which they are being expressed no longer creates negative externalities for everybody else. Under reassuring conditions, authoritarians can be the people who are most invested in a stable and well-functioning society. Karen’s experiment shows that under normative threat, predispositions are being activated, which in turn increases polarisation and the feeling that ‘nobody agrees on anything anymore’.  For example, authoritarians become extremely intolerant while libertarians (defined as people with a preference for individual freedom) move in the opposite direction and are more supportive of diversity, complexity and freedom.

Karen took her theory to test in the real world and measured in the general population the tendency to vote for Trump. The data clearly shows the doubling of people’s willingness to vote for Trump under conditions of threat.

  • Change perceptions and boundaries of ‘us’ by making people with authoritarian tendencies feel reassured that there is no other greater source of difference. For example, if authoritarians thought there were aliens out there, they’d become more tolerant and supportive of all other humans who are now part of the ingroup rather than the outgroup. Authoritarians become much more tolerant of racial and ethnic diversity within their society if they think there is even greater diversity outside.

Has technology innovation itself and the associated rapid pace of change fostered feelings of oneness, togetherness and shared culture? Karen’s view is that nowadays the amount of choice that technology affords has made it much harder for people to share even the same water cooler conversation on the latest TV shows.

The vast inequality in the US means that different socio-economic groups and demographic groups live entirely separate, different lives. Fundamentally, reducing inequality will allow more people to live similar lives and have more shared experiences,which in turn, will reduce the manifestation of authoritarian tendencies.

In the future, Karen thinks that technology can play a more positive role in creating shared experiences and in fostering social cohesion. But also, governments can play a role in reducing perceptions of normative threat through better, more inclusive institutional design.

What to take away

It might appear counter-intuitive, but to attenuate authoritarianism, one way forward is to find positive, practical ways to be more inclusive of those who feel threatened by the fast-changing world. It’s about fostering feelings of oneness, wherever we may find it. It’s about finding where our diverse modern liberal democracy feels coherent, cohesive and more reassuring for all people, including those with authoritarian tendencies. Could something such as climate change, a threat to us all, bring us closer together? Far-fetched and optimistic, but not impossible.

Please share your thoughts below!

Best wishes,

P.S. Thanks to Diana Foltean for her research and editorial help.

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