tom costello
Today on MindMatters we interview Thomas Costello, Emory University PhD candidate and lead author of a groundbreaking new study on leftwing authoritarianism. Long thought by social psychologists to be the exclusive of social conservatives (RWA), studies of authoritarianism on the left have been few and far between. Until now. Despite the almost willful ignorance about the subject in the field, LWA really does exist, and Costello and colleagues are clarifying its structure as a valid construct. It turns out that rightwing and leftwing authoritarians have a lot in common - and some differences too.

Join us as we pick Tom's brain about the history of the study of authoritarianism, how it became associated exclusively with conservatism, and what the latest studies are revealing about authoritarians on the left: those anti-conventionalists who channel their aggression against existing hierarchies and favor top-down censorship, and who are more willing to participate in political violence than their peers.

Running Time: 01:03:04

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Here is the transcript:

Harrison: Welcome back to Mind Matters everyone. I'm Harrison Koehli. I've got Adam Daniels joining me today.

Adam: Hello.

Harrison: And as a special guest, we have Tom Costello. He is a PhD candidate at Emory University. His website is and we'll include that in the show description. We've got Tom on to discuss one paper in particular but also the general themes of his work, authoritarianism. He's co-author on this paper with several others. It's called Clarifying the Structure and Nature of Left Wing Authoritarianism. So that's what we're going to be focusing on today.

First I want to welcome you to the show Tom.

Tom: Thank you.

Harrison: And ask you if there's anything you want to just say off the bat.

Tom: Yeah sure. That paper and authoritarianism in general as an area of study I think are very interesting because of not only because of how relevant they are to today's politics but because authoritarianism is very multifaceted and complex. Because of that, the way that it looks on the left and right may tell us a lot about the nature of the construct in general.

So one reason I think the left authoritarianism paper is important is because no one has really looked at it very closely before. It's a really fruitful area that I think can tell us a lot about politics in general, not just left or right or anything.

Harrison: Yeah. In the paper I think you guys mentioned - I'll probably have the numbers wrong - but you did a Google Scholar search and found that there's 12,700 results for right wing authoritarianism and at the time that you did this search prior to writing this paper, there were 635 results for left wing authoritarianism.

Tom: Yeah. The difference will not have changed. That's pretty stark. It's something that is surprising to people outside of psychology because obviously there have been authoritarian regimes with at least nominally left wing politics, economically certainly, and to a lesser extent socially on the left too. So the fact that psychological science has claimed to have identified authoritarians as this underlying psychological disposition, that then doesn't extend to people of left wing beliefs is sort of implausible.

Harrison: You give a bit of history in the first part of the paper on the history of the study of the concept and the construct of authoritarianism going back to the 1930s with the psychoanalysts and Frankfurt School guys like Theodore Adorno and the F-scale. {laughter} I think that was such a funny name,...

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: ...especially given the current language. But Authoritarian Personality was the book they published, right? In 1950.

Tom: Yes.

Harrison: Since then we've had RWAs, right wing authoritarianism that was brought in by Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba I think?

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: You quote some stuff from his writings where he's saying, "Maybe we would have written about left wing authoritarianism but it just doesn't really exist."

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: So there's not only a tendency not to look at it but a tendency to deny that there's anything to look at in the first place. "There used to be some left wing authoritarians but they're just not around anymore." Maybe there's something to that. Maybe when Altemeyer was writing that there was a lull in extremist leftist activity. I don't know.

Tom: Yeah. Altemeyer was a brilliant guy, as was Adorno, but I think that the arc of this research literature and the reason no one has really studied the left is very telling about how important the decisions that scientists make are, in terms of what they choose to study, in creating bodies of knowledge.

So to give you a little context, the F-scale has nine different components and they're really pretty heterogeneous. They include different things like in addition to submission to authority and aggression with outsiders, things like fear of sex and conspiracy theories and thinking in certain ways, lots of very different things that aren't necessarily correlated with each other in most people. So to be able to put a total score on that is very difficult because these things aren't related to each other but that's what people did. So the F-scale doesn't work because of that.

What Altemeyer did was that he looked at that and said, "We need to fix this" and he chopped off the parts of Adorno's conceptualization that weren't correlated with each other and it was a much narrower conceptualization after that. There had been this ongoing debate about the extent to which authoritarianism existed in the left and right and in doing that Altemeyer said, "Okay, so we're going to make this something that is indicative of conservatives, that would make them interchangeable" and so defined authoritarianism as right wing authoritarianism in those respects.

And then from there the measure really took off and people started using it and there are all these studies about "Here's what's correlated with right wing authoritarianism. Here's where if you manipulate this you get that with right wing authoritarianism" because the measures there and the conceptualization suggests that it's on the right whereas you could just as easily have chopped off different components, called that left wing authoritarianism and the opposite thing would have happened maybe. Maybe not, but I think a lot of this dearth of work on left wing authoritarianism is just because of what researchers wanted to study at the time.

Harrison: I guess - and I'm totally guessing here - I've heard various off-the-cuff estimates that most scholars in these areas tend to be liberals or more on the left side of the spectrum so it would be natural that if they're thinking about authoritarianism, Nazis, who supports Nazis, probably that's going to influence how they set up their scale to begin with.

Tom: Yeah. And you'd hope that scientists wouldn't do that but scientists are human beings and one of the things that psychology has told us is that we're often very irrational and biased in how we approach things even when we don't think we're being irrational and biased. So you're totally right. The estimates are something like well over nine and 10 psychologists have left wing beliefs and a far greater proportion than the normal population. It's not just "I'm a centrist liberal." It's pretty far left beliefs. So it makes sense that this thing has happened with the study of authoritarianism.

That being said, it has been very fruitful. There have been lots of very important discoveries made using the right wing authoritarianism measure so it's not like the end of the world but I do think it is a pretty big blind spot, the lack of left wing authoritarianism. That's one thing I was trying to do with the paper was to correct the blind spot.

Harrison: That leads me to ask this: Given that something like nine out of 10 plus people in the field tend to have a leftist orientation, how did you fit into that and what has the response been? Do you get dirty looks when you're walking down the halls at the school? I guess it's Zoom meetings nowadays. But how do you situate yourself in that climate?

Tom: Now that the paper is out, maybe I'll get some dirty looks at conferences going forward. For the most part people have been very thoughtful and open in thinking about the paper. I think it's something that, for psychological scientists at least, makes sense and has been like, "Why has no one done this yet?" sort of response.

For the broader public though I've definitely gotten responses like, "You shouldn't have done this study. It's going to be used by a racist so they justify their beliefs", that sort of thing. So I've definitely gotten some negative responses. I find that when I explain the work, people understand but just seeing it on its face, that's when folks seem to get angry.

Harrison: It's kind of a reflection of the polarization going on too because you could switch that around as well with the right wing authoritarianism. When you see some claims about right wing authoritarianism you'll get conservatives who will say, "You're just lumping us all in as authoritarians" and that might be to a large degree what the scale actually does. But just seeing that, 'authoritarianism is right wing' and when you see left wing authoritarianism, "You're saying that because I'm left wing I'm also authoritarian." But really, like you said, when you actually get into it, no, there's authoritarianism as a subset of liberals and a subset of conservatives and they happen to have a lot in common with each other.

Tom: Exactly. Exactly. That was the question we were setting out to answer. Obviously this exists because we've seen it in the real world. So it's sort of a moot point to ask if it exists. Now the opponents of left wing authoritarianism might say, "Yes it exists in practice but that doesn't mean that people on the left are psychologically disposed to authoritarianism." In those contexts communism was the tradition, the status quo. So the authoritarians were just adhering to the system that they knew.

So you might say that Stalinists were right wing authoritarians by that definition. Now I think that argument has some problems but there are people who would argue that left wing authoritarianism, as a psychological phenomenon, doesn't exist, even though we've seen left wing regimes that are authoritarian, if that makes sense.

Harrison: Yes. Did you have something else to say about that?

Tom: No.

Harrison: That's one of the things that I wanted to get into on this program. You can read the paper online. I believe it's on PsyArXiv?

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: A preprint site for now?

Tom: A preprint posted on PsyArXiv. The typeset published version should be online soon and that will be behind a paywall. So the way that you'll probably get it is through PsyArXiv.

Harrison: Okay. For any listeners or viewers that check it out, it's a long paper - 47 pages in the preprint. It's quite an elaborate study. It includes a series of studies that you did, six iterations analyzing different things and refining as you go. So it goes through all of them. There's a lot of interesting tidbits at each phase of the experiment, of the paper, but of course some of the most interesting things for a layman like me are in the introduction and the conclusion, even though there's a lot of good stuff in the middle.

One of the final things that you talk about is this question of 'what is this exactly?'. A bit later on I want to get into some specifics about left wing and right wing, what the similarities and the differences are, but maybe first I want to talk about this, where you're asking the question, "What is authoritarianism really? Is there an underlying authoritarianism that can show up as left wing or right wing depending on some other variable that will determine the specific ideology of any given individual or any given authoritarian individual or is there actually a difference between left wing authoritarianism and right wing authoritarianism?"

You can't mesh them together. There's something fundamentally different about them. This is an open question at this point, right?

Tom: Absolutely.

Harrison: Can you get into that a bit? Where do you lean?

Adam: Yeah, because in your paper you actually bring all of these different variables up and say, "We don't really know if it is this" and "We don't really know if it is that". When I read that I thought I'd never even thought of that conceptualization as being possibly true that maybe there's this authoritarian seed or kernel that has its own manifestations in one or the other, or these are two possibly totally distinct phenomena. So that was one thing that I was wanting to ask as well, was where do you lean? You can't say definitively - or at least that's what you said in your paper.

Harrison: You've got to have a hunch.

Adam: Yeah, what's your hunch? {laughter}

Tom: The headline is that we don't know but my hunch is that there's probably a shared psychological core that is then socialized in different ways towards the left or the right. You could almost think of political ideology as a prism through which authoritarianism manifests. So it's going to colour the way that left versus right wing authoritarians act but the basic disposition, the authoritarianism, is the same.

That is what I think is going on but I don't have enough data to say that with confidence. It's also possible that it's a situation almost like - I think I used this term in the paper, convergent evolution - where you get mammals that swim and have fins that look very much like the fins of fish and these are things that evolved via separate branches but ended up looking very, very similar and doing similar things.

So it could be that psychologically something similar has occurred to that where right wing authoritarians, left wing authoritarians are both authoritarian but they follow different paths together.

Harrison: Yeah, because in that section you simplify it to a very simple formulation that left wing authoritarians oppose the system in power and right wing authoritarians support the system in power and that perhaps they do so for different reasons. You give the example of communism and fascism. With communism there are explicitly humanitarian goals and objectives and you could even say it's almost like institutionalized anti-authoritarianism. When you look at communist ideology there's a very anti-authoritarian streak to it. That's what Marx was all about.

But when you look at fascism, it's explicitly authoritarian. So you have what could be these two different motivations but on the other hand, you also have this overlap like you're saying. I'm wondering if it's a bit of both, kind of like a Venn diagram where there is this overlap but on the outer edges there's something else going on.

Tom: Yeah. I think that's likely. I think that's a great way to think about it, totally. There's this quote from Stalin, I think it was pre-revolution, where he says, "We need to overthrow the government but in order to have a great regime consistent with Marxist principles we need to be authoritarians and we need to tamp down dissent after we've risen to power." I forget the exact quote, I'd have to double check.

That sentiment is very complicated actually. That's a complex idea in a way that will to power, 'might is right', far right fascist type things don't incorporate necessarily. Complex thinking has long been thought to be a key component of authoritarianism, at least right wing authoritarianism and we did find that both left and right wing authoritarians were more dogmatic and rigid and less complex thinkers than other people. But we also found that the effect was stronger for right wing authoritarians so that may be one difference.

Harrison: Which was stronger for right wing authoritarians? The dogmatism.

Tom: It's a little complicated because I think that the measures that we use to measure dogmatism are designed such that there are differences between liberals and conservatives and how they respond. So I think this may just be a function of some bias in the measure. But we found that right wing authoritarians were more dogmatic and rigid.

Harrison: Okay. One of the things that came to mind when I was thinking about this, I was recently reading something that had a section on the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the comment was made that a lot of the people either participating in the revolution against the communist government were ex-communists. Maybe I'll just read it. There's a question that you ask and I think it is phrased pretty well so I'm going to see if I can find that.
"Despite left wing authoritarians and right wing authoritarians, LWA's and RWA's marked similarities, it remains to be seen whether left wing authoritarians who successfully overthrow the establishment tend to turn around and defend the new status quo thereby mirroring the right wing authoritarians who came before them."
Tom: Right.

Harrison: I'd written down that question earlier on this printout that I have of the paper. So if left wing authoritarians have their revolution, do they become right wing authoritarians? I was thinking about this in terms of individuals. Let's say you have a left wing revolutionary whose revolutionary movement gains power and they support it, will they then be classified as a right wing authoritarian simply by virtue of them...

Adam: Becoming the establishment.

Harrison: Yeah.

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: It seems weird, right?

Tom: Hanna Arendt, the wonderful philosopher has this quote, 'the most radical revolutionary becomes a conservative the day after the revolution'. I don't know if that's true. That is one thing studying this would be a great way of getting at the question of whether there's a shared core or how much does that Venn diagram overlap. That would be the thing you'd do to really answer that question. The problem is how do you predict where there's going to be a revolution? It's incredibly difficult to get those data.

So I don't know the answer to that question and I wish I did. But I think it's a really, really interesting one because if the only difference is orientation towards the status quo because of political preferences and the status quo becomes the politics you prefer and you're an authoritarian, then suddenly you've shifted from left to right in your authoritarianism. That seems really plausible.

But if there's something that's really important about the psychology of 'I want to overthrow things' versus 'I want to protect things' then you wouldn't anticipate that shift.

Harrison: Right.

Tom: So it's a really important question.

Harrison: That's why I used the image of this Venn diagram where there is some overlap but not all of it because in the example of the Hungarian revolution you had ex-communists that I presume - and again I can't say for sure - I presume would have supported maybe even the Russian revolution or maybe even the institution of communism in Hungary but eight years of communism, they're like, "No, I can't get behind this. This isn't real communism." You saw that all across the USSR and eastern Europe where you have all these ex-communists or even current communists who were against the government because they didn't think it was sufficient or at all communist in nature. They were using communism as a mask of sanity or a cover.

Tom: Hervey Cleckley.

Harrison: Yes, exactly. But the question then is would those people even be considered left wing authoritarians to begin with? Maybe not. Can you be some version of a revolutionary leftist that isn't THAT revolutionary leftist? The kind that would go out in the streets and engage in political violence?

Tom: There's a lot of debate about this. I think people would disagree with me in saying that left wing authoritarians are always revolutionary. There are people who would argue there are currently left wing authoritarians who don't want to overthrow the government necessarily. So there's different perspectives here.

But I think that yes, you can have a revolutionary who's not authoritarian, by the same token. The way they'd do that would be within a social democratic system. I'm not a trained philosopher or historian so here's where we're getting out of my element, right? But in terms of people's personality and their psychology, I certainly think you can have revolutionary politics and not be an authoritarian.

Harrison: Okay. So we've got those people out of the way now. {laughter} But now we've got someone like Vladimir Lenin or Stalin who WERE authoritarian leftists.

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: They were not only revolutionary but violently revolutionary to an extreme degree as in the quote that you paraphrased, who then came to power and became the established authority. Then naturally because they were now in power, supported that power for many years. So I think you can say that without a doubt there is at least a subset of left wing authoritarians that, by definition of supporting the new status quo, do become right wing in that sense. The issue for me would be - this is where I'd like to see future research go - is to tease that out further. Like you said, it's difficult, but that seems to me to be at least maybe a starting point for finding that basic authoritarianism that's shared between both and I think also - we haven't talked about it yet - but the social dominance orientation.

Could you talk a bit about SDO or social dominance, how that relates to right wing authoritarianism and then how that was significant for this study on left wing authoritarianism?

Tom: Sure. I think much of what you just said, I very much agree with. But to chat about SDO-social dominance orientation-I spoke at the beginning of our talk about how authoritarianism had changed in its conceptualization over time in psychology, so we had Adorno and Altemeyer. Altemeyer narrowed it down by cutting parts out of Adorno's conceptualization. One of the parts he cut off was the aggressive part, the kicking down at people below you and prejudice and that sort of thing. He really constrained it just to submission to established authority and called that right wing authoritarians.

What social dominance orientation is, is that aggressive component. It is the kicking down at people and the construct, the term social dominance didn't come from Altemeyer. It came from a Harvard psychologist, Jim Sidanius, but it maps on very well to authoritarian aggression. Altemeyer later argued that this was that second component of the authoritarian personality that was missing. Later John Duckett took that even further and really tested it and looked at that in all different ways and found pretty good evidence that that's the case.

So what I did in looking at LWA was that I didn't just want to focus on the submission component. I didn't just want to focus on right wing authoritarianism. I wanted to look at both aggression and other aspects of authoritarianism in people with left wing beliefs. Also, there was no reason at the time nor is there now, to think that those two components are the only components of left wing authoritarianism. We've only studied it for the most part or predominantly studied it in people on the right. We've only studied right wing authoritarians so why should we expect left wing authoritarians to have the same exact bits?

So we didn't want to limit ourselves by doing that. But what we found, really interestingly I think, was that when you compared the profiles of our LWA construct in terms of their relations with all sorts of different things like personality traits and thinking styles, motivations, beliefs and attitudes, worldviews, that kind of stuff, when you compared that with RWA and SDO you found this really clear pattern of similarities and actually there were different facets of LWA that mapped onto RWA versus SDO.

There was one that looked a lot like RWA in terms of what personality traits it was correlated with. Then there was another one that looked like SDO in terms of what personality traits it was correlated with. That strongly supports this idea that there's almost a two-pronged fact, that authoritarianism has this aggression and submission component, the difference being that in LWA the aggression is directed at the present hierarchy instead of at people who are trying to overthrow the present hierarchy and the same goes for right wing authoritarians. That was a lot of information and constructs and different things. {laughter}

Harrison: I remember back in 2006 or 2007 I read Altemeyer's book that he had on his website, The Authoritarians so it's been a long time since I read it. But I remember him talking about what he called in the book social dominators, how there were these two related concepts in right wing authoritarianism. There's the authoritarian submission which is the followers and then there's the social dominators.

If we come back to the example of the Russian revolution or a communist revolution like that, you've got left wing revolutionaries and you've got some of them, maybe not all, who are prototypical social dominators. This is where you get a guy like Lenin or Stalin that comes in and they just fit the role. They do the job very well because that's what they're designed to do. But then you have this submission. The authoritarian submission is more of a follower.

Maybe you can clear this up for me. When you're looking at authoritarian submission, if we take an example of an individual - maybe we can't because we'd need more individuals to capture all of this - but you've got an authoritarian and they will support a social - I'm getting confused in how I want to phrase this. Will a submissive authoritarian engage in social dominance activities like putting down people below them or will they just support another person doing that, like the social dominator? Does that make sense?

Tom: Yeah. The way that Altemeyer wrote about this is a little bit different from the way that I think about it and the way that it's thought about in the Duckett's model that I mentioned. It turns out that RWA, which is the submission component and social dominance which is the social domination/aggression component, are pretty highly correlated in most people, about .5 or so. For example height and sex are correlated .4. So .5 is a pretty strong correlation. That means that in the general population you get both the submission and the aggression.

Harrison: Okay.

Tom: There is probably a different set of traits that go with being that dominating authoritarian leader but that turns out to be pretty hard to study because that's not as common and it's also something that has maybe fewer practical implications because what gives these movements power is the people who submit. It's not the people at the top.

Harrison: Okay. That reminds me of the personality traits. In several of these various studies that you're doing of the phases of this investigation, you're looking at a lot of personality traits correlated with either LWA or RWA and then what they share and how they differ. Several things stood out for me. This was when you identified the three factors of LWA, the anti-hierarchical aggression, anti-conventionalism and the top-down censorship. So in anti-hierarchical aggression, this seems to capture the authoritarian dominance that you see when you're looking at right wing authoritarianism, the SDO type of thing.

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: So I'm just going to read this.
"In the personality domain, anti-hierarchical aggression was marked by low agreeableness, low honesty/humility and low conscientiousness."
Those are three of the HEXACO traits, the Big Five plus honesty and humility more or less. What I found interesting about not just this but in some of the other parts of this study, you'll find correlations between right wing authoritarianism and high conscientiousness and low openness or something like that. That seems like pretty much a standard correlation that you'd find in conservatives, right?

Tom: Yes.

Harrison: Because as far as I know, conservatives are conscientious, not necessarily very open. Liberals are open and maybe not as conscientious and maybe more agreeable. I can't remember how strong all those correlations are.

Tom: A little less. Yeah, that's right.

Harrison: So when you're looking at left wing authoritarianism, you've got this low agreeableness, low honesty/humility and low conscientiousness which are also a pretty good description of the psychopathic personality, at least the personality traits of the psychopathic personality. Did you have a comment on that?

Tom: Yes. I am interested in psychopathy. I have published a little bit on it. My PhD advisor, who unfortunately passed away last year, Scott Lilienfeld, was one of the world's experts on psychopathy.

Harrison: Yeah. I had a chance to meet him once.

Tom: He is perhaps the most brilliant person I've ever met. He is really an incredible find. In any case, psychopathy was something that you do see; the left wing authoritarians do look similar to highly psychopathic people, with some caveats. It's not exactly clear that the mask part of the mask of sanity is there, the boldness or fearless dominance is sometimes called the social persuasiveness and bravery and that kind of stuff.

But in terms of low agreeableness or antagonism, even impulsivity, just inhibition you did see that with authoritarians. And you also see that with high SDO people. So high SDO goes with low agreeableness, honesty, humility. So there were some similarities there.

I think your point though that these personality profiles are also kind of confounded with those found typically in liberals or conservatives is a really good one though. That's a big problem with the RWA scale. It is in no small part a measure of social conservatism so it's hard to disentangle. If we're studying 'what are the personality traits of authoritarians?' it's hard to disentangle that social conservatism and authoritarianism and we end up not knowing what the personality traits are. That's why LWAs, because we need to be able to say, "Here are the commonalities across them. This is what we really need to drill down into to understand it."

Harrison: So one of the things that you find are the differences between the RWAs and the LWAs. Can you talk a bit about the distinct features of the LWAs? I think one of them is the emotionality. So you don't find a lot of neuroticism in SDO and RWA but you actually find neuroticism in the LWA, which also could be confounded with the left wing personality.

Tom: That's a good point. We found that LWA was associated with neuroticism or negative emotionality. I think an RWA was not, or to a lesser extent. I think that one reason that that's important is because it has long been theorized that authoritarianism is a reaction to threat and that people who are high on trait fearfulness tend to be conservative and authoritarian because they're trying to insure that the world around them is orderly and secure and everything is predictable and safe.

So authoritarian systems of government and philosophies are one way of doing that. The problem though is that neuroticism is in no small part about anxiety and fearfulness, about the world around you and uncertainty and it doesn't make sense that it wouldn't be correlated with authoritarianism unless we're seeing this compound with ideology. I think that was a particularly important finding and we did find that LWA predicted neuroticism over and above political ideology, controlling for ideology.

So yeah, that's one interesting avenue. There's more work to be done there because again, I'm not sure the extent to which we can draw conclusions without having a good measure of general authoritarianism.

Harrison: I was looking for something. Do you have something to ask Adam, before I find my next question?

Adam: Just going off on that for a second, as you were explaining that, it seems to me, from my understanding of the population at large, that you have people who are higher in trait neuroticism and such, that they do lean more to the liberal side of things. So that kind of makes sense. But then social conservatives or people who lean towards that side of the political spectrum seem to be lower in trait neuroticism and if there is this theory or idea that authoritarianism is a reaction to fearfulness, that doesn't really make sense to me in that kind of a way because these are people who aren't highly neurotic people. They're not desperately clinging in that kind of a way. So it seems to me that there's something else going on. It's not a fear thing but it is - I don't know...

Harrison: Yeah, what is it Tom? {laughter}

Adam: What is it?

Tom: That's a great point. I think at least where that's coming from is conflating social conservatism with authoritarianism, not you but the measure and people's conceptualization. I think those are very distinct things, even if they're correlated organically, which may be the case. But they're distinct. And so having the low neuroticism and that sort of thing, low fearfulness, that may go with social conservatism although I'm not saying that it does. But I think authoritarianism is just a different thing and the reason we're finding almost paradoxical patterns is because we're not cleanly separating those out as Harrison just said.

Adam: That makes a lot more sense to me. There was another point along that line. After reading your paper - and I think I said this earlier - I had to re-evaluate what it is that I was actually talking about or thinking about, or maybe I was talking to you about it Harrison before we started this conversation. I had to rethink what it was that I was looking at, what it is that we're trying to talk about, what is it that we're trying to describe because, like you were saying, so much about what we know as authoritarianism is defined by right wing authoritarianism because that was essentially what they were trying to do. Like you said in your paper, they were trying to figure out why people were supporting Hitler and how he was able to come to power.

So they were looking at a very specific thing. But that's not what I think you were trying to look at and understand and I don't think that's what we are trying to understand either; that is what lies beneath it. I think you got into that at a couple of points, like you said in your paper, were pointing out the factors that both of these groups have these specific personality traits and I think that's more along the lines of where the essence of what at this point we're calling authoritarianism but isn't necessarily authoritarianism, if that makes sense.

Tom: It makes total sense. I think that's exactly right actually. What we think of when we say authoritarianism is not necessarily what it is and the big question is what is it.

Adam: Exactly.

Tom: If it's not this right wing social conservative mixed with aggressions picture, what is it? I think it is a combination of personality traits, probably. There are elements of socialization in there too. I think what's interesting though is that it's used to interact with politics. You can't be an authoritarian without having an avenue for that authoritarianism to manifest into.

I suppose you could be an authoritarian in your job. Actually there are probably some authoritarian academics. {laughter}

Harrison: Yeah.

Tom: But you need a venue for it. So that's I think what makes it different than just personality. There's no place for it to be consistent across situations as personality traits are because there are only one or two situations that people care about enough for them to be authoritarian. It's kind of a new area in that way. Historically it started out with people thinking it was personality then they moved. It's social, it's motives, it's this, it's that and I suspect personality. I'm open to other opinions but yeah, the question is what is it and how can we define it and that's kind of the next step. That's what I'm doing now, trying to figure out. Let's define what's unique about left and right because that's important on its own as you've mentioned. But then let's see what's at the center of the Venn diagram if we want to build an intervention to stop authoritarianism. That's what we would make it qualified for. And we need to know what it is.

Harrison: One of the thoughts that came to me was I was wondering if certain aspects - I'm not certain which ones - can be seen as a kind of maybe an evolutionary psychological term for it - but a hijacked adaptive trait. So I think about something like sharing, empathy and trust. Those tendencies and actions when they're enacted, can be not only personally but socially beneficial when you engage in a trusting behaviour and sharing and things like that. But you can have something like a psychopath who will then manipulate that in an artificial situation where the person is then, out of the goodness of their heart, supporting something or someone that it turns out is a total lie.

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: They're just getting swindled. So I was thinking about that in terms of authoritarian submission where in any social group maybe just for the good of the social group, if the system is relatively decent and is working, then it just seems natural to me that a lot of people or a subset of the population will almost automatically enforce it or submit to it because it works.

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: So in a healthy society you wouldn't see anything wrong with that. It would just be conservatism. "Well this works. Let's keep it. I'm not bashing anyone over the head. It works and it works for a reason."

Tom: If we want to change things let's do it incrementally and make sure we're not messing things up.

Harrison: So you've got these normal and probably healthy given the right conditions traits, behaviors or attitudes and it's when something else gets mixed into it that it takes this dark personality - and that's where I lean, is the dark personality angle. You mentioned dark personality and psychopathy and a few things in here. I'm not sure if the data yet supports such a strong linkage but the way I see it - which may be wrong - is that that's probably getting closer to that underlying thing. It probably is more of a social dominance thing. When you have the SDO, when you have the dark personality enter the equation, then let's say you have corruption in your society which is not healthy and which is causing problems.

Well then all of a sudden, that pathologizes the natural submission that you would have to a good government just to make sure everything works and it legitimizes the opposition to that corruption, which I think Jonathan Haidt's work on the moral taste buds would come into play. You have someone who says, "That's not cool."

But then in the leftist attitude, then you've got your own social dominators who are like, "Yeah! Let's get rid of this system. Let's tear it down because I really want to be in that position."

Tom: Yeah. That's really interesting. I find that model very intriguing. I think the point you make about dark personality traits, psychopathy, psychopathic traits, whatever you want to call them, being almost like a hijacking, I think that comparison with authoritarianism is really nice because one thing about a lot of personality disorder traits is that they are inherently interpersonal. They are something that exists in relation to other people.

So you can't be an authoritarian on a desert island. {laughter} You need other people to be an authoritarian with.

Harrison: That would make a good comedy movie actually. {laughter}

Adam: Talking to yourself. "No! You will obey my rules!" {laughter}

Tom: Right. And the trick with psychopathy is that it's an unusual correlation of patterns in the general population. So it's traits that don't actually typically go together. So normally if you get someone who seems on their face very charming and nice and warm, or that you're drawn to them, the heuristic you have is that they're good and empathetic and nice and I can trust them.

It's a heuristic because those things are correlated in the general population but in psychopaths it's the opposite. So it's not even necessarily something they're doing intentionally. Maybe they're not even trying to manipulate. It's just that they are not nice and they are impulsive and they will do whatever they can to get what they want.

So naturally they're going to benefit from that, whether or not they're trying to manipulate you. People are going to trust them erroneously. That sort of interpersonal dynamic could be playing out with authoritarianism or social dominance orientation that you suggest. I'm thinking through it as I say it. I guess the bottom line point is, I think that there's a big personality component with authoritarianism but that it's pretty much interpersonal.

Adam: As you were talking about it - and this is something that I was thinking about earlier, as you had said earlier Tom, it's kind of hard to separate the authoritarianism from the political beliefs. It's deeply enmeshed and the way that we have seen the authoritarianism going too far in a lot of respects, like the revolutionary left wing authoritarian becoming violent or a right wing authoritarian being violent, whatever it is, that is also deeply tied to this enmeshment with a psychopathological person who is manipulating in some way, shape or form. Maybe I shouldn't necessarily go there but I'm thinking specifically with the rioting that's been going on for the past year, two years, more.

Harrison: Just a quick comment on that. This is not representative of protestors. I wonder if it's representative of violent protestors because I've seen a lot of police reports after the fact where one of the violent protestors is arrested and it turns out he's got a huge criminal record, maybe violence and sexual assault against children, rape. You see this all very often in actual protestors who have been arrested. It makes me wonder sometimes when I'm looking at the police reports, "Are they out there because they actually have the political belief or for some of them is it just an excuse to have a little fun and destroy some stuff?" So maybe there's also an element of that in there.

Tom: One thing that that brings up for me is that it gets at the interpersonal impact or taking advantage of point that you made. So it would make sense that with any mass gathering, even if there's violence there, the people who are misbehaving are the ones who, as a pattern, misbehave. So the ones who are going to be arrested are going to be the ones with criminal records whereas the people without, which could very well be the vast majority of the protestors, are not arrested.

That being said, it doesn't mean that the people who were arrested thought, "Hey, why don't I just go out and I can take advantage." I don't know. But I think that one interesting psychological thing here is the possibility that where there are problems in our society, where there is conflict and trouble and this sort of thing, whether it's police violence or whatever else, there are people with maladaptive personality traits, maybe authoritarianism among them, that will be able to influence or benefit from those traits in response to the disruption. I think that broader process, using it as a way to characterize the process, I don't know if that's fair but I think it is a generally really interesting phenomenon.

Harrison: And it's something that perhaps will always be a component. Like you said, whenever you have a mass gathering of people like that, you're going to get that type of personality that's there and they're going to be the ones that get arrested. But that brings up a question for me. Part of this study was trying to predict participation in violent protests and participation in violence basically.

Tom: Yeah, that's right.

Harrison: I'm going to go off memory here. You said something like 9-13% of the people you interviewed participated in a protest and I think something like 1-2% of the people said they participated in some kind of violent protest.

Tom: Yeah.

Harrison: And then in a different part of that something like 9% of the respondents expressed a willingness to engage in a violent protest. I thought those were some interesting numbers. So basically when it came down to walking the walk - I'm probably reading too much because it's not representative...

Tom: Small numbers.

Harrison: It's small numbers, but where my mind went with this was, "Okay, when it comes to walking the walk, maybe you've got one to two percent that will actually engage in something violent, but then you've got nine to 10% that say they will. "Oh yeah, I totally support that!" But when it actually comes down to it, they probably won't. They'll chicken out and they'll realize maybe this isn't what I really want to be doing.

So maybe it's like an artifact or a mirage where you've got these people that say they're going to do it but the people that actually maybe do engage in the actual violence are the types that we were talking about, that are the types that habitually engage in violence, right?

Tom: Right.

Adam: That's an interesting thing. Now that you gave out the numbers, that totally makes sense to me in terms of the numbers breakdown because I think it was 2.3% of the numbers of the people in the study said that they had participated in violent actions and then it was 91 point something percent said that they would not engage in violent actions even if given the opportunity, I think was what it was. That just makes sense that you would have the majority of people being relatively normal and saying, "Nah, I don't think I would." Two point three percent of the population is pretty close to the averages for psychopathy and that kind of thing, who would actually become violent or would be violent in that kind of way.

So those numbers, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't that far off from the general population where you have nine percent of the people who say they would just because everybody likes to pretend they're a bad ass until it comes to the moment and then they're just total chickens.

Tom: Politics is part of their identity. You want to morally signal, even if it's just to anonymous researchers. {laughter}.

Harrison: Well to themselves too.

Tom: And to yourself. But the barrier to actually participating in violence is very high and what that means is that it's only the most extreme, the people at the far end of this trait spectrum that are actually going to, at a population level, engage in violence. That's actually going to increase the predictive strength of disinhibition or these sorts of things, if you analyze it the right way. You see sort of an interesting thing actually. One way to think of it is psychopathy and psychopathic traits are more predictive of sexual harassment and misconduct in women than they are in men. Well why is that? Because there are a lot more normative barriers for women to sexually harass than there are for men. So it's only the really psychopathic women who are doing it anyway.

I think you may see a similar thing with participation in political violence. I don't know that it's psychopathy but whatever trait it is that's influencing it, you would probably have to be pretty high on it.

Harrison: How are you doing for time Tom?

Tom: I think I've got to get going fairly soon.

Harrison: Okay. In that case, unless you had any more questions Adam, I think we can probably wrap it up.

Adam: I think that pretty much covers the majority of it.

Harrison: Okay. Well it's been a blast talking to you Tom.

Tom: Likewise.

Harrison: We had a lot of fun. We like talking about this kind of stuff. I'll be on the lookout for when you have new papers come out. Maybe I'll read some of your older ones too and see if there's anything in there that I want to talk to you about some time.

Tom: Sure.

Harrison: Is there anything that you have in the works right now? Do you have a next project that you're planning to work on?

Tom: I'm working on a few different things. One thing is a big meta analysis of the relationship between political ideology and thinking style. So with meta analysis you aggregate all the different studies in the literature and what we're finding there - I'll just give you a little preview - is that you get some notable differences between social and economic ideology. So psychologists have argued for a while that conservatives writ large are just more rigid. And that ties into pathologizing conservatives and authoritarianism fits into that whole syndrome. You're authoritarian, you're prejudiced, you're rigid, you're socially conservative. But what we're finding is a discrepancy between social and economic where that effect does seem to hold true, albeit with a smaller effect size than had previously been thought, though with economic it's just not there. I think that's an interesting thing. So that's the biggest project I'm working on. Us academics always have a lot of irons in the fire but I won't bore you with all the details. {laughter}

Harrison: Thanks again Tom. It was great talking to you.

Tom: Yeah, likewise. I had a lot of fun.

Harrison: Thanks.

Tom: Thanks for your interest.

Harrison: Once again Tom's website is, in the show description. You can check out his papers. We'll have a link to this paper, to the preprint version as well so check that out. Everyone take care and thanks again Tom.

Tom: Thank you.