Experimental psychologist Bob Altemeyer spent his entire career studying authoritarians, both the leaders and the followers. In 1998, he wrote:
“Wanna-be tyrants in a democracy are just comical figures on soapboxes when they have no following. So the real…threat lay coiled in parts of the population itself…ready someday to catapult the next Hitler to power with their votes.”
His and other’s research yields this list of conclusions about authoritarian followers:
- They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause.
- They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experiencing stronger fear than most people do.
- They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.
- They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.
- Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs exist side-by-side in adjacent boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.
- They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent.
- They are highly dogmatic. Because they have gotten their beliefs mainly from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.
- They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know, almost every news broadcast they see, almost every radio commentator they listen to, tells them they are. That is, they screen out the sources that will suggest that they are wrong.
- Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.
- They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.
- They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do.
Why would people be like this? Lots of reasons that are hard to distinguish. There are probably evolutionary origins beta males subordinating themselves in species with alpha males. Upbringing and social context play a role. We could list benefits of being a follower, for example, that self-certainty is fun. We could also list the costs of the alternatives, for example, that self-doubt, changing one’s mind, or admitting you’re wrong is uncomfortable. FULL ARTICLE
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