Ever worried you're a brutal dictator at heart? The F-Scale Test, put together in 1947, tests for these types of authoritarian personalities. But as the test eventually revealed, not all "authoritarian personalities" are going to take over their respective countries. Here's the problem with testing people for fascism.

The Authoritarian Personality

The authoritarian personality type was first seriously investigated over the late 1930s and early 1940s. Guess why. Authoritarian personalities aren't necessarily the sort of people to grow up to be dictators, they're just the type of people who feel most comfortable within an authoritarian system. They have, according to mid-century psychology, a few traits in common. Some traits are easy to guess; authoritarian types passively accept social norms and aggressively punish those who break social norms. Virtues like toughness and personal power are held high, in part because authoritarians tend to be both cynical and destructive. They believe the only way to make people do right is to force them.


The fact that psychologists found authoritarian types to be superstitious is surprising, until you realize that most of the fascists of the 1940s harnessed the power of myth. Dictators convinced people that they were the rightful heirs to great civilizations, often through a quasi-mystical connection. As the modern-day versions of the Romans, the Spartans, or the conquering Vikings, they were destined to prevail over other cultures. Despite this cultural nostalgia, authoritarians took a dim view of intraception — the psychological term for processing the world through emotions. Rules came first, not feelings.

The F-Scale

In 1947, Theodor Adorno, a sociologist and philosopher, came up with the F-Scale, the "F" standing for "fascist." It had questions designed to probe for authoritarian impulses. The questions are not subtle, and are rather disturbingly general. They include things like, "A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people." Manners and breeding are different things, and the answer to this statement would probably reveal more about the test-taker if they were put in different categories.


The F-Scale was used into the 1970s, though it was refined over the decades. There are a few studies that indicate that F-Scale scoring correlates with certain kinds of behavior. One test involved a Prisoner's Dilemma-type game that allowed two players to either act cooperatively and gain a moderate reward, or double-cross each other and either win everything or nothing. Scientists found that participants who reported that they trusted the other person to be generous were trustworthy themselves, while those who were untrusting were also untrustworthy. The participants took the F-Scale test before the game; the authoritarians, displaying their cynical attitudes and their destructiveness, tended to be untrusting and untrustworthy players.

The End of the F-Scale

By the end of the 1960s, and the beginning of the 1970s, the F-Scale was falling out of favor as researchers increasingly noticed problems with it. One problem was its inability to be consistent when it came to reverse items. When asked questions about specific subjects, like mysticism, obedience, or the importance of strong leaders, people were consistent with their answers. If a person were asked, "Should parents physically punish their children if they are disobedient?" and later asked, "Should harsh punishment be meted out to young people who don't follow the rules?" that person would strongly agree with both statements.


However, when a statement was reversed, the consistency vanished. A person who disagreed strongly with the "harsh punishments" question would not necessarily agree that, "children who disobey their parents should only be lightly disciplined." Scientists were continually trying to come up with an F-Scale that would work when its statements were reversed, but for the most part they had no luck.

Then there was the problem of whether the scale predicted behavior outside the laboratory setting. When scientists tested for a correlation in how a person filled out a test and how that person's peers saw them, they found little similarity. On paper one person could be a radical for democracy, and another could be a raving authoritarian, but the people around them saw little evidence of either in their behavior.


Perhaps what dealt the harshest blow to the F-Scale was time. Although of course there are modern fascists and modern authoritarians, World War II receded into the distance and people became less concerned about countries and more about specific radicals. You won't see the F-Scale around a lot today, but a version of the test is online, and you can take it here. After you've found out your score, you can go over the questions and discover if you're superstitious, conformist, or any other awful thing that will cause you to go out one morning and annex something.

(By the way, I scored a 2.47, or "liberal airhead," but with a high "destructiveness and cynicism" quotient. Don't mess with me. I will destroy you, but only after I pass laws that let me off easy.)

[Via The F Scale as a Measure of Breadth of Perspective, Trust, Trustworthiness, and the F-Scale, A New Balanced F-Scale, F-Scale Validity Considered Against Peer Nomination Criteria]