A man of various accomplishments, Theodor Adorno is perhaps most widely known as the very image of the midcentury European intellectual in exile. After his Jewish background got him forced out of Nazi Germany, he spent fifteen years in England and the United States. Despite his geographical distance from the troubles of the Continent — and even after the end of the Second World War — he understandably remained very much concerned with the nature of not just Hitler himself but all those who supported him. This led to such studies as his 1947 essay “Wagner, Nietzsche and Hitler” as well as (in collaboration with Berkeley researchers Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford) the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality.
The Authoritarian Personality’s best-known tool to diagnose the titular personal and social condition is a quantitative system called the “California F‑scale” — the F stands for fascism — which produces a score based on a subject’s response to a set of propositions. “To create a personality test that actually revealed latent authoritarianism, the researchers had to give up on the idea that there’s a strong link between anti-Semitism and authoritarianism,” writes Ars Technica’s Annalee Newitz. “Though their experiences with the Holocaust suggested a causal connection between hatred of Jews and the rise of fascism, it turned out that people with authoritarian tendencies were more accurately described as ethnocentric.”
These would-be authoritarians also, as Adorno and his collaborators’ research found, “tended to distrust science and strongly disliked the idea of using imagination to solve problems. They preferred to stick to tried-and-true traditional methods of organizing society.” Other tendencies included “superstition, aggression, cynicism, conservatism, and an inordinate interest in the private sex lives of others.” All these findings informed an F‑scale test which consisted of the statements below. For each statement, participants had to select one of the following options : “Disagree Strongly,” “Disagree Mostly,” “Disagree Somewhat,” “Agree Somewhat,” “Agree,” or “MostlyAgree.”
- Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
- A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.
- If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off.
- The business man and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and the professor.
- Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.
- Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.
- Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but as they grow up they ought to get over them and settle down.
- What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, is a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.
- No sane, normal, decent person could ever think of hurting a close friend or relative.
- Nobody ever learned anything really important except through suffering.
- What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country.
- An insult to our honor should always be punished.
- Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped, or worse.
- There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
- Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, and feebleminded people.
- Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.
- When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.
- Nowadays more and more people are prying into matters that should remain personal and private.
- Some people are born with an urge to jump from high places.
- People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong.
- Some day it will probably be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.
- Wars and social troubles may someday be ended by an earthquake or flood that will destroy the whole world.
- No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough will power.
- It is best to use some prewar authorities in Germany to keep order and prevent chaos.
- Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places.
- Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict.
- Familiarity breeds contempt.
- Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching an infection or disease from them.
- The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared to some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.
- The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it.
You can take the test yourself here. But don’t take it too seriously: the F‑scale “has been heavily criticized by many psychologists because it is a better indicator of conservatism, an old-fashioned outlook, and a tendency to say ‘yes’ to anything rather than as a measure of authoritarianism,” write Ferdinand A. Gul and John J. Ray in their 1989 paper “Pitfalls in Using the F Scale to Measure Authoritarianism in Accounting Research.” That aside, any reasonably intelligent subject can easily figure out the motives of the test itself. Nevertheless, as Gizmodo’s Esther Inglis-Arkell writes, it offers an occasion to consider whether “you’re superstitious, conformist, or any other awful thing that will cause you to go out one morning and annex something” — no less a concern now, it seems, than it was in Adorno’s day.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.