Published on February 21st, 2007 | by Hans Fruck


Marching in Lockstep

Authoritarians can often be identified by their love of synchronised saluting.

Authoritarians can often be identified by their love of synchronised saluting.

Bob Altemeyer, professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada, is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology ofauthoritarianism and its adherents. For years Altemeyer has tested students at his university to determine what traits typify those with authoritarian tendencies, and how these people differ from others.

Altemeyer has published the first few chapters of his most recent book on the internet. It’s fascinating stuff. In the first chapter, he explains his definition of an RWA (right-wing authoritarian — note, ‘right-wing’ isn’t used in its political sense) and walks readers through his testing methodology.

So what makes you an authoritarian? In a nutshell, someone with high RWA tendencies is identified, Altemeyer says, by three characteristics:

  1. high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities of their society
  2. high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities
  3. high degree of conventionality.

The part in chapter one that interested me most — and had me laughing in disbelief — was an experiment Altemeyer conducted to test some of his conclusions. The prof carried out an experiment in which he had two groups of students play “a rather sophisticated simulation of the earth’s future called the Global Change Game”. Altemeyer used the two student groups as part of a comparative study. The comparison? Well, what would happen to the sim-world if students with low-authoritarian (low-RWA) tendencies played the game, compared to when students with high-authoritarian (high-RWA) tendencies did the same? (To strengthen the validity of the experiment, neither group of students realised that their authoritarian tendencies had been tested, or that they’d been arranged into groups that reflected this.)

The game, Altemeyer explains:

“…is played on a big map of the world by 50-70 participants who have been split into various regions such as North America, Africa, India and China. The players are divided up according to current populations, so a lot more students hunker down in India than in North America. The game was designed to raise environmental awareness, and before the exercise begins players study upon their region’s resources, prospects, and environmental issues.

Judging by Altemeyer’s description, the game’s a lot like those “sim” or civilization-building games many of us will have played at one time or another. He continues:

Then the facilitators who service the simulation call for some member, any member of each region, to assume the role of team leader by simply standing up. Once the “Elites”in the world have risen to the task they are taken aside and given control of their region’s bank account. They can use this to buy factories, hospitals, armies,and so on from the game bank, and they can travel the world making deals with other Elites. They also discover they can discretely put some of their region’s wealth into their own pockets, to vie for a prize to be given out at the end of the simulation to the World’s Richest Person. Then the game begins, and the world goes wherever the players take it for the next forty years which, because time flies in a simulation, takes about two and a half hours.

What really tickled my fancy, and had me shaking my head too, was the result of the two experiments. I’ll quote his conclusions at length here, but you can just as easily visit his site and read the chapters in their entirety. (In fact, I urge you to do so.)


The Low RWA Game

By carefully organizing sign-up booklets, I was able to get 67 low RWA students to play the game together on October 18th. (They had no idea they had been funneled into this run of the experiment according to their RWA scale scores; indeed they had probably never heard of right-wing authoritarianism.) Seven men and three women made themselves Elites.

As soon as the simulation began, the Pacific Rim Elite called for a summit on the “Island Paradise of Tasmania.” All the Elites attended and agreed to meet there again whenever big issues arose. A world-wide organization was thus immediately created by mutual consent.

Regions set to work on their individual problems. Swords were converted to ploughshares as the number of armies in the world dropped. No wars or threats of wars occurred during the simulation. [At one point the North American Elite suggested starting a war to his fellow regionaires (two women and one guy), but they told him to go fly a kite–or words to that effect.]

An hour into the game the facilitators announced a (scheduled) crisis in the earth’s ozone layer. All the Elites met in Tasmania and contributed enough money to buy new technology to replenish the ozone layer.

Other examples of international cooperation occurred, but the problems of the Third World mounted in Africa and India. Europe gave some aid but North America refused to help. Africa eventually lost 300 million people to starvation and disease,and India 100 million.

Populations had grown and by the time forty years had passed the earth held 8.7 billion people, but the players were able to provide food, health facilities, and jobs for almost all of them. They did so by demilitarizing, by making a lot of trades that benefited both parties, by developing sustainable economic programs, and because the Elites diverted only small amounts of the treasury into their own pockets. (The North American Elite hoarded the most.)

One cannot blow off four hundred million deaths, but this was actually a highly successful run of the game, compared to most. No doubt the homogeneity of the players, in terms of their RWA scores and related attitudes, played a role. Low RWAs do not typically see the world as “Us versus Them.” They are more interested in cooperation than most people are, and they are often genuinely concerned about the environment. Within their regional groups, and in the interactions of the Elites, these first-year students would have usually found themselves “on the same page”–and writ large on that page was, “Let’s Work Together and Clean Up This Mess.” The game’s facilitators said they had never seen as much international cooperation in previous runs of the simulation. With the exception of the richest region, North America, the lows saw themselves as interdependent and all riding on the same merry-go-round.

The fate of the world, as you’ve probably surmised already, was very different when those students who had strong authoritarian tendencies were put in control.

The High RWA Game

The next night 68 high RWAs showed up for their ride, just as ignorant of how they had been funneled into this run of the experiment as the low RWA students had been the night before. The game proceeded as usual. Background material was read, Elites (all males) nominated themselves, and the Elites were briefed. Then the “wedgies” started. As soon as the game began, the Elite from the Middle East announced the price of oil had just doubled. A little later the former Soviet Union (known as the Confederation of Independent States in 1994) bought a lot of armies and invaded North America. The latter had insufficient conventional forces to defend itself, and so retaliated with nuclear weapons. A nuclear holocaust ensued which killed everyone on earth–7.4 billion people–and almost all other forms of life which had the misfortune of co-habitating the same planet as a species with nukes.

When this happens in the Global Change Game, the facilitators turn out all the lights and explain what a nuclear war would produce. Then the players are given a second chance to determine the future, turning back the clock to two years before the hounds of war were loosed. The former Soviet Union however rebuilt its armies and invaded China this time, killing 400 million people. The Middle East Elite then called for a “United Nations” meeting to discuss handling future crises, but no agreements were reached.

At this point the ozone-layer crisis occurred but–perhaps because of the recent failure of the United Nations meeting–no one called for a summit. Only Europe took steps to reduce its harmful gas emissions, so the crisis got worse. Poverty was spreading unchecked in the underdeveloped regions, which could not control their population growth. Instead of dealing with the social and economic problems “back home,” Elites began jockeying among themselves for power and protection, forming military alliances to confront other budding alliances. Threats raced around the room and the Confederation of Independent States warned it was ready to start another nuclear war. Partly because their Elites had used their meager resources to buy into alliances, Africa and Asia were on the point of collapse. An Elite called for a United Nations meeting to deal with the crises–take your pick–and nobody came.

By the time forty years had passed the world was divided into armed camps threatening each other with another nuclear destruction. One billion, seven hundred thousand people had died of starvation and disease. Throw in the 400 million who died in the Soviet-China war and casualties reached 2.1 billion. Throw in the 7.4 billion who died in the nuclear holocaust, and the high RWAs managed to kill 9.5 billion people in their world–although we, like some battlefield news releases, are counting some of the corpses twice.

The authoritarian world ended in disaster for many reasons. One was likely the character of their Elites, who put more than twice as much money in their own pockets as the low RWA Elites had. (The Middle East Elite ended up the World’s Richest Man; part of his wealth came from money he had conned from Third World Elites as payment for joining his alliance.) But more importantly, the high RWAs proved incredibly ethnocentric. There they were, in a big room full of people just like themselves, and they all turned their backs on each other and paid attention only to their own group. They too were all reading from the same page, but writ large on their page was, “Care About Your Own; We Are NOT All In This Together.”

The high RWAs also suffered because, while they say on surveys that they care about the environment, when push comes to shove they usually push and shove for the bucks. That is, they didn’t care much about the long-term environmental consequences of their economic acts. For example a facilitator told Latin America that converting much of the region’s forests to a single species of tree would make the ecosystem vulnerable. But the players decided to do it anyway because the tree’s lumber was very profitable just then. And the highs proved quite inflexible when it came to birth control. Advised that “just letting things go” would cause the populations in underdeveloped areas to explode, the authoritarians just let things go.

Hmm… I’m not gonna draw any parallels between the dumbfuck high-RWAs and current political leaders because A) the parallels are pretty obvious and because B) Altemeyer cautions against glib simplifications of this sort. Still, it’s tempting.

If you’re interested, go over and read Altemeyer’s site. It’s interesting and important stuff. (Altemeyer includes the test in his opening chapter, so you can take it yourself if you’re curious.) Hopefully, he’ll release his entire book via the internet.


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