A month or so ago, there was a public incident involving United Airlines. Not the one you’re thinking of, but the one that happened about a week beforehand. Two girls were turned away at the gate because they weren’t properly dressed. Incidents like this aren’t uncommon (I assume!) but this one was popularized because a particular blue-check happened to be there to observe it and quickly tweet about it. Now, just a few things: the two girls turned out to be family members of an employee using United’s employee travel program, which allows employees and their families to fly stand-by for free. As this service is being provided by virtue of these travelers being United employees, a dress code is enforced, and leggings don’t meet the standards of said code. Obviously none of this context was provided in the initial tweets, and there were no follow up tweets or clarification from Shannon to indicate that the travelers were not paying customers. Honest arguments aren’t in vogue among blue checks, so this is unsurprising, and really a point for another time. What quickly unfolded however, was an interesting division of opinions in which some commenters openly defended United, but the vastly larger moiety supported the passengers. I myself was on the side of the airline, and it seemed to me the logical choice. An employer may obviously dictate a dress code, this (nearly) all of us can agree upon. So why is it unreasonable that such a dress code would be applied to the family of the employee when using a service of the employer? If your particular contention is that such a dress code shouldn’t apply to the family of the employee, I would point you to the various restaurants and other public spaces that apply dress codes to children of any age. And these are paying customers! Perhaps there is some argument I’m missing here,[i] but it seems to me that those who were ganging up on United weren’t thinking clearly, and were simply doing so reflexively: defending (good) small female children from (bad) Faceless Airline Corporation.
About a month later United was involved in an incident that got far more publicity. A passenger was asked to leave his seat and was then beaten and dragged from the aircraft when he refused to comply. I don’t really need to link to this story, since you’ve obviously heard of it. Twitter (which I use here as a stand in for the public discourse among journalists) again divided into a large camp of individuals excoriating the airline, and a much smaller group who thought United was in the right. I again found myself in the latter category, and my logic followed a similar path. United owns the plane, and they have the right to terminate their contract when they want to. Several other passengers peacefully left the aircraft, and did not need to be removed forcibly. The actions of the man staying on the plane were childish, and he left United no choice but to remove him by force. All the remaining passengers on the plane were terribly inconvenienced because this man refused to act like an adult. He would be rewarded with his behavior with a large settlement, while these other passengers of a more mature disposition, would get nothing.[ii] Here I am, again taking the logical side of the airline and not reflexively caving to emotional reasoning, when a counterexample is provided that completely changes my line of reasoning. “Do it,” my friend says, mimicking the United agent’s supposed tone. “Eat the roll of nickels. We can’t take off until you do, and you’re just holding everyone up.” I was taken aback by this, since it so neatly destroyed the point on which I was resting. Once the request becomes ridiculous and unlawful, obeying the request for the sake of not inconveniencing others becomes absurd. Disobeying an unlawful request becomes the right thing to do, taking a noble individual stand against the tyranny of a corporation. And so it did turn out that the contract of carriage our protagonist had agreed to when he booked the flight[iii] specifically stated that United could not remove the passenger once boarded. Removing him from the plane was entirely unlawful. So maybe I wasn’t using logic. Now my bias is showing.
“The ‘Authoritarian personality’ is a state of mind or attitude characterized by belief in absolute obedience or submission to one’s own authority, as well as the administration of that belief through the oppression of one’s subordinates,” says Wikipedia. That doesn’t sound like me, but immediately after the prior two incidents I became worried that it applied. Another smaller incident occurred in the interim between the two when I myself boarded a United flight, and watched a man be forced to check a bag when it was apparently oversized. He became indignant, but I experienced such profound schadenfreude over the Rules being enforced that I may have involuntarily blushed. I of course said nothing, like the good Authoritarian I am, and just watched as he was forced to check the bag. This was a good thing. Overhead space is precious, and it’s unfair that any of us be inconvenienced because someone else wanted to use more space than he was entitled to. Rules exist for a reason, guys. Still, Authoritarianism is a dirty word in American culture. It reminds us of Fascists and Communists and according to the Wikipedia article I cited previously, the psychological theory of Authoritarianism was developed in the 50s by a bunch of Freudians trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with people that had supported these things during World War II. But here I am, engaging in a little bit of amateur autoethnography, and realizing that in almost all situations, I despise rule breakers and enjoy seeing those that break norms for personal advantage punished for doing so. I quickly find myself reasoning in favor of authority, and often think “well, if everyone is allowed to disobey the law for personal reasons, what’s the point of the law at all.” Reclamation of a pejorative is a near universal human trait,[iv] and I was obtaining pleasure at secretly subverting the social expectation that I would be against Authoritarianism.[v]
This week, I encountered a survey asking about numeracy and authoritarianism. I jumped at the opportunity, since I was going to get to involve myself in a little bit of data biasing for my own amusement. Of course, it would be wrong of me to intentionally provide inaccurate responses, but I thought I knew what was going on here – this wasn’t the first time Authoritarian tendencies had been correlated (negatively) with metrics of intelligence. The Wikipedia article (I swear I have different sources for this article I haven’t yet mentioned) itself makes that point, and if you recall, the contention had been belabored during the 2016 election. It was observed that Authoritarian tendencies correlated with support for Donald Trump (in Vox speak, this means stupidity). These smug researchers were going to try and smear all us Authoritarians as innumerate, and I was going to take this survey to prove them wrong. Worse, the survey questions all pertained to probability, so it was likely they were going to attempt to imply we were bad at estimating odds. Not to toot my own horn, but getting a PhD in a quantitative field yields more than a little statistical knowledge, so I aced the probability portion of the survey. Honestly, it would have been a real blow to the ego had I not, since it was (I assume!) geared towards the general public. When it came time to answer the authoritarian questions, however, I balked at what I was being asked, as according to the survey, I wasn’t an authoritarian at all. Now, I’m not ready to give up just yet on my newly reclaimed label – according to the text of the survey, I had been asked four times which of two traits were more important in children:
-independence OR respect for their elders
-curiosity OR good manners
-self-reliance OR obedience
-being considerate OR being well-behaved
I have two major reactions to this. First, this seems like you’d have to be a sociopath in order to provide the (obviously) authoritarian options. Second, where’s all that stuff I just said about enforcing rules for the common good and punishing cheaters so that people who play by the rules can get ahead? This doesn’t seem like it measures up at all to what I would consider authoritarianism, and I can’t really begin to describe what I would call this. I feel like this is a bad test, but surely it must be legitimate to have been cited in a Vox article on Donald Trump!
Oh, but wait. So it turns out the Vox article I linked was actually written by the author of this study. A clickbait article being written by the author of the study it purports to summarize? This seems legit, and definitely not a horrific abuse of a journalistic platform. No, really, look at all the publications that wrote articles about this. “But okay,” you might say, “it’s kind of shady that all these publications are incestuously citing a series of articles written by the guy who did the study, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying article is incorrect.” “Just because you don’t think these answers are authoritarian, you’re not the arbiter of what is authoritarian, and surely psychologists are better equipped to declare what is,” you continue. “Furthermore, the article was peer reviewed, so there must be some merit to this claim,” you might finish. Ah, to be so naïve as you, dear reader. Unfortunately, the world is not so kind and innocent as you imagine, and those benevolent Keepers of the Narrative that we must trust to provide us with accurate and unbiased information – our Harvard educated betters who determine what are and are not acceptable facts in the common discourse – have instead abdicated that responsibility to grab some cheap clicks with a bullshit study poking fun at the expense of their favorite target: the back-woods yokels who vote for Donald Trump.
So where do I begin? The journal article underlying to reporting claims that it shows that Authoritarianism, among several other covariates, is the factor that most significantly profoundly predicts trump support among likely Republican primary voters. The data are not publically available and were gleaned from an online survey of likely republican primary voters. The central claim comes from coefficient on Authoritarianism in Table 1. If you’re wondering whether an online survey is a responsible source of data, or that perhaps there exists some latent variable not included in the regression model, yet correlated with both Trump support and Authoritarianism, don’t worry – your concerns are legitimate and… not addressed. But this gets even dumber. One of the main issues I have with the proliferation of statistical software is that it allows people who have never passed calculus to claim to be data scientists. Something that should form immediately in one’s head when one is presented with a “statistically significant” coefficient is a checkbox asking: even if this is a significant statistical effect, what is the size of the effect and what does it mean? In a typical linear regression a coefficient is interpreted as the effect of an incremental increase in the independent variable on the dependent outcome, all other things being held constant. But this is a logit model predicting Donald trump support. I can see it all now: “wait how do I do regression with a y variable that only has two values,” our intrepid researcher types into Google. “Logit” and the relevant Stata command form the first hit, and Science! Is born. Logit coefficients are difficult to interpret since the model is of the form: [p/(1-p)] = exp(a + BX + e) where p is the probability of an event occurring. The easiest way to think of the meaning of B (our coefficient) here is as an odds ratio. For example if exp(B) = 2, then a unit increase in X would mean, all other things held constant, an outcome was twice as likely to occur as not occur (.67/.33, in terms of p ratio). Now what is the coefficient we observe in this paper? .247. That comes out to a probability ratio of roughly 1.31 (or ~.57/.43). And that’s assuming someone with a perfect (1.0) score on the authoritarian scale versus zero. So if the average voter has even odds of supporting Trump (probably not the case but it’s meaningless in comparing the ratio), being a perfect authoritarian increases those odds to only 57%. Sick study dude.
And that’s not all! Per this Quillete article (although it is making the opposite argument I am about authoritarianism in general), “only 16% of the population possesses a personality profile that is significantly more authoritarian than average.” The vast majority of the population has no noticeable authoritarian tendencies, and the population of full four-question authoritarians is likely even smaller (I assume!). Not really sure why we care what they think if they represent such a small fringe, but okay. This plays pretty well into my reaction to the question battery, which is that this isn’t really a personality trait but instead just a metric of extreme bad behavior. So we have a small group of extremists, who are marginally likelier to support a particular candidate. Buried in the footnotes of the paper however, is another startling discovery. Cronbach’s alpha of the Authoritarian battery is .60. Cronbach’s alpha is not at all a perfect measure of internal consistency, but for the purpose of social science research, a consistency metric below .7 is not acceptable to identify a latent trait responsible for a set of answers. So answers to these questions are only loosely correlated with one another. And now the icing on the cake? A 2014 paper in Political Analysis argued (with evidence I freely admit I did not grant scrutiny) that the authoritarianism scale was much higher in Blacks on average, and that it measured not authoritarian tendencies, but specific attitudes towards parenting. Complaining about test bias isn’t really my thing, but since it’s agreeing with me I’m gonna allow it.
So we have a set of questions that probably don’t represent a personality trait, probably just represent attitudes towards parenting rather than a philosophy of power, probably detect this “philosophy” in a small subset of the total population, and when they do detect this “philosophy” represent a 7% bump in support for a particular candidate. But no, please go ahead and put in every news-consuming American’s head the widely supported narrative (from publications across partisan lines no less!) that Trump voters are Nazis. I’ll likely repeat this ad nauseum, but we’d all be better off if political scientists, psychologists, journalists, and anyone else who never took an intro course in linear algebra would just stay away from statistics. We don’t let drunks drive for the same reason.
But this post is about authoritarianism, not just one bad paper. We’ve gotten lost in a little case study on how psychology often grants a veneer of respectability and quantitative rigor to pseudoscience, but that’s not to say it’s all bad. I’ve heard good things about the Big Five personality types, but to be honest, after looking into what I thought was a consensus view on a personality factor, I’m pretty wary. It’s made me wonder, however, how I would produce my own definition of an authoritarian personality type. My own politics are somewhat right of center, and I feel like authoritarianism is unfairly maligned by the left as something that convinces poor, right voters to “vote against their own self interest.” Although I hate to wade into identity politics, there’s something that feels fundamentally off about a rich, left leaning field like psychology attempting to pathologize the behavior of right wing voters. That’s not to say that it’s wrong for them to do so, but rather that they might encounter difficulties in framing the questions they should be asking so as to tease out red tribe motivations. Obviously the current framework for authoritarianism isn’t working very well, and the stench of this article’s lack of substance is redolent of many other articles that attempt to frame basic human ideas like fairness as left wing virtues. Not that I think there can’t be differences in the way groups of people highlight virtue, but before you go ahead telling half the population that they like authority more than fairness, you should consider that maybe the problem is that you’re not asking the question right. Then you might not produce steaming turds like that Trump article.
For what it’s worth, I think examination of my own authoritarianism has yielded me a few leads.[vi] I believe my love of rules and respect for authority is deeply rooted in the concept of fairness. If I were to give an example of this sort of authoritarian attitude, I would point to my desire to see those punished that take advantage of breaking small rules at the expense of society. Traffic on an interstate often backs up due to individuals cutting a line and attempting to merge right before an exit. It hurts us all, for completely individual benefit. It’s a Pareto loss, as we are in sum worse off due to worse traffic flows. When a police officer gives me a lawful order, I know that if nobody obeyed lawful commands, policing would be impossible. I thus obey and try to sort out any misunderstanding afterward, so that we can maintain a civil society and the rule of law. This sort of authoritarianism is based on the idea that while we have a right to individual liberty, that right comes with the responsibility not to exercise it at others expense. There’s an article I read a few years ago that I wish I could dig up to try and present as an example of this effect in the right wing working class. I remember it resounded so much with me because my mother had described her own childhood similarly. I won’t do it justice, but I’ll attempt to summarize: For the working poor, life is hard. Staying in school, staying away from drugs, marrying before having children, keeping that marriage together – these are things that seem so easy for rich people but require a lifetime of sacrifice and forward thinking for the working poor. And those individuals and families that do manage to accomplish it, they’re proud of that fact. They put forth an effort that you and I couldn’t imagine to get what they have. But these people, they see all around them those that make the easy choices. That sell drugs and drop out of high school for quick money and thrills that run out fast. These are often their own family and friends and these cheaters, through either example or direct pressure, multiply how difficult things are for the workers. And what does progressive socialism propose to do? To allow these loafers, these malingerers, to cut the line and get ahead. To let them say “I know you worked your whole life for this, but your hard work doesn’t matter.” It cheapens an entire life of work and sacrifice. And that strikes me as profoundly unfair. “The Ant and The Grasshopper” is a sacred text to the Authoritarian. While we might not all think it the final word, I think we can at least respect it.
[i] If your argument pertains to the fact that these were female children, and that this is an example of policing women’s dress, don’t @ me. I really do want to engage with arguments I don’t agree with, but that line of reasoning would suggest that it is never appropriate at any time for any company or organization to ask a woman to adhere to a dress code. This is of course not a legal reality in America, but more importantly, such logic leads to obviously ridiculous consequences. I, a male, would be thus prohibited from asking a female nudist in my home to please clothe in front of my children. If that’s not the case then where and how do you draw the line? If your argument is airline specific, then please, enlighten me.
[ii] Just to point out, I was right about this part: http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/27/news/companies/united-airlines-dao-settlement/
[iii] “lol, nobody reads the ToS” aside, though this is a legitimate criticism of this point.
[iv] Again, this should be marked with a huge “I assume!” but if the deaf community is going to try and make the argument that not being able to hear is a good thing, I think we can safely assume this principle exists in some form in any denigrated group.
[v] The irony of this is not lost on me, so no need to point it out.
[vi] A careful reader would notice that the two step I just performed (suggest a mathematical study is faulty due to the identity of the researcher -> suggest an autoethnography as an alternative) is deeply hypocritical for one who feels this type of criticism is not useful in academia. Indeed I do think that there is a place for this sort of thing, and that the Social Justice movement makes some valid points. Most of my criticism has to do with their tactics and (as Scott Alexander puts it) epistemic vice. My main contention is that I’m not saying all statistics from progressive psychologists are bad, but simply these are, and maybe this will be a fruitful line of reasoning to produce better stats. A full defense of this would take an entire post, so for now mea culpa.