If you’ve ever taken a personality test, it was probably in a lifestyle magazine (“What kind of adventurer are you? Take this quiz to find out!”) or perhaps at the behest of a friend who is a Meyers-Briggs believer. But these fluffy distractions have a serious, often dark history. In fact, one of the earliest personality tests was developed during World War II to determine who could become authoritarian and join the Nazi movement.
In 1943, three psychology professors at the University of California at Berkeley struggled to understand the most horrific European genocide in a generation. As the war raged abroad, Daniel Levinson, Nevitt Sanford and Else Frenkel-Brunswik decided to use the greatest power at their disposal – scientific rationality – to prevent fascism from ever rising again. They did it by inventing a personality test eventually dubbed the F Scale that they believed could identify potential authoritarians. This was not a plot to wipe out bad guys. The researchers wanted to understand why some people are seduced by political figures like Adolf Hitler, and they had a very idealistic plan to improve education so that young people would become more skeptical of Hitler’s us-or-them politics.
The rise of personality testing
While devising a research plan, the Berkeley group borrowed ideas from a somewhat checkered tradition in psychology that held that personalities could be broken down into separate character traits. In the late nineteenth century, pseudoscientists such as Francis Galton, best known for popularizing the idea of eugenics, believed that human “character” could be measured in the same way that “a dog’s temper can be tested.” This idea took hold and the first personality tests were developed by the United States military during World War I so that millions of soldiers could be tested for vulnerability to “shell shock,” an early term for post-traumatic stress.
If we could test soldiers for shell shock, why not test civilians for anti-Semitism and the tendency to follow dictators? That’s what the Berkeley researchers decided to do. Their idea was convincing enough to earn them a $500 grant from the psychology department in 1943. In the year that followed, Sanford, Frenkel-Brunswik and Levinson created several versions of a personality test they hoped would identify potential authoritarians, their term for people who would follow leaders with fascist or genocidal leanings. They conducted in-person in-depth interviews and administered written personality tests on hundreds of Berkeley students. Some of the answers they got seemed to reflect democratic values, like when a business student told them he wanted to hire a diverse workforce and work with people from all over the world. Other answers suggested less welcoming attitudes toward outsiders: A pre-law student claimed he could always “recognize” Jews and called Jewish immigration “a danger” because it meant America would “take on the burdens of people who are misfits” been in other countries”. .”
Eventually, the Berkeley group’s publications caught the attention of prominent social scientist Max Horkheimer, who was on the board of a civil liberties organization called the American Jewish Committee. Founded in 1906 by people who wanted to end the pogroms that killed Jews in Russia, the group was looking for researchers who could explain how everyday prejudices erupted in the Holocaust. Horkheimer secured more funding for the project and introduced the data-oriented Berkeley researchers to the rather dystopian political philosopher Theodor Adorno. At that point, the group expanded its scope and added qualitative analysis to their quantitative framework. This allowed them to perfect the F scale test after several false starts.
The F scale
To create a personality test that revealed latent authoritarianism, the researchers had to abandon the idea that there is a strong link between anti-Semitism and authoritarianism. That perspective was too limited. While their experiences of the Holocaust suggested a causal relationship between hatred of Jews and the rise of fascism, people with authoritarian tendencies were more accurately described as ethnocentric. Authoritarians believed their own group was superior and expressed racism against a wide range of other people. Frenkel-Brunswik conducted many of the interviews and she writes in them The authoritarian personality that the group modified its work accordingly, testing people for prejudice against blacks, Filipinos, and immigrants. It found that the common thread among all high-scoring authoritarians was a general distaste for people who seemed different and therefore “creepy.” When an authoritarian person scored low on anti-Semitism, he or she certainly scored high on hatred of another group of outsiders.
Another discovery was that authoritarians often mistrusted science and disliked the idea of using imagination to solve problems. They preferred to stick to tried and tested traditional methods of organizing society. Many believed that violence was the best way to handle conflict, in part because war is an inevitable corollary of human nature. Another personality trait that emerged had to do with sexuality. Authoritarians vehemently opposed homosexuality, occasionally suggesting that homosexuals should be killed or at least imprisoned. More generally, however, they were fascinated with regulating other people’s sex lives, often speculating about the “wild sex lives” of groups they hated, whether they were artists, “weak” politicians, or racial minorities. In general, the Berkeley group described the view of authoritarians as “cynical” because of a tendency to believe that the powerful would always rule the weak, and that it was best to side with the powerful, which probably included the reason was why authoritarians expressed a desire for politicians to take charge, set rules, and quell dissent.
As a result of these findings, the F scale in its final form was intended to measure ethnocentrism, superstition, aggression, cynicism, conservatism, and an excessive interest in the private sex life of others as the building blocks of a personality attracted to authoritarian leaders . Now the group began to collect data on a much larger scale. They tested students from the University of Oregon and George Washington University, as well as union members, war veterans, the inmates of San Quentin Prison and patients in a psychiatric clinic.
At this link we have made a version of the original F-scale test that the researchers administered, including all questions. Originally, people had the option to respond to each question using a sliding scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” but I’ve simplified this to “agree” and “disagree.” As you’ll see if you read through the questions, it’s somewhat dated – remember this was made in the late 1940s. To calculate your score, simply add up how many times you checked ‘agree’. The higher your score, the closer you are to being an authoritarian. You can see why this makes the test easy to play, as the non-authoritative answer is always “disagree”. But the structure of the test also created an additional problem. University of Minnesota political psychologist Christopher Federico pointed out to Ars that there is a widely recognized psychological phenomenon called resignation, where some people have a penchant for agreeing with everything people say to them. So a person with a high score may have authoritarian tendencies, but they may also suffer severely from a bias toward resignation.
While they barely created the perfect testing structure, the researchers were able to collect a fair amount of good data that is still considered relevant by scientists studying authoritarianism today. Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris told Ars that it “set the paradigm in the field of social psychology”.