Social Influence - Authoritarian Personality

Psychologists have examined dispositional (internal) factors that also contribute to obedience. One particular characteristic is the authoritarian personality, which has been associated with higher levels of obedience.

Adorno felt that personality (i.e. dispositional) factors rather than situational (i.e. environmental) factors could explain obedience. He proposed that there was such a thing as an authoritarian personality, i.e. a person who favours an authoritarian social system and in particular admires obedience to authority figures.

One of the various characteristics of the authoritarian personality was that the individual is hostile to those who are of inferior status, but obedient of people with high status.

Adorno et al. (1950) developed a questionnaire called the California F scale, to measure levels of authoritarian personality. In Milgram’s original research into obedience, psychologists questioned whether the obedience occurred due to situational factors, for example, uniform and location, or dispositional factors, such as a particular personality characteristic. In order to answer this question, Milgram conducted a follow-up study, using participants from his original research.

Elms and Milgram (1966) wanted to see if the obedient participants in Milgram’s research were more likely to display authoritarian personality traits, in comparison to disobedient participants. Their sample consisted of 20 obedient participants, who administered the full 450 volts and 20 disobedient participants, who refused to continue. Each participant completed several personality questionnaires, including Adorno’s F scale, to measure their level of authoritarian personality. In addition, participants were also asked open-ended questions about their relationship with their parents and their relationship with the experimenter and learner, during Milgram’s experiment.

Elms and Milgram found that the obedient participants scored higher on the F scale, in comparison to disobedient participants. In addition, the results also revealed that obedient participants were less close to their fathers during childhood [all of the participants in Milgram’s original experiment were male] and admired the experimenter in Milgram’s experiment, which was the opposite for disobedient participants.

Elms and Milgram concluded that the obedient participants in his original research displayed higher levels of the authoritarian personality, in comparison to disobedient participants.


Although the results of Elms and Milgram suggest a link between authoritarian personality and obedience, these results are correlational and it is therefore difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the exact cause of the obedience. In addition, there are many other situational factors that contribute to obedience, including proximity, uniform and location. Therefore, although it is likely that authoritarian personality contributes to obedience, a range of situational variables can affect the level of this contribution.

Finally, Elms and Milgram used Adorno’s F scale to determine levels of authoritarian personality.

It is possible that the F scale developed by Adorno suffers from response bias or social desirability, where participants provide answers that are socially acceptable. For example, participants may appear more authoritarian because they believe that their answers are the socially ‘correct’ and consequently they are incorrectly classified as authoritarian when they are not.