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Men, Women, and Authoritarianism: A Cross-Cultural Analysis

October 22, 2012

by Mark Brandt, Tilburg University and P.J. Henry, New York University–Abu Dhabi 

Authoritarianism–subordination of personal needs and values in the service of the group’s requirements–makes most people’s list of negative interpersonal qualities. The independent free-thinker and dissenting protestor garner praise and admiration, but the ever-obedient authoritarian: pity and disdain. Researchers, too, have affirmed this negative view by tracing many of society’s most pernicious social problems–prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping–to qualities that are characteristic of an authoritarian outlook.

Recent findings reported by social psychologists Mark Brandt and P.J. Henry (2012), however, challenge this simplistic conception of authoritarianism. Rather than viewing authoritarianism as a dysfunctional interpersonal orientation, these researchers seek to understand who adopts authoritarian values and what psychological benefit might accrue through an authoritarian view of the world. Rather than portraying authoritarianism as a psychologically problematic set of values, this work recognizes the value of both dissent and respect for the status quo.

Authoritarian values encourage support and obedience to social groups and their leaders. In a sense, authoritarianism represents an extreme version of solidarity and identification with one’s important social groups (for example, family, religious congregation, ethnic group; Duckitt, 1989; Stenner, 2005). When people feel rejected or excluded from their social circles, they may be especially likely to affirm authoritarian values in order to cope with the aversive feelings of social rejection.

Brand and Henry tested this hypothesis in a simple experiment. They asked the participants in the experimental condition to relive and write a paragraph about a personal experience of rejection and exclusion. Those in the control condition, in contrast, relived and wrote about a neutral event (their most recent commute to school or work). Following this experimental manipulation, participants completed a measure of authoritarian values. Consistent with expectations, people who were reminded of their experience of rejection expressed more authoritarian values than people who thought about their commute to work. That is, a reminder of rejection was enough to increase authoritarian values. Authoritarian values can be psychologically reassuring.

Brandt and Henry took the idea that authoritarian values can be psychologically reassuring and applied it to groups that typically are disadvantaged in society, that is, groups that have less power (economic or political). Previous research has found that disadvantaged groups experience rejection and exclusion because their society does not value them. Brandt and Henry proposed that authoritarianism, which helps give people a sense of connection to others, might be one way to compensate for the devaluing that is associated with being a member of a disadvantaged group.

This logic was applied to one specific group that experiences disadvantage globally, women. However, the inequality that women face (compared to men) from one country to the next is not uniform. In some countries, women face greater disadvantage than in other countries, whether that be through lower incomes, fewer educational opportunities, or less representation in politics.  The prediction is pretty straightforward: The greater the gender inequality in a country, the greater the devaluing of women, and therefore the greater the endorsement of authoritarianism by women compared to men. In other words, Brandt and Henry expected the greater endorsement of authoritarianism by women to be a function of their disadvantage in a society.

The hypothesis was tested using data from the publically available World Values Survey (, which contains data including measures of authoritarian values and gender from well over 100,000 people in countries from all over the world. The United Nations Human Development Report ( provided a measure of gender inequality across a wide range of countries across the world.

The results supported the prediction that women were more authoritarian than men in countries with higher levels of gender inequality. However, this prediction does not hold across every country in the world. Countries that are more collectivistic seem to be exempt from this inequality-authoritarianism relationship for women. Why? Research in collectivistic contexts has shown that endorsing authoritarian-type beliefs (e.g., following the norms of a society) is a normal thing to do for both men and women, regardless of gender inequalities that may exist. In other words, both men and women in collectivistic societies are likely to endorse authoritarian beliefs, a pattern that seems to obscure any effect of gender inequality.

But for individualistic countries, gender inequality seems to matter for determining the greater endorsement of authoritarianism by women compared to men. These results contribute to a growing social psychological literature attempting to understand why people hold onto authoritarian values and beliefs and suggest that authoritarianism may arise in part because of the basic human desire for social connection. Moreover, the results of this study join a growing literature on the effects of inequality, social status, and stigma on a variety of consequential attitudes and behaviors. To truly understand a person, we must also understand their place in their society.

Author Information

Mark Brandt is an assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University. His research program investigates the causes and consequences of ideological and moral beliefs, including religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, political ideology, and moral conviction. More information about his work can be found at

PJ Henry is an associate professor of psychology at New York University – Abu Dhabi. His research program examines prejudice and intergroup relations, with a focus on the justifications people create for prejudice and discrimination and the consequences of stigmatization. His website is


Brandt, M. J., & Henry, P. J. (2012a). Gender inequality and gender differences in authoritarianism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1301-1315.

Duckitt, J. (1989). Authoritarianism and Group Identification: A New View of an Old Construct. Political Psychology, 10(1), 63-84.

Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic. New York, NY:Cambridge University Press.

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