Authoritarianism, Cognitive Rigidity, and the Processing of Ambiguous Visual Information

Lauren E. Duncan, Smith College
Bill E. Peterson, Smith College

Archived as published. Open access article.


Intolerance of ambiguity and cognitive rigidity are unifying aspects of authoritarianism as defined by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1982/1950), who hypothesized that authoritarians view the world in absolute terms (e.g., good or evil). Past studies have documented the relationship between authoritarianism and intolerance of ambiguity and rigidity. Frenkel-Brunswik (1949) hypothesized that this desire for absolutism was rooted in perceptual processes. We present a study with three samples that directly tests the relationship between right wing authoritarianism (RWA) and the processing of ideologically neutral but ambiguous visual stimuli. As hypothesized, in all three samples we found that RWA was related to the slower processing of visual information that required participants to recategorize objects. In a fourth sample, RWA was unrelated to speed of processing visual information that did not require recategorization. Overall, results suggest a relationship between RWA and rigidity in categorization.