3.6 Cognitive (in)capacity

Stenner’s work shows a consistent and strong relation between what she calls cognitive incapacity and authoritarianism.

I have repeatedly found that authoritarianism is heavily, indeed primarily, determined by cognitive incapacity (along with lack of openness to experience). Any variable that even remotely reflects cognitive incapacity invariably proves a significant determinant of authoritarianism, whether that involves (lack of) verbal ability, years of education, possession of a college degree, political knowledge, or sophistication/complexity of writing. {Stenner:2009ul}

So cognitive incapacity (to deal one’s social environment) in combination with reduced “openness of experience” might be driving factors in developing an authoritarian disposition. Openness to experience is one of the “big five” dimensions of personality and involves active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. People who are closed to experience tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behavior, prefer familiar routines to new experiences, and generally have a narrower range of interests. The combination of a narrow or vocational education and a resistance to experiencing novelty and, as a consequence, learning leads to individuals who are of normal intelligence, but who have not learned to cope with many common situations that are judged as (too) complex (that but may not offer any challenge for a libertarian). Stenner (2009) observes that this sets authoritarians apart from conservatives who prefer the current status quo over change.

Status quo conservatism seems to be largely about the rigidity associated with aging. Whereas age (the principal determinant of status quo conservatism) reduces one’s ability to cope with change, uncertainty, and instability (i.e., difference over time, things not being closed or settled), cognitive incapacity (the principal determinant of authoritarianism) reduces one’s ability to deal with complexity (i.e., difference across space, things not being simple). (Emphasis added)

Fear of a complex world

After which she concludes (Stenner 2009)

“that authoritarians are simple-minded avoiders of complexity more than closed-minded avoiders of change. These complexity-avoiders are cognitively limited to begin with.”

But it is not only cognitive limitations that determine the difference between libertarians and authoritarians: the evidence shows consistently “that their fears are aroused and their thinking deteriorates still further in the face of threats to oneness and sameness.” These fears … (Stenner 2009)

… and cognitive decline then magnify authoritarian demands for limits on racial diversity, political dissent and moral deviance. But it still seems to me that authoritarians are not endeavoring to avoid complex thinking so much as a complex world. […] Note, most important, that normative threat only invites this kind of fear, cognitive unravelling and outbursts of intolerance among authoritarians, whereas in fact these very same conditions (i.e., the public dissension and criticism of leaders that are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy) induce only greater tranquillity, sharper cognition, and more vigilant defense of tolerance among libertarians. (Emphasis added)

So it is not complexity, but a complex world that is threatening to authoritarians. There is no reason to believe that authoritarians are less intelligent. Generally they are more closed to experience, but this is a personality trait that is unrelated to intelligence. What really characterizes them is that they have not learned more sophisticated and effective approaches to daily societal problems. Within the scope of their interests and vocation they exhibit normal intelligence and normal competence. Like everyone who is faced with challenges beyond coping capacity, they are going to be afraid about their future and motivated to realize a more favorable situation. Unlike libertarians, authoritarians do this by reducing environmental complexity towards any well-supported social norm or ideology. To summarize:

  • Where libertarians see a challenge, authoritarians perceive a threat.
  • Where libertarians see diversity and self-expression, authoritarians see moral decline
  • Where libertarians are interested and learning, authoritarians are fearful and protective
  • Where libertarians propose dialogue, authoritarians propose suppression of dissent

Strength of emotions

Note that the difference between the strength of the emotion in the previous list. Libertarians experience mild feelings such as being challenged, self-expression, interest, and an urge to for a dialogue. Authoritarians experience a threat, a moral decline, fear, protection, and an urge to suppress dissent, which is indicative of stronger feeling. That is an important observation that is indicative that fearful authoritarians are fairly close to loosing control over their lives. This makes of course perfect sense since they never learned to understand the world they are part or in any serious manner. The just learned the norm of appropriate behavior.

But, because of these easily activated emotions authoritarians are easy to motivate. Just activate their fears, for example by terrorism or by confronting them with their inadequate understanding of the world, and they become highly motivated to do “something”. What that “something” is does not need to be causally connected to whatever instilled the fearful mode. Going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq as a consequence of the 9/11 fear-mongering was a perfect example of this. Authoritarians (especially in a fearful mode) believe their authorities and are perfectly willing to kill or destroy millions of lives to give them the illusion of doing something that is supposed to reduce their strong negative emotions. They will also trade-in their freedoms for an illusion of security.

So instead of being guided by rationality, as libertarians are, authoritarians are in the deepest guided by (the emotion of) the fear to lose control. This entails that they are often in a [cognition for control mode][two modes of being] that prefers predictable closed-world solutions. Libertarians on the other hand value exploration and understanding high.