‘An Invisible Cage’: How China Is Policing the Future

Three people with a criminal record check into the same hotel in southeast China. An automated system is designed to alert the police.

A man with a history of political protest buys a train ticket to Beijing. The system could flag the activity as suspicious and tell the police to investigate.

A woman with mental illness in Fujian leaves her home. A camera installed by her house records her movements so the police can track her.

Across China, the police are buying technology that harnesses vast surveillance data to predict crime and protest before they happen. The systems and software are targeting people whose behavior or characteristics are suspicious in the eyes of an algorithm and the Chinese authorities, even if they’ve done nothing wrong.

The more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras that are everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored.

Now, even their future is under surveillance.

The latest generation of technology digs through the vast amounts of data collected on their daily activities to find patterns and aberrations, promising to predict crimes or protests before they happen. They target potential troublemakers in the eyes of the Chinese government — not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.

They can warn the police if a victim of a fraud tries to travel to Beijing to petition the government for payment or a drug user makes too many calls to the same number. They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.

It takes extensive evasive maneuvers to avoid the digital tripwires. In the past, Zhang Yuqiao, a 74-year-old man who has been petitioning the government for most of his adult life, could simply stay off the main highways to dodge the authorities and make his way to Beijing to fight for compensation over the torture of his parents during the Cultural Revolution. Now, he turns off his phones, pays in cash and buys multiple train tickets to false destinations.

While largely unproven, the new Chinese technologies, detailed in procurement and other documents reviewed by The New York Times, further extend the boundaries of social and political controls and integrate them ever deeper into people’s lives. At their most basic, they justify suffocating surveillance and violate privacy, while in the extreme they risk automating systemic discrimination and political repression.

Surveillance cameras set up in April at a residential compound in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang Province.
Credit…China Daily/Via Reuters

For the government, social stability is paramount and any threat to it must be eliminated. During his decade as China’s top leader, Xi Jinping has hardened and centralized the security state, unleashing techno-authoritarian policies to quell ethnic unrest in the western region of Xinjiang and enforce some of the world’s most severe coronavirus lockdowns. The space for dissent, always limited, is rapidly disappearing.

“Big data should be used as an engine to power the innovative development of public security work and a new growth point for nurturing combat capabilities,” Mr. Xi said in 2019 at a national public security work meeting.

The algorithms, which would prove controversial in other countries, are often trumpeted as triumphs.

In 2020, the authorities in southern China denied a woman’s request to move to Hong Kong to be with her husband after software alerted them that the marriage was suspicious, the local police reported. An ensuing investigation revealed that the two were not often in the same place at the same time and had not spent the Spring Festival holiday together. The police concluded that the marriage had been faked to obtain a migration permit.

The same year in northern China, an automated alert about a man’s frequent entry into a residential compound with different companions prompted the police to investigate. They discovered that he was a part of a pyramid scheme, according to state media.

The details of these emerging security technologies are described in police research papers, surveillance contractor patents and presentations, as well as hundreds of public procurement documents reviewed and confirmed by The Times. Many of the procurement documents were shared by ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society, which has systematically gathered years of records on government websites. Another set, describing software bought by the authorities in the port city of Tianjin to stop petitioners from going to neighboring Beijingwas provided by IPVM, a surveillance industry publication.

China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment faxed to its headquarters in Beijing and six local departments across the country.

The new approach to surveillance is partly based on data-driven policing software from the United States and Europe, technology that rights groups say has encoded racism into decisions like which neighborhoods are most heavily policed and which prisoners get parole. China takes it to the extreme, tapping nationwide reservoirs of data that allow the police to operate with opacity and impunity.


14:27China’s Surveillance State Is Growing. These Documents Reveal How.
A New York Times analysis of over 100,000 government bidding documents found that China’s ambition to collect digital and biological data from its citizens is more expansive and invasive than previously known.

Often people don’t know they’re being watched. The police face little outside scrutiny of the effectiveness of the technology or the actions they prompt. The Chinese authorities require no warrants to collect personal information.

At the most bleeding edge, the systems raise perennial science-fiction conundrums: How is it possible to know the future has been accurately predicted if the police intervene before it happens?

Even when the software fails to deduce human behavior, it can be considered successful since the surveillance itself inhibits unrest and crime, experts say.

This is an invisible cage of technology imposed on society,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, “the disproportionate brunt of it being felt by groups of people that are already severely discriminated against in Chinese society.”


Products from Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, on display at a tech industry exhibition center in Beijing.
Credit…Florence Lo/Reuters

‘Nowhere to Hide’

In 2017, one of China’s best-known entrepreneurs had a bold vision for the future: a computer system that could predict crimes.

The entrepreneur, Yin Qi, who founded Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, told Chinese state media that the surveillance system could give the police a search engine for crime, analyzing huge amounts of video footage to intuit patterns and warn the authorities about suspicious behavior. He explained that if cameras detected a person spending too much time at a train station, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.

“It would be scary if there were actually people watching behind the camera, but behind it is a system,” Mr. Yin said. “It’s like the search engine we use every day to surf the internet — it’s very neutral. It’s supposed to be a benevolent thing.”

He added that with such surveillance, “the bad guys have nowhere to hide.”

Five years later, his vision is slowly becoming reality. Internal Megvii presentations reviewed by The Times show how the start-up’s products assemble full digital dossiers for the police.

Build a multidimensional database that stores faces, photos, cars, cases and incident records,” reads a description of one product, called “intelligent search.” The software analyzes the data to “dig out ordinary people who seem innocent” to “stifle illegal acts in the cradle.”

A Megvii spokesman said in an emailed statement that the company was committed to the responsible development of artificial intelligence, and that it was concerned about making life more safe and convenient and “not about monitoring any particular group or individual.”


An internal presentation slide for Megvii’s “intelligent search” product. Bar charts sort groups of monitored people by category.

Similar technologies are already being put into use. In 2022, the police in Tianjin bought software made by a Megvii competitor, Hikvision, that aims to predict protests. The system collects data on legions of Chinese petitioners, a general term in China that describes people who try to file complaints about local officials with higher authorities.

It then scores petitioners on the likelihood that they will travel to Beijing. In the future, the data will be used to train machine-learning models, according to a procurement document.

Local officials want to prevent such trips to avoid political embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing. And the central government doesn’t want groups of disgruntled citizens gathering in the capital.

A Hikvision representative declined to comment on the system.

Under Mr. Xi, official efforts to control petitioners have grown increasingly invasive. Zekun Wang, a 32-year-old member of a group that for years sought redress over a real estate fraud, said the authorities in 2017 had intercepted fellow petitioners in Shanghai before they could even buy tickets to Beijing. He suspected that the authorities were watching their communications on the social media app WeChat.

The Hikvision system in Tianjin, which is run in cooperation with the police in nearby Beijing and Hebei Province, is more sophisticated.

The platform analyzes individuals’ likelihood to petition based on their social and family relationships, past trips and personal situations, according to the procurement document. It helps the police create a profile of each, with fields for officers to describe the temperament of the protester, including “paranoid,” “meticulous” and “short tempered.”

Many people who petition do so over government mishandling of a tragic accident or neglect in the case — all of which goes into the algorithm. “Increase a person’s early-warning risk level if they have low social status or went through a major tragedy,” reads the procurement document.


A police patrol in Xichang, Sichuan Province. Software allows Chinese authorities to target individuals according to preconceived ideas about their traits.
Credit…Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images
A police patrol in Xichang, Sichuan Province. Software allows Chinese authorities to target individuals according to preconceived ideas about their traits.

When the police in Zhouning, a rural county in Fujian Province, bought a new set of 439 cameras in 2018, they listed coordinates where each would go. Some hung above intersections and others near schools, according to a procurement document.

Nine were installed outside the homes of people with something in common: mental illness.

While some software tries to use data to uncover new threats, a more common type is based on the preconceived notions of the police. In over a hundred procurement documents reviewed by The Times, the surveillance targeted blacklists of “key persons.”

These people, according to some of the procurement documents, included those with mental illness, convicted criminals, fugitives, drug users, petitioners, suspected terrorists, political agitators and threats to social stability. Other systems targeted migrant workers, idle youths (teenagers without school or a job), ethnic minorities, foreigners and those infected with H.I.V.

The authorities decide who goes on the lists, and there is often no process to notify people when they do. Once individuals are in a database, they are rarely removed, said experts, who worried that the new technologies reinforce disparities within China, imposing surveillance on the least fortunate parts of its population.

In many cases the software goes further than simply targeting a population, allowing the authorities to set up digital tripwires that indicate a possible threat. In one Megvii presentation detailing a rival product by Yitu, the system’s interface allowed the police to devise their own early warnings.

With a simple fill-in-the-blank menu, the police can base alarms on specific parameters, including where a blacklisted person appears, when the person moves around, whether he or she meets with other blacklisted people and the frequency of certain activities. The police could set the system to send a warning each time two people with a history of drug use check into the same hotel or when four people with a history of protest enter the same park.

Yitu did not respond to emailed requests for comment.


An interface from a Yitu product that lets the police set parameters to receive alerts on suspicious behavior.CreditCredit…The New York Times

In 2020 in the city of Nanning, the police bought software that could look for “more than three key people checking into the same or nearby hotels” and “a drug user calling a new out-of-town number frequently,” according to a bidding document. In Yangshuo, a tourist town famous for its otherworldly karst mountains, the authorities bought a system to alert them if a foreigner without a work permit spent too much time hanging around foreign-language schools or bars, an apparent effort to catch people overstaying their visas or working illegally.

In Shanghai, one party-run publication described how the authorities used software to identify those who exceeded normal water and electricity use. The system would send a “digital whistle” to the police when it found suspicious consumption patterns.

The tactic was likely designed to detect migrant workers, who often live together in close quarters to save money. In some places, the police consider them an elusive, and often impoverished, group who can bring crime into communities.

The automated alerts don’t result in the same level of police response. Often, the police give priority to warnings that point to political problems, like protests or other threats to social stability, said Suzanne E. Scoggins, a professor at Clark University who studies China’s policing.

At times, the police have stated outright the need to profile people. “Through the application of big data, we paint a picture of people and give them labels with different attributes,” Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”

Mr. Zhang first started petitioning the government for compensation over the torture of his family during the Cultural Revolution. He has since petitioned over what he says is police targeting of his family.

As China has built out its techno-authoritarian tools, he has had to use spy movie tactics to circumvent surveillance that, he said, has become “high tech and Nazified.”

Surveillance cameras within 100 meters of Zhang Yuqiao’s home. There are no cameras in other places in his village, he said.Credit…Zhang Yuqiao

When he traveled to Beijing in January from his village in Shandong Province, he turned off his phone and paid for transportation in cash to minimize his digital footprint. He bought train tickets to the wrong destination to foil police tracking. He hired private drivers to get around checkpoints where his identification card would set off an alarm.

The system in Tianjin has a special feature for people like him who have “a certain awareness of anti-reconnaissance” and regularly change vehicles to evade detection, according to the police procurement document.

Whether or not he triggered the system, Mr. Zhang has noticed a change. Whenever he turns off his phone, he said, officers show up at his house to check that he hasn’t left on a new trip to Beijing.


The authorities “do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” Mr. Zhang said.
Credit…Zhang Yuqiao
The authorities “do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” Mr. Zhang said.

Even if police systems cannot accurately predict behavior, the authorities may consider them successful because of the threat, said Noam Yuchtman, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who has studied the impact of surveillance in China.

“In a context where there isn’t real political accountability,” having a surveillance system that frequently sends police officers “can work pretty well” at discouraging unrest, he said.

Once the metrics are set and the warnings are triggered, police officers have little flexibility, centralizing control. They are evaluated for their responsiveness to automated alarms and effectiveness at preventing protests, according to experts and public police reports.

The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.

One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.

Mr. Zhang expressed frustration at the ways technology had cut off those in political power from regular people.

“The authorities do not seriously solve problems but do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” he said. “This is a big step backward for society.”

Mr. Zhang said that he still believed in the power of technology to do good, but that in the wrong hands it could be a “scourge and a shackle.”

“In the past if you left your home and took to the countryside, all roads led to Beijing,” he said. “Now, the entire country is a net.”


Surveillance cameras on a lamppost in Beijing.
Credit…Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

What You Can Expect From an Authoritarian

Recognizing the 30 traits and behaviors of the authoritarian personality.

There has never been a more important time to understand authoritarianism and its effects on each of us. As individuals, we are seriously harmed by the authoritarians in our life. As citizens, we are likewise harmed by authoritarianism in high places. What can we expect in dealing with an authoritarian? In this series of posts, I want to share what I’m learning from my analysis of the authoritarian personality and authoritarian parenting literatures and from my extensive primary research into the effects of authoritarian wounding.

Source: Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

As to that primary research, I would love it if you would contribute to my understanding of the effects of authoritarian wounding by taking my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire. Even if you answer only a few of the questionnaire’s questions, that will provide me with invaluable information about this vital subject. Respondents are discovering that answering the questions is itself eye-opening and healing, so I invite you to take a look at the questionnaire and, if you’re moved to do so, answer it in full or in part.

A research headline is that authoritarians are fueled by hatred and by a powerful need to punish. Much else that we have come to associate with authoritarianism flows from this basic hate-and-punish agenda. What else exactly? Well, when you come into close contact with an authoritarian because he or she is your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your mate, your adult child, or someone else in your immediate sphere, like the leader of your church or your boss at work, you can expect to encounter many and sometimes all of a particular “terrible 30” traits, attitudes, and behaviors. In this post, we’ll look at the first 10 of these “terrible 30.” If you’ve been in close contact with an authoritarian, I’m guessing that these 30 are going to ring a bell.

1. Hatred

The central truth about an authoritarian is that he or she is coming from a place of hatred. As respondent Max put it, “My father hated just about everything. His hatred was very different from anger or resentment or even rage. It wasn’t an emotion, really, but a position, an attitude toward life. Anything could be hated, including things that he’d claimed to love and admire just the second before. You could fall from grace in a split second because he was so ready to hate—it was like hatred was always right there on the tip of his tongue.”

2. Punishment and Cruelty

Because they are full of hatred, authoritarians need to punish others. They are likely to advocate for capital punishment, for harsh punishment for all offenders, and to angle for punishment obliquely, for example by adopting a “right to life” position so as to punish women for getting pregnant. They are always alert for an opportunity to punish someone, especially family members. As respondent Mary explained, “My mother had an authoritarian personality, was angry all the time, and would explode and strike out with verbal or physical abuse at the drop of a hat. An incident that encapsulates my experience occurred when I was about 5 years old, when I got stung by a bee. I remember the searing pain and crying and running to her—only to be beaten for crying! That about sums up my childhood.”

3. Violence, Aggression, and Assaultive Behavior

Authoritarians are regularly assaultive and violent and even more often—sometimes constantly—in a state of barely suppressed near-violence. Here’s how respondent Cynthia put it: “My grandmother nearly killed my mother when she was 16, at which point my grandfather removed my mom from the home and put her in a halfway house. My mother became pregnant with me at age 19, and grandmother successfully lobbied to get her committed in order to take over guardianship of me. She continually called me a whore, a slut, and a good-for-nothing, and told me that I would never amount to anything. I was removed from the home at age 16, after my grandmother beat me with her cane and broke my collarbone for having a boyfriend.”

4. Threats and Scare Tactics

Authoritarians want their victims to fear them. Respondent Robert explained, “I was married to an authoritarian woman. I always felt afraid of her in little and big ways. I quickly learned that she slept with a gun under her pillow and on numerous occasions, she threatened to kill me if I didn’t do something she wanted me to do. We fought constantly and she would always win because she was willing to “go for the jugular” and hurt me. My self-esteem went down the toilet, I felt ashamed for being bullied by her, and ashamed of myself for not leaving.”

5. Quixotic, Unclear Rules

Authoritarians, who may or may not have any personal interest in abiding by rules, love rules for other people. The more quixotic and unclear the rules, the better, since quixotic, unclear rules are the least possible to follow. Such rules are inevitably broken, opening the door to punishment for the rule-breaker. For an authoritarian, the rules are there to be broken, so that punishment can follow. This dynamic helps to explain why an authoritarian is so often irritated to the point of violence when a rule is followed, since he was hoping for a violation and an opportunity for punishment. Likewise, this helps explain why you can never get the praise you were hoping to receive for following the authoritarian’s rules: following them doesn’t please him, it upsets him!

6. Paranoia and Enemies’ Lists

Authoritarians, in part to explain to themselves their bottomless reservoir of hate, act as if they’re being continually threatened and endangered. They see enemies everywhere, including (and often especially) in former friends. As respondent Emily put it, “My older brother kept an actual enemies’ list in high school. It went with his tight, rigid personality, his anger, and the way he never fit in anywhere. He was so uncomfortable, awkward, and off-putting that naturally, all the other kids wanted nothing to do with him—they gave him a wide berth and so they got added to his enemies’ list. He spent most of his time plotting his revenge on them.”

7. Truth Held as Enemy

Authoritarians have little regard for the truth. If your agenda is to punish others because you are filled with hatred and anger, the truth of any particular matter is a mere inconvenience. As respondent Phillip put it, “My father, a pastor, baldly lied about everything, from the number of people who attended one of his church services, a number he always inflated, to the crime rate in the ‘bad part of town,’ a number he likewise always inflated. It took me years to understand that every lie came from the same place: the place of making himself look better and others look worse. Then he could pat himself on the back and feel smug and superior.”

8. Shaming Efforts, Derision, and Ridicule

The hatred-and-punishment authoritarian agenda produces a person who takes pleasure in cruelty and who regularly shames, derides, and ridicules his current targets. To control is not enough; to win is not enough; to dominate is not enough: none of that is experienced as enough. The authoritarian wants you harmed and diminished. Since nothing feels quite as bad as shame, it is shame especially that the authoritarian wants you to feel. As respondent Samantha put it, “My father always looked at me as if I had no clothes on. I always felt naked around him. I don’t know how he did it exactly; he didn’t molest me or even touch me. In fact, he never touched me. But what he did was almost worse and I always felt ashamed in his presence.”

9. Rigidity and Obsession with Control

The authoritarian’s need to control is regularly the first attribute to which respondents point. In a characteristic response, Barbara explained about a previous boyfriend, “When he spoke about his relationship expectations, they were presented as rules, givens, and truths that ought to be obvious to anyone. These included what I could and couldn’t say to friends and family (for example, I was not allowed to express concerns about the relationship, because that equaled disloyalty). In order to monitor my compliance, he bugged our phone and put spyware on the household computer. When he ‘caught’ me (via the bugged phone) asking a friend for advice about one of his behaviors, he responded by throwing my belongings into giant trash bags and insisting that I choose, right there on the spot, a destination for myself and ‘all of my crap.’”

10. Intrusiveness

When you combine a need to control with a desire to shame and humiliate, you land on another authoritarian trait: intrusiveness. Authoritarians are regularly “into your personal business” (especially your sexual business and your bathroom business) in terrible and unacceptable ways. As respondent Jill explained, “For me, the abuse inflicted on me by my father was not physical but verbal. He was always saying ‘It’s none of your business’ and ‘You don’t own anything in this house’ and ‘Do as you’re told!’ And he was always banging on the bathroom door or barging in if I was in there too long. He’d come in yelling, his face all purple. It was a way of life with us.”

The authoritarian in your life may not have manifested every single one of these qualities. Authoritarians do not look exactly alike or act exactly alike. Many authoritarians are quite undramatic and relatively non-authoritarian much of the time. But they share enough of these features that they are recognizable as authoritarians. Do these first 10 of the “terrible 30” traits and behaviors I’ll be describing remind you of someone in your life? If they do, you can count on it that, like my respondents, you too will have a wound to heal.

Right-wing authoritarian Personality

Wikipedia article

In psychology, the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) is a personality type that describes somebody who is highly submissive to their authority figures, acts aggressively in the name of said authorities, and is conformist in thought and behavior.[1] The prevalence of this personality type in a population varies from culture to culture, as a person’s upbringing and education play a strong role in determining whether somebody develops this sort of personality.[2]


Bob Altemeyer, the Canadian-American social psychologist who first coined the term and its meaning in 1981, defined the right-wing authoritarian personality as someone who exhibits:[4]

  1. a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
  2. a general aggressiveness, directed against various persons, that is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities.
  3. a high degree of adherence to the social conventions that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities.

In his writings, Altemeyer sometimes refers to right-wing authoritarians as “authoritarian followers“. This is to emphasize that he is not speaking of authoritarian leaders, which is the more commonly understood meaning of “authoritarian”.[5] Altemeyer refers to authoritarian leaders by the term “social dominator“, and he has written extensively on the relationship between authoritarian followers and social dominators.



Right-wing authoritarians tend to accept what their leaders say is true and readily comply with their commands. They believe that respecting authority is an important moral virtue that everyone in the community must hold. They tend to place strict limits on how far the authorities can be criticized, and believe that the critics are troublemakers who don’t know what they are talking about. RWAs are extremely submissive even to authority figures who are dishonest, corrupt, and inept. They will insist that their leaders are honest, caring, and competent, dismissing any evidence to the contrary as either false or inconsequential. They believe that the authorities have the right to make their own decisions, even if that includes breaking the rules that they impose on everyone else.[6]

The “leader” is somebody whom the authoritarian believes has the moral right (if not legal right) to rule his society. Right-wing authoritarians are highly submissive to authority figures whom they consider legitimate, and conversely can be very rebellious towards authority figures they consider illegitimate. An example of the latter is American conservatives’ attitude towards President Barack Obama. Although Obama was legally their president and had won the election fair and square, many American conservatives felt he had no moral right to be president, largely because he was African-American. An aspect of this attitude was the “birther” movement, espousing the conspiracy theory that Obama was actually born in Kenya and had used a forged birth certificate to qualify himself for office (in the United States, only natural-born citizens may serve as president).[7]


Authoritarians can behave very aggressively towards people whom their leaders have marked as enemies, or whom the authoritarians perceive to be threats to the proper social order. Anyone can become the target of authoritarian aggression, but it is more frequently outsiders or socially unconventional people who are targeted. Examples include communists and Jews in Nazi Germany, and feminists and homosexuals in the United States. But an authoritarian is more likely than a non-authoritarian to attack even conventional people if his authority figures sanction such an attack.[8] Altemeyer has further observed that authoritarians prefer to attack when the odds are in their favor, going so far as to call authoritarians “cowardly” because they typically attack victims who cannot defend themselves, such as women.[9]

The factor that best instigates authoritarian aggression is fear, particularly fear of people. This can include violent people such as bullies, terrorists, and foreign invaders, but it can also include people they perceive as morally degenerate, such as homosexuals and atheists.[10]

Authoritarians strongly believe in punishment. All things being equal, they tend to recommend harsher punishments than non-authoritarian judges would. They are more in favor of corporal punishment and the death penalty.[11] But they tend to be forgiving or even approving if the crime was committed by a high-status individual against an unconventional or lower-status victim. In this regard, authoritarian aggression is about enforcing social hierarchies and norms. Examples cited by Altemeyer include a policeman beating up an “uppity” protester, an accountant assaulting a beggar, or an anti-gay protester assaulting a gay rights activist.[12]


Authoritarians have a strong commitment to the traditional norms of society. They don’t want to be unusual, they want to be just like everyone else in their group, and likewise they want everyone else to be conventional too. Diversity irritates them. Conforming to these norms is not just a social imperative but a moral one. Authoritarians reject the notion that social norms are arbitrary and that foreign norms are just as valid as theirs.[13]

The conventionalism of authoritarians reflects a traditional belief in how people ought to behave that is not necessarily reflective of how most people actually behave.[14]

With regards to religion, authoritarians tend to be fundamentalists.

Another aspect of conventionalism is sexual norms. Extra-marital sex, homosexuality, nudity, and even certain sexual acts between married partners, are seen by authoritarians as perversions.


Western countries

In 2021, Morning Consult (an American data intelligence company) published the results of a survey measuring the levels of authoritarianism in adults in America and seven other Western countries. The study used Bob Altemeyer’s right-wing authoritarianism scale, but they omitted the following two statements from Altemeyer’s scale: (1) “The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just “loud mouths” showing off their ignorance.”; and (2) “Women should have to promise to obey their husbands when they get married.” Morning Consult’s scale thus had just 20 items, with a score range of 20 to 180 points. Morning Consult found that 25.6% of American adults qualify as “high RWA” (scoring between 111 and 180 points), while 13.4% of American adults qualify as “low RWA” (scoring 20 to 63 points).[24] Altemeyer praised the Morning Consult survey as “the best study ever done on authoritarianism”.[3]

Prevalence among adults in Western countries
2021 Morning Consult survey
Low RWA High RWA Survey reliability
(Cronbach’s alpha)
US 13.4% 25.6% 0.8962
UK 13.6% 10.4% 0.8814
Germany 17.4% 6.7% 0.8184
France 10.2% 10.7% 0.7472
Spain 17.9% 9.2% 0.8396
Italy 17.9% 12.9% 0.8426
Australia 17.1% 12.9% 0.8922
Canada 21.3% 13.4% 0.9040


Difficulty judging evidence

Right-wing authoritarians have trouble deciding what facts are valid or irrelevant, and making logical deductions. Consider the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea.
Therefore, sharks are fish.

Although the conclusion of the syllogism happens to be correct, the reasoning before it is incorrect. Sharks are indeed fish, but not because they happen to live in the sea. Whales also live in the sea, and some fish live in rivers and lakes. Right-wing authoritarians are far more likely to incorrectly judge the above syllogism to be correct. Because they liked the conclusion, they assume that the reasoning that led it was correct.[26]


Authoritarians tend to hold stubbornly to their beliefs even when presented with evidence that suggests their beliefs are wrong. This is particularly true concerning beliefs that underpin the identity of the group. If anything, when confronted with contradictory evidence, their beliefs are often reinforced.

Compartmentalized thinking

The ideas in authoritarians’ minds are poorly integrated. They tend to hold contradictory beliefs in their minds to a degree far greater than what is normal for humans. High-RWAs simply absorb ideas from their peers without thinking about how they fit together.

In one of his experiments, Bob Altemeyer presented his students a booklet which contained the following statements on different pages:

  • “When it comes to love, men and women with opposite points of view are attracted to each other.”
  • “Birds of a feather flock together when it comes to love.”

His students with authoritarian personalities were more likely to agree with both statements even though they are completely contradictory.[27]

Their tendency to compartmentalize information makes it hard to change the cherished opinion of a high-RWA by telling them evidence that contradicts their beliefs. They will ignore the contradiction even if they accept the evidence as factual.[28]


According to Altemeyer, the above-mentioned reasoning flaws prevalent among authoritarians are all connected to their instinct to not think for themselves but to absorb their beliefs from their group, with particular deference to what the leader tells them to believe. If they are to absorb whatever they’re taught, they must not think critically about the logic of what they’re taught. A person who can think critically can achieve sustainable beliefs as he comes closer to the truth, but an unthinking authoritarian can only achieve sustainable beliefs if he stubbornly sticks to what he was taught no matter what outsiders tell him.


Altemeyer has observed that authoritarians are often very ignorant when it comes to both general knowledge and current events.[29]

Lack of self-awareness

Authoritarians tend to be lacking in general knowledge, particularly on issues with which they disagree.

Authoritarians also are often unaware of just how different they are from most people. They tend to believe they are very average. Altemeyer has found that authoritarians in America underestimate how prejudiced and conformist they compared to the majority of Americans. Altemeyer has also observed that when he lectures about the psychology of right-wing authoritarians to his students, the RWA students in his class fail to recognize themselves in his description.[30] Altemeyer believes the tendency of authoritarians to avoid anyone who isn’t like them reinforces their belief that they are normal. They have relatively little contact with normal people.

Sensitivity to disgust

Right-wing authoritarians tend to be more easily disgusted in general. This includes things such as body odor[31] and unconventional sexual practices such as homosexuality.


Relationship with social dominators

Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto created the social dominance orientation (SDO) scale, which describes people who crave power over others. Bob Altemeyer has used the SDO scale to study the relationship between authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders.

Authoritarian followers are attracted to domineering leaders. This is measured in one of the items on the RWA scale: “Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.” They are more likely to obey and approve of the leader’s unethical actions than a low-RWA.[32] And likewise, social dominators seeking power like to appeal to authoritarians because their loyalty is easy to acquire and hold if the SD just tells them what they want to hear, and they are gullible and will turn a blind eye to his indiscretions.[33][34]

Social dominators differ from authoritarian followers in several important ways. Both personality types demand loyalty from others, but RWAs usually reciprocate that loyalty whereas SDs have a tendency to betray their followers when it suits them.[35]

Social dominators lack the irrational thinking patterns common to RWAs, such as compartmentalized thinking and hypocrisy. They might often spout contradictory and illogical things in order to manipulate their RWA followers, but they are usually aware of the bad logic in their arguments, they don’t care as long as it gets them what they want. Social dominators are also more self-aware than RWAs. For instance, RWAs often do not realize how abnormally prejudiced they are, whereas SDs often do (and are comfortable with that).[36][37]

The aggression of RWAs is mainly motivated by fear and by sanction by authorities, whereas the aggression of social dominators is motivated by a general desire to dominate others. Altemeyer has found that today in America, SDs are more hostile to racial minorities than RWAs, because racism has become less socially acceptable and even illegal, and RWAs to an extent want to conform to this norm (which conflicts with their instinctive ethnocentrism).[38]

Altemeyer believes this relationship explains why autocratic countries tend to have oppressive, highly hierarchical societies, where women, homosexuals, and religious minorities are oppressed; and higher levels of corruption. Generally speaking, autocratic rulers hold power through the support of a smaller fraction of their citizens than leaders in democratic countries do. Under these circumstances, the support of RWAs is desirable because their loyalty is easy to acquire and hold if the leader appeals to their instinctive desire for conformity and hierarchy. By contrast, leaders in democratic countries (such as France and Canada) need to build a broader support base among the citizens to hold onto power, and there are just not enough RWA citizens in the population for the autocrat’s strategy to be feasible. The democratic leader is forced to consider the desires of centrists and left-wing citizens, and such citizens demand tolerance, liberty, and low corruption.

Left-wing authoritarians

In political philosophy, the classic definition of left-wing describes somebody who advocates social equality and right-wing describes somebody who advocates social hierarchy. The existence of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China raised the question of whether there is such a thing as “left-wing authoritarians”, since these countries were highly authoritarian yet also left-wing. This article concerns itself with the concept of authoritarianism as a personality type rather than a political ideology. The question that psychologists therefore asked was whether authoritarian individuals in communist countries are psychologically the same as right-wing authoritarians in America, or whether they are different enough to warrant a distinct category of their own. After reviewing a number of studies, John T. Jost concluded that the evidence more or less shows that the left-wing authoritarian personality does not exist, at least when it comes to rigidity of thought. The evidence strongly favored the hypothesis that people on the political right, particularly the far-right, are more rigid in their thinking than people on the political left, even counting those on the far-left.[39]

In some of his writings, Bob Altemeyer thinks of a right-wing authoritarian as someone who submits to the established authorities in society whereas a left-wing authoritarian submits to authorities who want to overthrow the establishment. This distinction is one of circumstance, not personality.[40] He asserts the Nazis were left-wing authoritarians before they rose to power, and after they took power they became right-wing authoritarians.[41]

Karen Stenner‘s research notes that the dynamic can appear elsewhere on the political spectrum. In particular, she cites the Nation of Islam as a potential sub-cultural manifestation of the authoritarian dynamic, comparing its “self-glorification”, insistence on conformity, and militant rejection of state legitimacy to similar attitudes expressed by civilian militia and patriot movements among white authoritarians on the American right. She also notes that approximately one-third of authoritarians tend towards socialism, with even non-socialist authoritarians indicating a willingness to support affirmative action, provided that such measures are enacted with the aim of reducing social stratification, as well as operated by institutions which those same authoritarians perceive as sharing their own beliefs and ideals. Likewise, she asserts that any perceived relation between authoritarianism and laissez-faire economic policies is inconsistent, because of it being highly contingent on authoritarians’ varying levels of trust in government.[citation needed]


United States

Research has shown that, since the 1960s, voters who prefer authoritarian leadership styles are more likely to support Republican candidates. Supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump were more likely than non-Trump-supporting Republicans to score highly on authoritarian aggression and group-based dominance. Furthermore, many left-leaning authoritarians have become less engaged with politics and voting.[42]

A study by Monmouth University found that 40% of people who voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election scored in the highest quartile on the RWA scale. By contrast, only a negligible number of Joe Biden supporters scored that highly. The same study found that those Trump supporters who scored highly on the RWA scale were more likely than other Trump supporters to endorse conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the election was rigged by the Democratic Party.[43]

According to Karen Stenner, an Australian professor who specializes in authoritarianism, authoritarianism is different from conservatism because authoritarianism reflects aversion to difference across space (i.e. diversity of people and beliefs at a given moment) while conservatism reflects aversion to difference over time (i.e. change). Stenner argues that conservatives will embrace racial diversity, civil liberties and moral freedom to the extent they are already institutionalized authoritatively-supported traditions and are therefore supportive of social stability. Conservatives tend to be drawn to authoritarianism when public opinion is fractious and there is a loss of confidence in public institutions, but in general they value stability and certainty over increased uniformity. However, Stenner says that authoritarians also want difference restricted even when so doing would require significant social change and instability.[44]


According to research by Altemeyer, right-wing authoritarians tend to exhibit cognitive errors and symptoms of faulty reasoning. Specifically, they are more likely to make incorrect inferences from evidence and to hold contradictory ideas that result from compartmentalized thinking. They are also more likely to uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs and they are less likely to acknowledge their own limitations.[45] Whether right-wing authoritarians are less intelligent than average is disputed, with Stenner arguing that variables such as high verbal ability (indicative of high cognitive capacity) have a very substantial ameliorative effect in diminishing authoritarian tendencies.[44] However, one study suggested the apparent negative relationship between cognition and RWA could be partially explained by methodological issues.[46] Measured against other factors of personality, authoritarians generally score lower on openness to experience and slightly higher on conscientiousness.[47][48][49]

Altemeyer suggested that authoritarian politicians are more likely to be in the Conservative or Reform party in Canada, or the Republican Party in the United States. They generally have a conservative economic philosophy, are highly nationalistic, oppose abortion, support capital punishment, oppose gun control legislation and do not value social equality.[45] The RWA scale reliably correlates with political party affiliation, reactions to Watergate, pro-capitalist attitudes, religious orthodoxy and acceptance of covert governmental activities such as illegal wiretaps.[45]

Authoritarians are generally more favorable to punishment and control than personal freedom and diversity. They are more willing to suspend constitutional guarantees of liberty such as the Bill of Rights. They are more likely to advocate strict, punitive sentences for criminals[50] and report that punishing such people is satisfying for them. They tend to be ethnocentric and prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities[51] and homosexuals.[52][53] However, Stenner argues that authoritarians will support programs intended to increase opportunities for minority groups, such as affirmative action, if they believe such programs will lead to greater societal uniformity.[44]

In roleplaying situations, authoritarians tend to seek dominance over others by being competitive and destructive instead of cooperative. In a study by Altemeyer, 68 authoritarians played a three-hour simulation of the Earth’s future entitled the Global Change Game. Unlike a comparison game played by individuals with low RWA scores which resulted in world peace and widespread international cooperation, the simulation by authoritarians became highly militarized and eventually entered the stage of nuclear war. By the end of the high RWA game, the entire population of the earth was declared dead.[45]

The vast majority of research on right-wing authoritarianism has been done in the United States and Canada. However, a 2003 cross-cultural study examined the relation between authoritarianism and individualism–collectivism in samples (1,080) from Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Poland and the United States. Both at the individual level and the societal level, authoritarianism was correlated with vertical individualism or dominance seeking and vertical or hierarchical collectivism which is the tendency to submit to the demands of one’s ingroup.[54] A study done on both Israeli and Palestinian students in Israel found that RWA scores of right-wing party supporters were significantly higher than those of left-wing party supporters and scores of secular subjects were lowest.[55]

Right-wing authoritarianism has been found to correlate only slightly with social dominance orientation (SDO). The two measures can be thought of as two sides of the same coin as RWA provides submissive followers and SDO provides power-seeking leaders.[56]

Some recent research has argued that the association with RWA and prejudice has dominated research into RWA, with recent developments discovering a more complicated relationship.[57]

Relationship to personality traits

Research comparing RWA with the Big Five personality traits has found that RWA is positively correlated with conscientiousness (r = 0.15) and negatively correlated with openness to experience (r = −0.36). SDO has a somewhat different pattern of correlations with the Big Five, as it is also associated with low openness to experience (r = −0.16), but is not significantly correlated with conscientiousness (r = −0.05) and instead has a negative correlation with agreeableness (r = −0.29). Low openness to experience and high conscientiousness have been found to be predictive of social conformity. People low in openness to experience tend to prefer clear, unambiguous moral rules and are more likely to support the existing social order insofar as it provides clear guidance about social norms for behavior and how the world should be. People low in openness to experience are also more sensitive to threats (both real and symbolic) to the social order and hence tend to view outgroups who deviate from traditional social norms and values as a threat to ingroup norms and values. Conscientiousness is associated with a preference for order, structure and security, hence this might explain the connection with RWA.[47]

Causes of RWA personality

The roots of the right-wing authoritarian personality are mostly down to genetics, a conclusion that comes from twin studies.[58]

Education levels are also a factor, with a four-year undergraduate education found to lower RWA scores by approximately 10%.[59]

Criticism and development

A recent refinement to this body of research was presented in Karen Stenner‘s 2005 book, The Authoritarian Dynamic. Stenner argues that RWA is best understood as expressing a dynamic response to external threat, not a static disposition based only on the traits of submission, aggression and conventionalism. Stenner is critical of Altemeyer’s social learning interpretation and argues that it cannot account for how levels of authoritarianism fluctuate with social conditions. She argues that the RWA Scale can be viewed as a measure of expressed authoritarianism, but that other measures are needed to assess authoritarian predispositions which interact with threatening circumstances to produce the authoritarian response.[60]

Recent criticism has also come as a result of treating RWA as uni-dimensional even in contexts where it makes no sense to do so. This include RWA being used in regression analyses with fundamentalism as another predictor and attitudes to homosexuality and racism as the outcomes.[61] This research seemed to show that fundamentalism would be associated with reduced racism once the authoritarian component was removed and this was summarized in a recent review of the field.[62] However, since the RWA scale has items that also measure fundamentalist religiosity and attitudes to homosexuality, this undermines the interpretation of such analyses.[63][64] Even worse is the possibility that the unrecognised dimensionality in RWA can cause a statistical artifact to arise in such regressions which can reduce or even reverse some of the relationships. Mavor and colleagues have argued that this artifact eliminates or even reverses any apparent tendency for fundamentalism to reduce racism once RWA is controlled. The implication is that in some domains such as the social psychology of religion it is not only preferable to think of RWA as consisting of at least two components, but it is essential in order to avoid statistical errors and incorrect conclusions.[64] Several options currently exist for scales that acknowledge at least the two main underlying components in the scale (aggression/submission and conventionalism).[20][22][23][64][65][66][67]

Altemeyer’s research on authoritarianism has been challenged by psychologist John J. Ray, who questions the sampling methods used and the ability of the RWA Scale to predict authoritarian behavior and provides evidence that the RWA Scale measures conservatism rather than “directiveness”, a construct that John J. Ray invented and that he relates to authoritarianism.[68][69] However, Ray’s approach is a minority position among researchers[70] and other psychologists have found that both the RWA scale and the original F-scale are good predictors of both attitudes and behavior.[71]

In 2012, the American Journal of Political Science[72] published an article discussing the correlation between conservatism and psychoticism which they associated with authoritarianism, among other traits. In 2015, they released an erratum showing mixed correlations.[73]

In 2017, the new Regality Theory suggested a reinterpretation of RWA in the light of evolutionary psychology. Regality theory agrees that authoritarianism is a dynamic response to external threats, but rather than seeing it as a psychological aberration, regality theory posits that authoritarianism is an evolved response to perceived collective danger. The tendency to support a strong leader when faced with common existential threats has contributed to Darwinian fitness in human prehistory because it helped solve the collective action problem in war and suppress free riders. It is argued that regality theory adds a deeper level of analysis to our understanding of authoritarianism and avoids the political bias that the research in the authoritarian personality and RWA is often criticized for.[74]

In 2019, Ronald Inglehart combined RWA with his theory of postmaterialism, arguing that both reflected the tendency of insecure environments to produce individuals whose worldview values conformism over self-expression.[75]

Although some earlier scholars had claimed that a comparable construct of left-wing authoritarinism (LWA) on the political left does not exist and compared the search for LWA to trying to find the Loch Ness monster, more recent work suggests the possibility that LWA does exist and that it predicts similar outcomes as RWA.[76] This has spurred debate about whether liberals might be similarly authoritarian as conservatives.[77]

Honeycutt et al argue that RWA scores may be misrepresented by distribution as high-scorers on the scale may actually have moderate scores and are only “high” relative to lower scorers, rather than scoring high on the scale in any absolute sense. Thus differences between “high” and “low” scorers may be exaggerated.[78]


The theoretical concept of right-wing authoritarianism was introduced in 1981 by the Canadian-American social psychologist Bob Altemeyer[1] as a refinement of the authoritarian personality theory originally pioneered by University of California, Berkeley, researchers Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford.[79]

After extensive questionnaire research and statistical analysis, Altemeyer found that only three of the original nine hypothesized components of the model correlated together: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression and conventionalism. Researchers have traditionally assumed that there was just one kind of authoritarian personality, who could be either a follower or a leader. The discovery that followers and leaders are usually different types of authoritarians is based on research done by Sam McFarland.[56] Altemeyer describes another scale called “Social Dominance” which measures how domineering a person is. Altemeyer calls people who score highly on both his “Right-Wing Authoritarian” and “Social Dominance” scales as “Double Highs”.[56]

See also



Was Reinhard Heydrich possibly more evil/cruel than Hitler?


Reinhard Heydrich

What makes Heydrich so terrifying was that, in contrast to Bormann, Himmler and Goebbels, he wasn’t a fanatical Nazi.

Yes, you read that correctly.

A rather shocking fact about the organizer of the most infamous genocide was that he didn’t loathe the targets. Although Heydrich disliked the Jews and had right-wing anti-semitic sympathies, his Anti-Judaism was far more subtle than that of Hitler. It played little role in his private life, and his Anti-Judaism was comparable to that of the average German at the time, it was very moderate. Heydrich did not have the hostile feelings that Hitler had against the Slavs and Gypsies, he didnt care about the “German Master Race”, and his feelings towards the Holocaust targets, really, was simple indifference.

He only played a major role in the Holocaust because he was a very psychopathic, ruthless and ambitious careerist who took all the chances that were thrown at him, and was able to carry out any kind of order without hesitation or second thoughts and expected the same from all of his subordinates. And, unfortunately, he had chosen the perfect people for these tasks: Heinrich Müller and Adolf Eichmann. This characteristic simply came from his strict Catholic childhood by his mother, who, along with his father, helped instill fervent nationalism, absolute obedience, ambition, music and “sacrifice for your community” ideals into their children. He organized the Holocaust simply to advance his own career and status in the society. It is these characteristics that earned him the nickname ‘Hitler’s Hangman’ because he was literally Hitler’s dog: an very intelligent, ambitious but submissive man who did anything he was told, no matter how immoral it was, because the leader always knows what’s best for the German community (in his mind). His wife, Lina, encouraged him to join the Nazi Party in 1931, beforehand, he couldn’t care less about the Nazis.