Bryan Caplan  

The Old-Fashioned Personality

Subprime Daily Briefing, Dec. ... A Non-Pacifist Syllogism...

The holidays are the perfect time to step back and ponder the generation gap. How can people born forty years before you (or forty years after you) seem like they come from another world? If you're looking for answers, I highly recommend John Ray's remarkable piece on "The Old-Fashioned Personality" (1990. Human Relations 43). In this very Hansonian article, Ray takes the massive psychological literature on the F-scale - usually seen as a measure of fascist tendencies - and radically reinterprets it. People who score high on this test are not fascists, or even "right-wing authoritarians"; instead, they simply have old-fashioned personalities.

Ray begins by explaining that the F-scale

...does not predict authoritarian behavior and it is a poor predictor of political Rightism. In general population samples, many Leftist voters get high scores on it.

Although this is a considerable record of failure, it only tells part of the story. The other side is of course the fact that vast numbers of articles have been published wherein the F scale has been shown to have significant relationships with other variables. The F scale may not measure what it purports to measure but it does measure something that seems to have an effect on many other variables. But what could this be? (references omitted)

Ray then plays intellectual detective, amassing a series of clues:
Pflaum (1964) showed that a parallel form of the 'F' scale could be produced from collections of myths and superstitions that had been popular in the 1920's. Now this is very strong data indeed... The correlations Pflaum found, however, were so high that they enabled claims that a parallel form of the 'F' scale had been found. Pflaum has therefore made an explicit discovery about what the F scale consists of. It is a collection of old-fashioned myths and superstitions or statements that strongly resemble them... [T]he attitudes expressed in the 'F' scale were old-fashioned even when the 'F' scale was compiled. How much more old-fashioned they must be today! That they are is also shown by the fact that the F scale always seems to correlate with age...


Another piece of work which supports this interpretation of the F scale is the finding by Alwin (1988) to the effect that the ideals for child behavior in the U.S.A. have changed a lot since the 1920's. In the 20's conformity and obedience to authority were what was expected of children. In present times, however, this is replaced by values directed toward the child being more autonomous. So what do we find in the F scale? About a third of the items stress the importance of authority in general and several specifically advocate obedience to authority by young people -- exactly what we would expect of a scale embodying 1920's values.

In short, a high 'F' scorer is not a Fascist but rather someone who is still lost in the culture of the pre-war era. (emphasis mine)

When your elderly relatives shock you with their old-fashioned ways, though, Ray offers some food for thought: Old-fashioned words may offend young ears, but old-fashioned behavior has more to recommend it. Neat example:
[P]redictors of avowed racial dislikes may tell us nothing about the predictors of actual racism or racist behavior... One study that may reflect this is by Stephan & Rosenfield (1978). As we have seen, "authoritarian" attitudes generally predict anti-black attitudes. Stephan & Rosenfield (1978), however, found that schoolchildren who had been subjected to "authoritarian" child-rearing practices tended to show... the greatest increases in inter-ethnic contact after a desegregation program came into force... It is so contrary to expectation that even the authors of the study seemed not to notice the sign of the correlation. When I wrote to one of them about it, he acknowledged the anomaly but could offer no explanation for it. We have however noticed some tendency in the studies so far reviewed for old-fashioned people to be "nicer" towards others in various ways. Could it be that this "niceness" was a stronger determinant of actions towards minorities than was the evaluative judgments held concerning those minorities?(references omitted)
The lesson, though it mildly pains me to admit it: It's easy to get the wrong idea about your elders while they talk over turkey. If you invisibly followed them through the course of their lives, you would probably think much better of them.

P.S. And don't forget the great social rule: When in doubt, smile and nod!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Barkley Rosser writes:

Regarding this last point there may be another factor at work, the decline in the average number of children in a family. It is well known that only children tend to be selfish and spoiled compared to those with siblings, especialy siblings of the same gender, irrespective of their broader attitudes. They learn to share and compromise within their family. So, this may also contribute to the apparent paradox of people with apparent "authoritarian" attitudes proving to be better about adjusting to getting along with other people, even when they may be predisposed not to like them.

Gary Rogers writes:

I took the sample test that was available through the link and came out as a "Liberal Airhead." I am still trying to figure that out.

Les writes:

The correlations may be high, but have we forgotten that correlation says nothing about causation?

Unit writes:

My score:

"You are disciplined but tolerant; a true American."

Not bad :-)

Paul Zrimsek writes:

"The most you can say about my views is that they are old-fashioned. Yours will soon be the same." -- C.S. Lewis

Tom writes:

"Old-fashioned words may offend young ears, but old-fashioned behavior has more to recommend it."

Chris Matthews said when he worked on the Hill as a security guard (during college I think) that it was always the Republicans who were nice to the 'little people' - asked then how they were or said thank you. The Democrats would just brush by them and were much more rude.

You can tell much more about a person how nice he acts when he doesn't need to.

jp writes:

I'm also a "liberal airhead" according to the F-scale test. I think the testers meant "liberal" in the sense of "favoring civil liberties," not in the sense of "statist."

Rimfax writes:

I'm apparently a "whining rotter". My mother will be so proud. (not really)

For kids from authoritarian (presumably high F-scale) families to have the "greatest increases in inter-ethnic contact" just means that they went from zero inter-ethnic contact to the standard compulsory inter-ethnic contact. Golly, that sure is a mighty big increase. Is this just a case of "divide by zero error" or am I missing something?

Neil Stephenson pushes this meme in Cryptonomicon. A character breaks up with his foul girlfriend of many years and finds that his conservative friends are far more accepting of his decision than his more liberal friends, contrary to his expectations. Stephenson's character doesn't seem to note that his conservative friends were probably elated that he finally dumped the post-modernist, uber-lefty psycho, while his lefty friends were probably still trying to sort out their loyalties amid a great deal of misinformation.

I think that Ray and Stephenson both miss some very important nuances about the pragmatic and compartmentalized moral behavior of high F-scalers that tend to hide their negative cultural impact. Like Stephenson's character, I get along with high F-scalers very well and likely better than many clusters of ostensibly low F-scalers, but I still see high F-scalers as a negative cultural force.

Rimfax writes:

Another thought on high F-scalers:

My assumptions:
- Southerners as a group are higher F-scalers than any other regional breakdown in the US.
- American black culture still maintains a strong influence of Southern culture. No assumption is made about whether or not this translates into a high F-scale for American blacks.
- The "South" does not have a disproportionately large overall population as compared the "Midwest", "West", or "Northeast".

Kopel in "The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy" finds that the large difference in violent crime between Seattle and Vancouver is entirely accounted for by the difference in the populations of Southern born Americans and minorities.

According to FBI data, almost half of the police officers who were feloniously killed in 2006 worked in the South. However, 22 out of 48 is statistically weak data. (

cbb writes:

Hmm... people forty years older and forty years younger than I am are respectively 86 and 6 these days. I have little trouble understanding either group's view, frankly. I suppose there is some relation to Churchill's (perhaps apocryphal) quotation that "a twenty-year-old who is not a Liberal has no heart; a forty-year-old who is not a Conservative has no mind." As we know, people who are set in their ways are hard to shift; those who are not, less so. Smiling and nodding are good responses, but listening perhaps more so. There's the chance you might learn something.

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