It is a frequent claim among sociologists and political scientists (e.g. Corning 2005, p411, and Kessler & Cohrs 2008) that the evolutionary role of authoritarian behavior is to promote group harmony and cooperation, thereby improving survival rates for the group. Unfortunately this claim fails to address three of Altemeyer’s fundamental findings. The first is that, for all their tendencies toward harmony and cooperation, groups of authoritarians fail (and in many cases fail spectacularly) to achieve the goals set out for them, as was clearly shown in Altemeyer’s Global Change Game experiments (p30), also available in journal-article form as Altemeyer 2003. In those experiments, groups of 50-70 individuals participate in a global political/economic simulation which includes key features of our current civilization, including resource management issues, trading between countries, militarism, and the potential for war. By controlling the percentages of authoritarians in the simulation, Altemeyer was able to project just how fit these types of individuals are to run our governments. The results were striking: While the comparison group of low-RWA individuals had a good run where only 400 million people died (a relatively low number in that game), the authoritarian group ended up killing off the entire population of the planet in a nuclear war! Even when the game was reset for them to try again, their death rate was over five times as high as the low-RWA group.
The second issue that refutes the claim that authoritarian behavior is a sort of “glue” that allows humans to function as a group is that is that there are three components to Authoritarian personality, and these are inseparable (even by factor analysis, see Altemeyer 1996 p52 ): submission to authority, aggression in the name of the authority, and conventionalism. Although the first and third do support the harmony/cooperation hypothesis, the second clearly conflicts with it. There would be no need for authoritarians to be prejudiced and aggressive toward individuals whom they perceive to be different from themselves (even if they are not true outsiders, i.e., an “outgroup”) if the evolutionary benefits of authoritarianism are merely to promote cooperation. Although this tendency toward aggression might have a “keeping people in line” benefit and so increase cooperation, the continuous infighting this behavior generates definitely works against even that goal, and there should be no need to be concerned about true outsiders since they wouldn’t be cooperating anyway.
The third problem of attributing authoritarianism to the need for group cooperation is its uneven distribution: If it truly was only needed for general cooperation all humans would be authoritarian. Since only a small percentage of the population is authoritarian, there must be some reason why having too many authoritarian people in a single band would actually decrease survival rates.
Although Altemeyer’s book does mention the causes of authoritarianism, it does not even bring up the issue of why individuals with high levels of these characteristics make up such a significant percentage of the population when it is clear that they often represent a danger to themselves and to others. Unfortunately, as is the case with Altemeyer’s theories on the origins of authoritarianism, it is not possible to do controlled experiments that will tell us why it even exists. But a little thought experiment might give us some insight into the issue.