Prejudiced Persons Avoid Ambiguity, Non-Prejudiced Persons Do Not

Prejudiced Persons Avoid Ambiguity, Non-Prejudiced Persons Do Not

Individuals With A Low Tolerance For Ambivalence Reveal A “Theoretical Resemblance” To Potential Fascists And Ideological Extremists

In Adorno’s classic study (1950), The Authoritarian Personality, we find yet another critique of ambivalence, prejudice, and their connection. According to Adorno et al., the authoritarian personality is the result of a child’s idealized attitudes towards parents who believe child-rearing practices are most successful in highly structured and disciplined environments. Consequently, children, who are not allowed to express mixed emotions and pent up anger toward parents, are likely to vent these negative feelings on weak and vulnerable outgroup members.

[Footnote. Adorno uses Freud’s psychoanalytic principles for the theoretical orientation from which to interpret his data: “For theory as to the structure of personality we have leaned most heavily upon Freud…” (Adorno et al., 1950: 5). In this respect Adorno understands the authoritarian personality and her/his intolerance of ambiguity from a Freudian perspective. Thus, according to Adorno (Adorno et al., 1950: 463):

“High scorers show more rigidity and avoidance of ambiguity; low scorers tend toward greater flexibility and acceptance of ambiguity. The inability, on the part of typical high scorers, to face “ambivalence”–which is emotional ambiguity–has been discussed previously, mainly in connection with their attitude toward parents and toward the other sex: in these and other areas hostile emotions were found to have been repressed and hidden behind a facade of glorification.”]

As a result of these child-rearing practices, an individual tends to harbor within herself/himself pent up hostilities, anger, and aggression. This pent up hostility and anger then, gets vented upon persons who lack authority and power, that is, minorities and weak and defenseless people. Michael Billig condenses Adorno’s characterization of the authoritarian personality in the following statement (1982: 103):

“The picture of the prejudiced person to emerge from the extensive surveys and interviews conducted by Adorno et al. [depicts] ….an individual whose features included a rigid adherence to conventional values, a resistance to introspective self-examination, an admiration of power, an exaggerated and prurient concern with sexual ‘goings on’, a tendency to think in rigid categories, and a belief in the inferiority of outgroups. These disparate traits were linked psychologically by a syndrome which was based on an inability to handle ambivalent feelings.”

Adorno et al. concluded that a deep psychological malaise contributed to the formation of the authoritarian personality, and this malaise was characterized by an intolerance of ambiguities and ambivalences.

The motivational effect of ambivalence as a factor in the formation of the authoritarian personality, and, as a general malaise to be avoided, has not gone unnoticed in other psychological theories. In Festinger’s (1962) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, and in Rokeach’s (1960) The Open and Closed Mind, ambivalence is seen as a motivating force directed toward the elimination of dissonance. A person who is preoccupied with the elimination of dissonance sees issues in terms of rigid categories. Billig (1982: 146) states:

“Towards the end of A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger in a short section discusses possible individual differences in tolerance for dissonance… Those with a low tolerance for dissonance would have a far greater need to seek consistency in their cognitions and one would expect a person with low tolerance for dissonance to see issues more in terms of “black and white” than would a person of high tolerance for dissonance who might be expected to maintain “grays” in his cognition.”

According to Billig (1982: 146), descriptions of an individual with a low tolerance for ambivalence reveals a “theoretical resemblance to the description of Adorno et al.’s potential fascist, Rokeach’s ideological extremist, or, Festinger’s individual who ‘effectively’ reduces dissonance.”

Best Phrase To Describe A Tolerant Person-Tolerance For Ambiguity

It Is A Serious Error To Ascribe Prejudice And Discrimination To Any Single Taproot

Prejudice: Other Perspectives

The motivational effect of ambivalence suggests that prejudice and closed- mindedness may be predictable responses to the psychological need to escape ambivalence. But, prejudice, as a subject for investigation, is not limited to this particular theoretical perspective. It is, however, probably true that if it were not for the work of Adorno and his associates (1950), Sartre (1965, p. 53) might not have been so sure of himself when he said: “[W]e are now in a position to understand the anti-Semite. He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and of the world – of everything except the Jews.” Sartre’s characterization of prejudice is not unique, however. Lowenthal and Guterman (1949) identified the rigid and dogmatic beliefs that characterize prejudice as “the wish fulfillment of the ‘little man’ who seeks to be less lonely, threatened and isolated” (Held, 1980 : 140).

On the other hand, Adorno et al., probably did not influence Aboud (1988: 4) in her definition of prejudice when she stated: “[P]rejudice refers to an organized predisposition to respond in an unfavorable manner toward people from an ethnic group because of their ethnic affiliation.” Aboud, in her discussion of prejudice, draws upon the theoretical perspective of social-cognitive developmental theories of prejudice.

According to the social-cognitive developmental theory of prejudice, cognitive limitations in the way thought processes develop in children make prejudiced attitudes a developmental by-product in the normal maturation process of a child. Qualitative differences in prejudice, according to this theory, result from the different cognitive stages (Piaget and Weil, 1951) that a child experiences at various ages along the course of his or her development. These stages focus on the egocentric world of a child, first, and then, at around the age of seven, the child begins to perceive a more sociocentric world. At this preoperational stage of cognitive processing prejudiced attitudes are common. Once the child acquires the cognitive skills necessary for concrete operational forms of thinking, around twelve years of age, evaluative judgments become more readily accessible to the child, which, in turn, allows for an increase or a decrease in the frequency of occurrence of prejudiced attitudes.

Another theory of prejudice, Allport’s (1954) reflective theory, proposes that people, in general, are a product of their environment, and, more specifically, people with prejudiced attitudes are a product of an environment where power, status, and competition are reflected in the attitudes of the people who compete for power and status. Prejudice, in this sense, becomes a natural consequence of the socialization process. This is not to say that in Allport’s classic work, The Nature Of Prejudice, a particular perspective on prejudice is presented as “the way it is.” Allport (1952: xvi) is the first to admit that, “It is a serious error to ascribe prejudice and discrimination to any single taproot.” But, it is also the case, that Allport (1952: 506) goes on to critique the various theories of prejudice when he states: “Whether sociological, psychological, or both, the structural point of view has great merit. It explains why piecemeal efforts are not more effective than they are. It tells us that our problem is stitched into the fabric of social living. It convinces us that the cinder-in-the-eye theory is too simple.”

Allport, however, does devote a significant amount of attention to the cognitive processes that encourage prejudiced attitudes. Allport (1952: 175) states: “the cognitive processes of prejudiced people are in general different from the cognitive processes of tolerant people.” In this regard, the significance of ambivalence or ambiguity is not lost in Allport’s discussion of prejudice. According to Allport (1952: 438), the distinctive cognitive processes that mark the mental operations of prejudiced/tolerant people are:

“…the rigidity of their categories, their proneness to bifurcation, to selective perception, to simplification of memory traces, and their need for definite mental structure–even in processes that have nothing directly to do with prejudice. In all these instances our evidence came from studies based on contrasting groups of prejudiced and unprejudiced subjects. Therefore we can assert with confidence that the characteristic mental operations of tolerant personalities are also marked by distinctive (and opposite) attributes… It is not easy to designate with a single phrase the flexibility, the differentiation, and the realism that, on the whole, seem to characterize the mental life of the tolerant individual. Perhaps the best single phrase is that suggested by Else Frenkel-Brunswik, “tolerance for ‘ambiguity.’”

If we are to get a better understanding of how prejudiced attitudes are effected by a tolerance of ambiguity, then we will want to take a closer look at the man whose psychological principles were not only used as the theoretical model for the studies on the authoritarian personality, studies which emphasized the intolerance of ambiguity, but, these principles are themselves, it could be argued, grounded in an abiding concern with ambivalent attitudes.


2 Responses to “Prejudiced Persons Avoid Ambiguity, Non-Prejudiced Persons Do Not”

  1. aawwa Says:

    I finally subscribed to your blog! I have a live feed of your blog but it helps to get the email to prompt me to read!

    Thanks for showing your support to my blog 🙂 It is appreciated.


    • bwinwnbwi Says:

      Thanks for all your support and encouragement. I enjoy reading your blog also (I especially like the kangaroos). I hope the blog you subscribed to is this one, however, I’m posting everyday on

      For some reason the people who subscribe to the above url blog end up here. I have tried to fix that, but with no luck. This blog has a lot of my academic work on it, and soon, I will be re-posting that same work on the above url. My postaday blog is duplicating this blog except the posts are shorter (but more of them) and with pictures. The above url will take you to that blog. If you go there click on the title: bwinwnbwimusic and it will take you to my latest post. There are 45 subscribers on my postaday blog while their are 75 subscribers on this blog–where I do not post. Most, I believe are recent subscribers. The question is do those people want to be here or at my other blog? As you can probably guess I’m not very computer savvy. I started my newer blog just so I had something to do in my retirement–at least I got that part right! Thanks again and take care.

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