Change in the Conservative Personality


Editor’s Note:
Important study showing prevalence of conservative (authoritarian) personality traits in the convict population, and their relationship to poor education, fear and prejudice.

Change in the Conservative Personality Equals Change in the Offender with a Resultant Reduction in Recidivism

by Michael D. Parsons and Jennifer G. Parsons
Journal of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Consortium


Offenders have many of the characteristics of the conservative personality as defined by Adorno, Collins, Wilson, and Boshier. The characteristics of the conservative personality limit change necessary for rehabilitation. Until that personality is modified, it is very difficult to reduce recidivism. Modification of the conservative personality through education and environment can lead to change in the offender’s behavior.

Is it possible to reduce violence by the criminal offender during incarceration? This paper presents the basis for a model which deals with certain offenders through an educational effort to modify some of their negative characteristics which include violence. The model in this paper is based on the concept of a conservative/authoritarian personality as it is found in offenders. The concept of the authoritarian personality remains important today as evidenced by coverage in current introductory psychology textbooks (Crooks & Stein, 1991; Dworetzky, 1991; Gleitman, 1991). “It appears that conservatism has pathological dimensions manifested in violence and distorted psycho-sexual development” (Boshier, 1983, p. 159). This is supported by a study conducted by Walker, Rowe, and Quincey (1993) in which there was a direct correlation between authoritarianism and sexually aggressive behavior. An investigation done by Muehlenhard (1988) revealed that rape justification and aggression toward subordinate individuals was much higher in traditional (conservative personality) than non-traditional personalities. It is postulated in this paper that the offender has a conservative personality and, therefore, manifests that violence.

The conservative personality work has as its antecedents the efforts on authoritarianism as developed by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) in their book The Authoritarian Personality. Adorno, et al. developed what was called an F-Scale, or Fascist scale, which dealt with nine variables thought to be found in the authoritarian personality: anti-contraception, conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, power/toughness, projectivity, superstition/stereotyping, destruction/cynicism, and sex. Historically several problems with the F-Scale instrument were found. To counteract these problems, a Conservatism or C-Scale was developed by Wilson and Patterson in 1968 (Boshier, 1983, p. 50). To reduce confusion, the remainder of this paper will interchange the terms conservatism/authoritarianism, as “neither conceptually nor empirically does there appear to be any grounds for distinguishing authoritarianism and conservative personality–except that the former may be regarded as a somewhat more particular case of the latter” (Wilson, 1973, p. 33). Dogmatic attitudes tend to be related to close-mindedness. The individuals who adhere to dogmatic attitudes have behaviors including: authoritarianism, tough-mindedness, conservatism, and alienated behavior (Rajnarain, 1986).

It needs to be noted that there is a right wing authoritarianism and a left wing authoritarianism (Sanford, 1973). The previous comment is made to maintain balance in the discussion on authoritarianism. For the purpose of this study, the focus will be right wing authoritarianism and the concept of conservatism was developed from that expression. Additionally, conservatism was linked to culture as noted by Sanford “Thus today, although I find little in the facts or theories of The Authoritarian Personality that seems fundamentally wrong, I have no difficulty in urging that we now stress the interaction of personality and culture, of psychodynamic and cognitive processes” (1973, p. 1961). The point of the above is that the conservative personality must be viewed within the context of the current culture. The focus of this paper is on the non white-collar offender and, therefore, primarily on the lower socioeconomic culture.

  • Religious dogmatism
  • Right-wing political orientation (in Western society)
  • Insistence on strict rules and punishments
  • Ethnocentrism and intolerance of minority groups
  • Preference for conventional art, clothing, and institutions
  • Anti-hedonistic outlook (the tendency to regard pleasure, particularly sexual, as necessarily bad)
  • Superstition and resistance to scientific progress (Boshier, 1983, p. 51)

The following is a series of statements or beliefs which can be attributed to the individual who manifests a conservative personality:

  • Religion of a dogmatic and fundamental nature
  • Commitment to political organizations which favor maintenance of the status quo (even by force)
  • Strict regulation of individual behavior
  • Militarism
  • Preference for people of one’s own kind
  • Resistance to change
  • Conventional in art and clothing
  • Refusal to accept new ideas
  • Superstitious and fatalistic (Wilson, 1973)

Both Boshier and Wilson’s descriptors of the conservative personality were congruent with those of Nevitt Sandord, one of the original authors of the work on authoritarianism. Sanford discussed in detail the development of his research of the authoritarian personality, the ramifications of the concept of authoritarianism and updated the efforts from the time of the original work.


This section focuses on how the above conservative personality is manifested in the offender. Duguid (1981b) has noted that offenders possess many of the attributes of persons with authoritarian personalities. “In their attitudes toward society, these men–inmates–share many of the attributes of what has become known as the ‘authoritarian personality'” (p. 139).

Authoritarian tendencies akin to Adorno’s definition of the “authoritarian personality” a rigid conformity to social conventions and adherence to whatever sexual, racial, or religious rules are dominant in the group–these reasoning deficiencies make most criminals true conformists (Duguid, 1981a, p. 100).

Sanford (1973) also supported the idea that offenders are significantly high in the area of authoritarianism:

We could not tell whether socioeconomic class as such is a determinant of ethnocentrism, but there was some evidence that membership in certain groups is an expression of an authoritarian outlook. Thus, it seemed consistent with our general theory to find that inmates at San Quentin prison obtained the highest mean F-Scale score of all of the groups we studied (p. 153).

Finally, McClosky (1958) noted that in Western society conservatism tended to be indicative of certain people: social isolates, people thinking poorly of themselves (low self-esteem), those uncertain of their values and who lack a clear sense of direction. That certainly fit the pattern of most of the offenders within the criminal justice system. The above was affirmed by Boshier (1969) when he suggested that those persons who were high in self-esteem were low in conservatism. He further noted that the individual with low self-concept scored high on conservatism. The offender certainly fit the criteria of having a low self-concept and, therefore, being high on the conservative scale. Boshier (1969) noted that by scoring high on the C-Scale, the conservative seemed to be demonstrating his hostility toward others which was once more a characteristic demonstrated by most offenders.

Persons who had a dogmatic belief in religions and adhered to the teachings of absolutist and perfectionistic religious groups, tended to be more frequently and more intensely emotionally disturbed than those who followed less dogmatic religion (Ellis, 1986). Authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism were positively correlated, with scores on authoritarianism significantly related to those on ethnic and racial prejudice, hostility toward homosexuals, and punitiveness in prison sentencing (Wylie & Forest, 1992). According to Parker (1990), dogmatism and orthodox belief were incompatible with ethical acuity.


The offender was lacking in education as noted by comparing the average years of schooling with the general population. It can be noted that, “A reality that must be faced is that when we talk about the typical offender population we are dealing with the least advantaged members of our society. They generally have a multiplicity of problems: limited education, lack of skills, poor work history . . . poor self-concept.” (Enocksson, 1980, p. 7).

McClosky (1958) noted that, “Conservatism is not the doctrine of the intellectual elite or of the more intelligent segments of the population, but the reverse. By every measure available to us, conservative beliefs are found most frequently among the uniformed, the poorly educated, and the less intelligent” (p. 38).


Boshier (1983) found that offender conservatism was inversely related to the educational level of the offender. The more highly educated inmates tended to be less conservative. The more that an individual was educated the less conservative he/she was likely to become, as noted by McClosky (1958). “The negative association between educational level and measures of conservatism have been recognized for years” (Schuman, Bobo, and Krysan, 1992, p.?379). Sanford (1973) also mentioned that freedom from authoritarianism increased with education, although he was primarily referring to college education (p.?162).

Sanford (1973) related the data of Adelson in which “he found that early adolescents are highly authoritarian, with significant reduction occurring in middle and late adolescence–largely because of cognitive development” (p. 163). Since the offender had limited cognitive development, the educational efforts would conceivably have assisted in reducing the conservatism of that offender. At that point in time, rather than reduce the amount of conservatism of the offender, the prison environment tended to increase it by its emphasis on many of the characteristics found in the conservative personality.

In the outside world, conservatives tend to seek situations and pursue occupations where stimulus and response uncertainty is minimized. They are attracted to authority, discipline, and structure. Some inmates could be in prison because of a desire for structure. Stimulus uncertainty is minimized. The daily routine is predictable and repetitive. With regard to response uncertainty, needs, feelings, and decisions are largely subjugated to and controlled by the keepers. Inmates do not have to take much responsibility for decisions; life is ordered and, for a person who fears uncertainty, must represent a structuring unlike that experienced in the days prior to incarceration. The prison system reinforces conservative behavior. (Boshier, 1983, p. 154).

While it was difficult to determine whether or not offenders functioned well in prison, by obtaining the above control, routine, and structure; nonetheless, it was certain that conservative qualities found in most prisons would have appealed to the conservative offender. The cultures of most prisons reinforced the conservative personality. While encouraging the maintenance of the conservative personality on the one hand, we wanted offenders to change and be open on the other. This emphasis upon socially structured prison life style contradicted individuality and reinforced Merton’s anomie “strain” theory. According to Allport (1954) the authoritarian personality type was one which found daily life and “the consequences of personal freedom . . . unpredictable” (p. 382). He argued that such individuals would look to authority, in the form of society’s rules and laws, for discipline and stability. Allport specified that, “This need for authority reflects a deep distrust of human beings” (p. 382) and described authoritarian individuals as wishing to be a part of an orderly, powerful society, with well-defined rules and authoritative leadership; to act aggressively toward deviants and out group members; and to believe in the rightness of power and control, whether personal or societal.

Strain theory placed the offender in conflict by requiring offenders to be submissive to prison authority and yet develop personal independence and autonomy through education programs. The society of both the offender and staff modeled authoritarianism/conservatism by enforcing strict compliance to rules and regulations without question or independent thought. That submissive role reinforced conservatism and dogmatic beliefs through fear of negative consequences causing excessive strain and repression of individuality, therefore, raising levels of stress and anger within the institutions. Sanford (1973) pointed out that there was an interaction between culture and the authoritarian personality. He stated that “In any culture the common emotional impulses of individuals are shaped through shared experience in the social group, and ways of controlling these impulses are developed in the individual and in the group, thus forming and favoring cultural values . . . Culture and personality continuously interact, in mutually supporting ways” (p. 160).

Currently, many corrections facilities have as a part of their mission statement the mandate to protect the public. As a result, institutional procedures designed to contain and control offenders ultimately result in a reinforcing model of conservative practice. It was within the walls of these modeled conservative environments that breathed the stagnant suffocating air which smothers the offender’s desire or his attempts at change. Education was not successful in prison due to the current conservative attitudes toward punishment first, rehabilitation last (Cosman, 1989). On the other hand, as part of the rehabilitation process, corrections departments needed to educate offenders in preparation for their return to society with better skills to live and the ability to think more independently and make more informed choices and decisions. The following comments by Duguid (1981) certainly supported the above observation:

The goal of rehabilitation is a developmental one, raising the level of cognitive development in order to affect perception and sophistication of analysis and raising the level of moral development in order to affect the way the individual usages and interprets the insights gained through cognitive development (p. 145).

In addition to the above dilemma, there was a problem relating to the culture in which the offender lived. Boshier’s study noted the significantly high score for correctional officers on the C-Scale. This was hardly a surprise since it would have suggested a controlling individual to control others, as in the case of the officer maintaining authority over the offender. Hiring, training, orientation, and work efforts centered on certain control issues which tended to perpetuate a culture of conservatism. While this insured facility control, it did not help the offender begin to make choices for himself. Education had within it the ability to assist the offender in thinking differently and acting accordingly based upon the new insights gained through expanded knowledge (Duguid, 1986).


If the negative attributes of the conservative personality of the offender are to be modified, this can be done through education and culture modification. The model being proposed here is simple: It is necessary to?modify the culture to minimize those factors which enhance the conservative personality and to work toward educating the offender so that there will be the opportunity for significant change. Modification of the culture would include, as a minimum, differing means of control over the offender and restructuring training and orientation of the staff (most especially the correctional officer). Education of the offender would necessitate more emphasis upon high school and college education as well as development of cognitive skills. Education can serve in the capacity of rehabilitation, habilitation, or cognitive enhancement providing maturation (Ayers, 1981; Enocksson, 1980; Glasser, 1964; Linden & Perry, 1982; Ragen & Finston, 1962; Sutherland & Cressey, 1974; Teodoro & Milan, 1979; Yarborough, 1985). Currently, a system utilized by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT).

MRT is a systematic treatment strategy designed to enhance the ego, social, moral, and positive behavioral growth in a progressive, step-by-step fashion. It is based upon the assumption that fully functioning, reasonably content, happy persons have a strong sense of identity and that their behavior and relationships are based upon relatively high moral judgement levels. MRT attempts to forge a connection between moral reasoning and moral behavior. The system assumes that clients enter treatment with low levels of moral development, strong narcissism, low ego/identity strength, poor self-esteem, inability to delay gratification, relatively strong defense mechanisms, and relatively strong resistance to change and treatment (Little & Robinson, 1988, p. 135).


The offender personality as noted by Boshier (1983), Wilson (1973), and others had the characteristics of a conservative personality. If those negative characteristics associated with the conservative personality could be modified, then it would have been possible to ameliorate some of the violent behavior of offenders while incarcerated and reduced recidivism. This paper has provided the framework of a model which can deal with the conservative personality.


This has been a preliminary exploration of the conservative personality as it pertains to offenders and the prison environment. The next step must be a study to determine the effect of education on the conservative personality. Specifically, the authors suggest that items one and two below be examined and that numbers three through six are questions which need to be addressed.

1. Examine the correlation between education of offenders and conformance with rules.

2. Do a comparative study with two offender groups with similar characteristics to determine the effects of a high school education regarding conservatism scores.

3. Revisit the concept of training and control within the prison environment. Is it necessary to do the kind of training for control when it is in fact reinforcing the negative behavior which is not desirable? What would happen if officers were trained to deal with the offender in a different manner, thereby, allowing the offender to develop a more independent means of thinking? Addressed concomitant to this must be the issue of how offenders can be controlled without resorting to negative means.

4. What would be the ideal environment for education to take place within the context of prison? Should the offender be isolated in a reinforcing milieu within the prison? Should the officers and others who deal with the offender being educated, have special training and insights into change models? Should the adult model of education be utilized in developing the offender environment within prison?

5. What is the impact on the offender who has undergone modification of his conservatism? How does he/she balance himself/herself in the day-to-day environment of prison? Does he/she receive more misconducts for demonstrating less conservative traits frequently associated with liberal thinking? Should the misconducts be different in nature? Does he/she make a better transition back into the community?

6. What are the implications for future hiring, training, and orientation of the correctional officer, if the corrections system tries to confront the behavior of the conservative offender through education and change of the environment?

It is clear from the above that this is a model that needs further refinement and effort; however, it is also apparent that the efforts have the potential of being beneficial to the field of corrections.


Michael D. Parsons, Ph.D., is the administrator of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in adult education in 1990.

Jennifer G. Parsons, M.Ed., is a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University with a major in human resource development. She received her M.Ed. from the University of Central Oklahoma in junior college education/sociology in 1993.


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