Authoritarianism, as a trait, tends to be thought of as an enduring part of a person’s personality. But can this deference to authority be changed? According to new work in Nature Communications, it can — at least in the short term.
In studies conducted with textile workers in China and administrative staff at a university in the United States, researchers found that encouraging workers to attend weekly democratic meetings led to a significant change in the way they felt about authority, justice and participation.
The first part of the study looked at the workers in the Chinese factory. These workers are organised by management into various groups in which they play separate but related roles — one might sew the sleeves of a hoodie, for example, while the other works on the hood. Before the start of the day, groups have a twenty minute meeting with their supervisor, who summarises work performance and decides on strategy, and gives workers individual goals.
The researchers — UCLA’s Sherry Jueyu Wu and Princeton’s Elizabeth Levy Paluck — recruited 65 such work groups for the study, and asked half of them to attend a weekly “participatory” meeting. Unlike the standard meetings, workers in these groups were able to participate in the discussion themselves, and were encouraged to discuss their experience at work, strategies for improving their output, and how best to cooperate. At the end of the meetings, in which supervisors were not allowed to contribute, workers announced their own goals for the week.
The remaining work groups were assigned to the status quo condition, in which they continued to attend meetings run by supervisors, with no participation for workers at all.
Four weeks after the experiment had ended, surveys were sent to participants. These measured workers’ attitudes towards authority (e.g. “obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn”); the extent of their belief in a just world (e.g. “by and large, people deserve what they get” ); their perceptions of how much different social groups come into conflict (e.g. “in your mind, to what extent do the rich and the ordinary have conflict with each other?”); and their participation in various activities outside of work (e.g. “how often do you follow news about politics?”).
Although overall workers tended to slightly agree with statements asserting obedience to authority, those who had been allowed to participate in discussions had a significantly less positive attitude towards authority than those in the status quo condition. Workers in the participatory condition were also less likely to believe in a just world, and reported more conflict between managers and workers in Chinese society as a whole. Finally, these participants also said they were more likely to participate in both politics and family life than those in the status quo condition.
The second study repeated the experiment — only this time, workers were academic administration staff in the United States. In this case, workers on average slightly disagreed with statements asserting deference to authority — but as in the first study, workers in the participatory groups had even lower respect for authority than those in the control condition. They also had significantly lower belief in a just world. (Time constraints meant that the researchers did not ask the questions about participatory behaviours.)
Results from both studies suggest that it may not be accurate to consider deference to authority a deep-seated, stable personality trait, and that even small scale experiences with participatory democracy can shift people’s attitudes. It’s particularly notable that workers who had participated in meetings still had lower respect for authority four weeks later, suggesting that changes in attitudes may be enduring. The fact that the meetings also increased participation in other political and family activities suggests that engaging in participatory democracy could have significant, real world implications at work, in the family or elsewhere.
It’s important to acknowledge that many workplace or family issues are systemic — workers don’t choose to be exploited by their bosses, for example, and to argue that a change in attitude would erase that dynamic would be misleading and unfair. But for those striving to develop more participatory workplaces or even societies, knowing that authoritarianism may not be an immutable trait can only be a good thing.