Several researchers have attempted to obtain consensus on the
relative seriousness of criminal or deviant behaviors. In
general, these measures are referred to as crime seriousness
scales. Acts on these scales range from serious crimes such as
"planned killing of a person for a fee," to acts that some
consider deviant, such as "proposing homosexual practices to
An early seriousness scale was developed by Sellin and
Wolfgang (1964). This scale included one sentence descriptions
of crimes. In 1974, Rossi, Waite, Bose, and Berk developed a
140 item scale, again with brief descriptions of criminal
acts. As with the Sellin and Wolfgang research, strong
societal consensus regarding crime seriousness was found by
Rossi et al.
Building on this research, Wolfgang, Figlio, Tracy, and Singer
(1985) conducted an extensive survey of crime seriousness.
This effort, known as the National Survey of Crime Severity,
resulted in seriousness scores for 204 acts. These acts were
defined in more precise terms than those in the previous
scales. Variables including intent, relationship, gender, and
severity of injury were included in the descriptions.
Measuring the seriousness scores of various acts can be more
than an academic exercise. Results of these measures can
logically be used to determine criminal justice policy. Since
the criminal justice system does not act independent of the
wishes of society, broad agreement on the seriousness of
crimes can be used as a basis for the criminal code,
sentencing, and the actions of police (Warr, 1989; Hamilton
and Rytina, 1980).
The present research examines differing opinions about the
seriousness of drug related acts. Opinions about the
seriousness of such acts may be reflected in modification of
criminal codes. In the area of drug use and sale, these
modifications may be as significant as the criminalization or
legalization of certain activities. These potential
modifications are likely to be influenced by opinions about
seriousness as well as the personalities of those in power.
Scale used in the present research
A major difference between the scale used in the present
research and that used by others is a limitation in the type
of acts. The present research is limited to drug related
activity. This is a much narrower range of activity than is
usually included on crime seriousness scales.
Drug related items that were included on the Rossi et al.
(1974) scale are included in the present research. Other items
are unique to this research. The present research is limited
to opinions about drug sale and use. On Rossi's scale the
seriousness of using marijuana is contrasted to items such as
"planned killing of a person for a fee." Drug use and sale may
seem trivial in comparison to other acts. By limiting the
scale to these items it is likely that a wider range of
scores, related only to drug sale and use, will be achieved.
AND POLITICAL IDEOLOGY
Interest in authoritarian personalities began with scales
designed in an effort to understand the origins for mass
support of the Nazi's. These scales evolved into fascism, or F
scales, which included measures of anti-Semitic attitudes. In
the late 1940's a link between fascism and authoritarianism
was proposed. Researchers were moving from general ideas about
a culture to specific ideas about the personalities of
individuals in that culture. (See Stone et al., 1993.)
The psychoanalytical focus on authoritarian personalities was
clear in "The Authoritative Personality," or TAP, (Adorno,
Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford) which was published
in 1950. Inadequacies in this scale, as well as political
changes, led to revisions in TAP. Many revisions were
concerned with measurement issues (Stone et al., 1993). In
general, researchers questioned whether TAP was a unique
variable when compared to ideology.
Due in part to criticism related to an apparent connection of
authoritarianism to conservative political power, TAP research
declined in the 1960's (Stone et al., 1993). The inability to
define a general authoritarianism, lacking in political
attachments, was seen as evidence that it was not a unique
construct. In the present research, the concepts of
authoritarianism and ideology are treated as unique
constructs. That said, it seems possible that these concepts,
although conceptually distinct, are so interrelated that
attempts to separate them are futile.
Meleon suggests that debate over the connection of the
psychological concept of authoritarianism and the sociological
concept of political ideology is little more that a turf war.
The fact that sociologists and political scientists do not
give much credit to personal motivation and reasoning should
not be an excuse for ignoring a potentially viable construct.
In "light of the reappearance of ethnocentric and
authoritarian attitudes in the 1980's, this research is too
important for petty quarrels about the kind of insignificant
side issues that have dominated the debate on authoritarianism
for too long" (Meleon, 1993:68). The present research examines
the potential impact of the increased participation of certain
individuals. The personalities of those individuals, and those
who support them, should not be ignored.
The authoritarianism measure used in the present research is
Altemeyer's (1981) Right Wing Authoritarianism scale (RWA).
This 24-item scale "has the virtues of focusing on the core of
authoritarianism, being counterbalanced so that agreement
prone respondents are not combined with ideologically
consistent respondents, and having high reliability"
Altemeyer's scale measures three variables directly related to
the potential for criminal justice policy changes as the
result of increased participation by, and support for, high
authoritarian individuals. The scale measures an orientation
toward acceptance of established authority and law, acceptance
of law as a basis for morality, and punitiveness toward
legitimate targets (Christie, 1991).
Each of these variables has a clear impact on policy choices
made in an effort to control drug sale and use. For example,
the primary variable under examination in the present
research, the seriousness of drug related behavior, is
directly associated with legitimate use of authority by
government. It may be safe to assume that high authoritarian
individuals will be more in favor of increased governmental
authority, and increased punitive measures, to fight a war on
The present research has adopted the RWA scale in its
entirety, with one minor alteration. One question was reworded
in light of changes in drug policy over the last decade. "The
courts are right in being easy on drug offenders" was changed
to "The courts should be easy on drug offenders." This change
was made after a pretest with a 400 level criminal justice
course. Students who had studied mandatory sentencing laws
were understandably confused by a question that defined the
courts as lenient in drug cases.
A questionnaire was designed to collect data for this
research. The first section included descriptions of 25 drug
related acts. This list included activity that is legal as
well as illegal. The RWA scale made up the second section. The
third section included a single question about political
ideology, questions about legalizing drugs, a measure of
church attendance, and several demographic variables.
seriousness items were scored on a 9-point scale anchored at
each end by "most serious" and "least serious." The RWA scale
included a six-point likert scale, three items indicating
varying degrees of disagreement, and three items indicating
the degree of agreement with the statement. The political
ideology question was measured on a five-point scale ranging
from "extremely liberal" to "extremely conservative" with
"moderate" as the mid point.
Two questions were related to attitudes about drug
legalization. These were simple yes or no questions. One
question asked for an opinion about legalizing all drugs. The
second asked for the respondent's opinion about legalizing
marijuana. Church attendance was included as a measure of
religiosity. This variable was measured on an eight-point
scale with responses ranging from "zero" to "over 100" times
in attendance at religious services or other religion oriented
events during the past year.
The survey was given during the first four weeks of the
semester in criminal justice classes offered at an upstate
campus of a large Midwestern university. A brief instruction
sheet was attached to the front of the survey, followed by the
drug severity items, the RWA scale, and the demographic items.
Respondents were asked to read the first ten descriptions in
order to develop a general idea of the range of issues covered
before indicating their perceptions of the seriousness of drug
related acts. Respondents were asked to "rate the seriousness
of the acts based on your opinion. In other words, rate these
acts without consideration of the punishment prescribed by
law." Participants were assured that no effort would be made
to identify individual respondents.
The following discussion covers several variables of interest
in this research. First, the data is analyzed in the effort to
clarify the relationship of authoritarianism and political
ideology. Next, the crime seriousness rankings are discussed.
Finally, the interactions of RWA and ideology to seriousness
scores and opinions about drug legalization are discussed.
Surveys were completed by 157 students. Respondent age ranged
from 18 to 50, with 24.2 as the mean age. Thirty-two percent
of the respondents were freshmen, the remaining respondents
were evenly split between sophomore, junior, and senior
classes. Eighty percent of the respondents classified
themselves as European American/White, 11 percent as African
American/Black. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents were
Authoritarianism and Political
The mean score on the six point RWA scale was 3.92. Scores
ranged from 1.83 to 5.46. Higher scores indicate a higher
authoritarian attitude. On the political ideology self report
5.1 percent defined themselves as very liberal. Just over 20
percent identified themselves as liberal, 23.5 checked
conservative, and 3.9 percent identified themselves as very
conservative. Forty-seven percent selected moderate.
Authoritarian scores were highly correlated with ideology
scores (r=.4238, p=.000). Forward multiple regression was used
to describe the relationship of RWA and ideology. Results of
the regression analysis, with RWA as the dependent variable,
are reported in Table 1. Political ideology is the first
variable entered, followed by gender and church attendance. No
other variables were significant predictors of RWA scores. A
second regression analysis, using a stepwise, or hierarchical
variable entry, indicates that political ideology remains a
significant predictor of authoritarian score even after the
effects of other variables are statistically controlled.
These results support the first hypothesis. Authoritarianism
and political ideology are highly correlated. As expected,
high authoritarians are more conservative.
TABLE 1 - Multiple Regressions -
Forward Method - RWA Score as Dependent Variable
Step Variable Multiple R R Square Sig. of R Sq. Change
Stepwise Method - RWA Score as Dependent Variable
Step Variable Multiple R R Square Sig. of R Sq. Change
Gender, Church Attendance
In spite of a significant relationship between political
ideology and RWA, there is evidence that the variables differ
in some way. Three respondents scoring above 4.5 on the RWA
scale identified themselves as liberal. Sixteen liberals
scored below 3.5 on the RWA scale. Four students who defined
themselves as conservative scored below 3.5 on the RWA scale,
while 14 conservatives scored above 4.5. The data provides
evidence of liberal authoritarians, as well as low
authoritarian conservatives. These findings lend support to
the suggestion that the RWA scale measures a construct
separate from political ideology. It is also possible that
these students, young and early in an education experience
that often results in ideological definition and consistency,
are not able to clearly define their political ideology.
Religiosity is another variable related to authoritarianism
and political ideology. As we see in Table 1, number of days
of church attendance is a significant predictor of RWA scores.
Church attendance correlates with RWA scores (r=.1504, p=.063)
and with political ideology (r=.0334, p=.674). While it
appears that conservatives and those scoring high on the RWA
scale attend church related events more often, the simplicity
of religiosity measures used in the present research prevents
an in-depth analysis of this issue.
Neither of these correlations is statistically significant,
yet the correlation of church attendance with RWA is stronger
that the correlation of attendance and ideology. This finding
provides additional evidence that RWA and political ideology,
although highly correlated with each other, may differ in some
A closer look at the specific religious beliefs of respondents
may yield a clearer picture of the relationship of church
attendance and other variables. In this sample, broad
categories were used to describe religion. Thirty-four percent
of the respondents defined themselves as Protestant, 35.6
percent as Catholic. Other choices included Baptist (3.4
percent), Atheist (2 percent), and other (21.5 percent). While
there does not appear to be significant ideological
differences between these groups, further analysis, directed
toward a clearer definition of religious preference, may
provide interesting results. It seems equally possible that
further analysis would provide little information. Failure to
find a link between religion and other variables that are
evident in this group may provide support for the suggestion
that the "religious right" is falsely claiming moral
superiority, as well as general support, in the policy making
Seriousness scores for all variables are listed in Table 2.
Mean scores were computed and the items were rank ordered. The
most serious items are at the top of the list. There is very
little gender difference in seriousness scores (r=.0010).
There are slight gender differences on single items, but for
the entire scale there is little gender difference. Scores on
this list are not weighted to account for gender imbalance
The seriousness ranking of crimes roughly parallels the order
of legal or social sanctions which are intended to punish
and/or control this behavior. Sale of an item is seen as more
serious than use. The seriousness score is higher as frequency
of use increases. Illegal drug use is generally seen as more
serious than the use of legal substances, although excessive
use of cigarettes and alcohol is seen as slightly more serious
than marijuana use.
The second research hypothesis, that high authoritarians will
provide higher seriousness scores, is supported by the data.
The relationship of authoritarianism and seriousness scores is
graphically depicted in Figure 1. As authoritarianism
increases, so do seriousness scores. Interestingly, this is
especially true for women. Further research may clarify the
interaction of gender and authoritarianism.
FIGURE 1 - Mean Scores of Drug
The relationship of authoritarianism and drug seriousness
scores is also demonstrated through the use of multiple
regression. In a forward multiple regression, with drug
seriousness as the dependant variable, authoritarianism is the
only significant predictor of seriousness score (R=.3232).
Authoritarianism remains a significant predictor of
seriousness score (R=.3607, significance of change in
R.Sq.=.0010) when the effects of covariates are statistically
controlled in a hierarchical regression analysis.
The second hypothesis is supported in this research. Scores on
the RWA scale are significant predictors of drug seriousness
scores. This relationship is especially strong among women
respondents in this sample. In separate analyses, variables
measuring the seriousness scores of drug related activity
categorized as sale, use, illegal, legal, cocaine related, and
marijuana related acts. Scores on the RWA are significant
predictors of seriousness scores on each of these variables.
Support for the third hypothesis is found in an examination of
Table 2. Rank ordering of variables is similar for individuals
who score high, medium (those who score within +/- one
standard deviation from the mean), or low on the RWA scale.
The third hypothesis states that rank ordering of the
seriousness of acts will be similar among high, medium, and
low authoritarians. Examination of Table 2 illustrates general
agreement among the three groups.
Spearman correlation coefficients, which are used for rank
order variables, indicate that the rank order provided by high
and medium authoritarians correlate highly with the order of
the group as a whole. These correlations are .9508 for high
authoritarians and .9969 for medium authoritarians. Since the
majority of subjects were in the medium authoritarianism
category, we would expect that their score with correlate
highly with the group as a whole. High authoritarian scores
also correlate highly, and there are only 21 subjects in this
TABLE 2 - Rank Order of All Acts -
High Mean Med Mean Low Mean Variable
7.90 Selling LSD
7.43 Using cocaine
7.38 Using crack
6.76 Selling crack
6.81 Using heroin
6.71 Using crack
6.52 Using cocaine
6.76 Using LSD
over 20 times per year
6.62 Selling LSD
butane or other to get high
6.81 Getting drunk
nearly every day
5.24 Using LSD
5.14 Addicted to
marijuana for personal use
4.95 Smoke three
packs of cigarettes a day
4.24 Being drunk
in public places
3.48 Minor smoking
2.62 19 yr old,
drinking with fake ID
The biggest difference between the three authoritarianism
categories is found among the low authoritarians. The spearman
correlation for the rank order of this group, when compared to
the group as a whole, was .7822. There appear to be
differences between the low and higher score authoritarians,
yet these differences do not have a strong impact on the rank
ordering of variables for all. This is most likely due to the
low number of individuals who scored low on the RWA scale
(S=21, the same number of subjects as in the high
The third hypothesis predicts that ranking will be similar,
but there will be significant differences between the three
categories of authoritarianism. This hypothesis is partly
supported by the present research. While not reaching a level
of statistical significance, there are differences between low
authoritarians and others. The small size of the current
sample may limit the significance of between groups
differences. Yet even with a larger sample, the size of the
low and high authoritarian groups may not change relative to
the medium authoritarian group.
A primary interest in the present research is the political
impact of varying levels of participation among the three
categories of authoritarians. The impact of low authoritarians
may be limited by their numbers. This impact may also be
limited to the extent that medium and high authoritarians are
more likely to agree with each other than with low
authoritarians. The potential for a natural coalition of high
and medium authoritarians is indicated in the present
Authoritarianism and Drug Legalization
The last two hypotheses are related to the interaction of
scores on the RWA scale and opinions about drug legalization.
Only 7.7 percent of the respondents supported legalization of
all drugs for use by adults. High authoritarians were less
likely to agree with this statement (r=.3253, p=.000).
Conservatives also disagreed with this statement (r=.2191,
Unusual results were found in relation to the interaction of
RWA scores and opinions about the legalization of all drugs.
As we saw in the previous section, the relationship of
authoritarianism and certain variables is stronger for women
than it is for men. In the case of drug legalization, the only
group that favored legalization of all drugs was low
authoritarian women. High authoritarian men were 100 percent
opposed to legalization of all drugs. This finding should lead
to caution in assuming a relationship of authoritarianism and
opinions about drug legalization. While this result may be
unique to this sample, it is impossible to ignore the strong
gender difference in regard to this issue. In short, while the
data supports the fourth hypothesis, it is apparent that this
relationship is more complex than is indicated by the
correlation of RWA and drug legalization.
Respondents in this sample were open to the idea of marijuana
legalization. In response to this question, 41.7 percent
favored legalization. Again, high authoritarians were less
supportive of legalization (r=.3011, p=.000). The correlation
of ideology and attitudes about marijuana legalization is
slightly higher (r=.3037, p=.000). These findings support the
fifth hypothesis, this time without unusual gender
Multiple regression was also used to describe the relationship
of variables to drug legalization opinions. Results of two of
these analyses are reported in Table 3. The first regression
analysis used a forward entry of variables. In this method
only significant variables are entered into the analysis. If a
second or third variable is entered, this variable must
account for a significant amount of variance above that
accounted for by other variables. In this analysis, with drug
legalization as the dependant variable, drug seriousness score
is the best predictor of opinion about legalizing all drugs.
Authoritarianism is also a significant predictor of
TABLE 3 - Multiple Regressions - Drug
Forward Method - Drug Legalization as Dependent
Variable Multiple R R Square Sig. of R Sq. Change
Stepwise Method - Drug Legalization as Dependent
Step Variable Multiple R R Square Sig.of R.Sq.Chg.
Gender, Church Attendance
It is not surprising that opinion about the seriousness of
drug related acts are significant predictors of drug
legalization attitudes. Those who believe that drug use and
sale are serious acts could be expected to reject the idea of
legalization. As we saw above, seriousness scores are highly
correlated with RWA scores. As a result, it would be logical
to assume that authoritarianism would be a good predictor of
legalization attitude due to a high correlation with
seriousness scores. The first regression analysis in Table 3
indicates that RWA accounts for a significant amount of
variance, even after the effect of seriousness has been
removed. In other words, the effect of RWA is not the result
of variance shared with seriousness scores.
Opinion about marijuana legalization was the dependent
variable in a second forward multiple regression. The
marijuana seriousness score, which includes opinions about the
seriousness of growing, smoking, and selling marijuana, was
the only significant predictor of marijuana seriousness score
(R=.6927, R.Sq.=.4799). Another regression analysis was run
with the same variables. The only change was that marijuana
seriousness score was not included as an independent variable.
In this analysis ideology was the best predictor of marijuana
legalization attitude. Authoritarian score was the only other
significant variable. Multiple R increased from .3077 to .3623
when authoritarianism was added.
This is the only analysis in which ideology appeared to be
superior to RWA score. It is possible that this is a result of
an effort to be ideologically consistent. The political
ideology question directly preceded questions about drug
legalization. An individual who marked liberal on the ideology
question can easily appear to be ideologically consistent by
favoring marijuana legalization. When the individual reaches
the question regarding legalization of all drugs, he or she
may reason that everyone, regardless of ideology, disapproves
of this idea.
It is difficult to remain ideologically consistent on the RWA
items. As a result, this scale remains a significant predictor
in regard to drug legalization attitudes. When marijuana
legalization is the dependent variable, the predictive value
of RWA scores is lessened by the fact that individuals can
easily remain consistent by checking what they see as the
appropriate political ideology. This consistency, although
perhaps not based in reality, increases the predictive power
of ideology and minimizes the effect of RWA scores.
The second regression analysis reported in Table 3 uses a
stepwise variable entry. A number of items correlate with
authoritarianism. These include church attendance (r=.1504),
age (-.0907), gender (-.2775), and ideology. Since each of
these variables is also related to drug seriousness scores,
the relationship of authoritarianism and drug legalization
attitudes may be the result of variance shared with other
Stepwise multiple regression was used to test the unique
contribution of authoritarianism to opinions about drug
legalization. In this analysis, with drug legalization as the
dependent variable, church attendance, age, and gender were
entered as a block variable. This was followed by ideology,
which remained a significant predictor of drug legalization
attitudes once the effect of covariates was statistically
controlled. Next, the drug seriousness variable was added.
Addition of this variable increased multiple R from .2477 to
.4506. Finally, the RWA authority variable was added in order
to test the unique contribution of this variable once the
interaction of all other variables is controlled. Multiple R
increased from .4506 to .4742 with a significance level of
.0000. This analysis indicates that authoritarianism is a
significant predictor of opinions about drug legalization
after the effects of other variables have been controlled.
The relationship of authoritarianism and seriousness scores
can have major implications for criminal justice policy. We
can look at crime and deviance as a spectrum of activity,
anchored at one end as more serious (e.g., mass murder) and at
the other end by less serious (e.g., nipple piercing). Through
legislation we have drawn a line, somewhat arbitrarily, on
this spectrum. Items on one side of the line are illegal,
items on the other side of the line are legal and are not
officially controlled or reacted to by the criminal justice
system. That line can shift as a result of constant pressure
on each side. If the pressure on one side is reduced in
relation to the other, the line may shift. The result of this
shift could be legislation directed toward activity that has
suddenly ended up on the other side of the line.
Drug use, especially marijuana use, is an activity that is
just over the line that separates criminal from legal
behavior. It may also be said that excessive use of alcohol or
cigarettes is just on the other side of this line. Any
movement in the line may result in policy changes regarding
these behaviors. If high authoritarian individuals become more
active in the political process, either as actors or
supporters of other actors, we can expect changing pressures
on either side of this line. Behaviors that are just barely
legal, in the minds of the high authoritarians, may suddenly
become criminalized. Greater participation by any group has
the potential for increasing pressure on either side of the
line that separates legal from illegal behavior.
Authoritarianism may be a variable that influences this
pressure to change. As we know, there are many variables
involved in a decision to support a particular candidate or
issue. Further research may demonstrate the relative
The relationship of authoritarian attitudes to drug
seriousness scores was evaluated in this research. There is a
clear relationship. Drug seriousness scores are higher for
high authoritarians. We have also found marginal support for
the suggestion that low authoritarians rank order the
behaviors in a different way. Knowledge about the opinions of
low authoritarians may be of little use in an effort to
understand the current direction of drug control policy. The
opinions of low authoritarians may have little effect on drug
control policy since this group has been politically
RWA scores and opinions about the seriousness of crime are
both significant predictors of drug legalization attitudes.
This is evident in the statistical analysis of these variables
as well as in the fact that over 40 percent of the respondents
in this group favored marijuana legalization while less than
10 percent favored legalization of all drugs.
High authoritarians are less likely to support drug
legalization. It is likely that high authoritarians will favor
punishment as an effort to deter the use of drugs. It may be
safe to assume that low authoritarians would see the potential
for treating drug use as a medical rather than a criminal
problem. Future research could more closely examine the
potential impact of increased political power and
participation of low authoritarians.
A major question in this research involves the potential for
changes in criminal justice policy as the result of increased
participation and support for a particular type of policy
maker. Results of this research suggest that more behavior
could be criminalized. Future research could specifically
address questions regarding crime and punishment. For example,
are high authoritarians more likely to increase sanctions for
illegal drug use? Would punishment for criminal behaviors
become more severe as the result of increased participation of
high authoritarians? Is it possible that this change could
result in the criminalization or legalization of certain drug
related activity? As is often the case, this research raises
more questions than answers. Each of these questions should be
addressed in future research.
Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J., and
Sanford, R.N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality.
New York: Harper and Row.
Altemeyer, B. (1981). Right Wing Authoritarianism.
Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press.
Christie, R. (1993). Some experimental approaches to
authoritarianism: I. A retrospective on the Einstellung
(rigidity?) Paradigm. In Stone, W.F., Lederer, G. and
Christie, R. (1993). Strength and weakness: the
authoritarian personality today. New York:
Christie, R. (1991). Authoritarianism and related constructs.
In Robinson, J.P., Shaver, P.R. and Wrightsman, L.S. Measures
of Personality and Social Psychological Attitudes. San
Diego: Academic Press.
Evans, S.S. and Scott, J.E. (1984). The seriousness of crime
cross-culturally. Criminology, 22(1) 39-59.
Hamilton, V.L. and Rytina, S. (1980). Social consensus on
norms of justice: Should the punishment fit the crime? American
Journal of Sociology, 85(5), 1117-1144.
Meleon, J.D. (1993). The F scale as a predictor of fascism:
An overview of 40 years of authoritarianism research. In
Stone, W.F., Lederer, G. and Christie, R. (1993). Strength
and weakness: the authoritarian personality today. New
Rossi, P.H., Waite, E., Bose, C.E. and Berk, R.E. (1974). The
seriousness of crimes: Normative structure and individual
Sellin, T. And Wolfgang, M.W. (1964). The Measurement of
Delinquency. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Stone, W.F., Lederer, G. and Christie, R. (1993). Strength
and weakness: the authoritarian personality today. New
Warr, M. (1989). What is the perceived seriousness of crime?
Criminology, 27(4), 795-821.
Wolfgang, M.E., Figlio, R.M., Tracy, P.E.
and Singer, S.I. (1985). The National Survey of Crime
Severity. Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.