Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Kenneth W. Mentor, Ph.D.
Clifford K. Dorne, Ph.D.

This is a draft of an article published in, Deviant Behavior, 19(1).
Table formatting was altered when page was converted to html.

The seriousness of "deviant" behaviors and/or statuses is measured in this research. Data, collected through a survey of criminal justice students, indicates that seriousness scores are significantly related to authoritarian personality traits. The association of right wing authoritarianism and perceived seriousness is especially apparent when scale items are categorized into subgroups of related behaviors.

This research examines the relationship between authoritarian personality traits and perceptions of the seriousness of a variety of acts. In particular, this research examines attitudes toward those acts that might be placed along the border separating "criminal" from "deviant" acts. As we know, all crime is potentially defined as deviant, but all deviance is certainly not criminal. Social and legal codifications of deviance vary over time. The "deviantizing" of behavior that was previously not considered overly deviant, or perhaps even "normal," is essentially a political process (Schur, 1980; Pfohl, 1994) which may be triggered by sudden increases in political power among certain types of people.

Political power is needed to effectively "deviantize" certain behaviors. This power is often coupled with a general societal reaction which allows, or perhaps requires, that sanctions, either formal or informal, be applied in an effort to minimize the occurrence of the offending behavior. In effect, groups that lack social dominance or influence are more likely to have their behaviors and/or appearances labeled as deviant. These sanctions are intended to act as deterrents, yet they also define and confirm the deviant status of the targeted person or group.

Spector and Kitsuse (1977) and Best (1987) discuss "claims making," which is much like Schur's "deviantizing." In political arenas it may be suggested that a particular group of individuals or a collection of behaviors is "unacceptably deviant" and in urgent need of increased official surveillance and control. This suggestion may start a process through which "moral entrepreneurs" (Becker, 1963:147) define and enforce deviant subcategories. Political power differentials between the claims makers and the target population (those perceived as socially harmful) are usually quite wide. This differential translates into the power to label (Pfohl, 1994: 360). These deviant labels are created and attached in the context of political conflict. The more organized and powerful the claims makers, the more successful they will be. Likewise, the more politically helpless and disorganized the target population, the more successful the claims makers, or deviantizers, will be in attaching the stigma (Becker, 1963)

Defining a particular type of behavior as deviant is very subjective. Along with the obvious impact of political power, certain personality traits may also predispose an individual to condemn and censure various acts as unacceptably deviant. A personality based predisposition, when combined with the power to deviantize, may lead the individual to suggest or endorse the need for increased official repression and control. In effect, political power, social dominance, personality characteristics, and the perceived seriousness of certain behaviors may interact in a process which leads to prohibitive attitudes or sanctions toward certain types of conduct.

Right Wing Authoritarianism is a personality characteristic with the potential to be a powerful variable in such a process. Arguably, the desire to legally restrict conduct which occurs somewhat often in the form of adult, consensual behavior with no clear resultant aggrieved or victimized person, may be considered an act of authoritarianism. For example, an individual may state that "a hideous act (often related to certain fashion, sexual or recreational drug use lifestyles) needs to be legally condemned in any community that I'm going to live in!" Such moralistic zeal and attempt at community-wide paternalistic control is the logical opposite of Libertarian ideology (Schur, 1965; Morris & Hawkins, 1970; Smith & Pollack, 1975; McWilliams, 1993), yet is consistent with descriptions of the authoritarian personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Altemeyer, 1981; Christie, 1991; Meleon, 1993).

Stone, Lederer, and Christie (1993) describe authoritarians as conventional, with aggressive feelings toward "legitimate" targets (e.g., homosexuals, unwed mothers, welfare recipients), and submissive to authoritative or strong leadership. The current research attempts to demonstrate that authoritarianism, when combined with political and/or economic power, may result in the deviantizing of certain behaviors. Deviantizing will be especially prevalent in relation the behaviors engaged in by those with less political and/or social power.

This research is somewhat exploratory. There is a rich tradition of research on authoritarianism (Adorno, et al., 1950; Scodel & Mussen, 1953; Christi & Jahoda 1954; Jackson, Messick, & Solley, 1957; Eysenck, 1962; Altemeyer, 1981; Altemeyer, 1988; Christie, 1993; Stone, 1993). There have also been seminal surveys on the perceived seriousness of crime (Sellin & Wolfgang, 1964; Rossi, Waite, Bose, & Berk, 1974; Wolfgang, Figlio, Tracy, & Singer, 1985). This paper combines ideas from each of these areas. Additionally, the present research addresses the broader concept of deviance, as opposed to the strictly legalistic idea of crime. This project represents an effort to develop a clearer conception of opinions regarding the relative seriousness of conduct deemed deviant. The research also constitutes an attempt to identify potential predictors of opinion regarding the relative seriousness of deviant behaviors.


The survey used in this research included a scale developed to assess individual opinions about the relative seriousness of a variety of acts. The 9-point seriousness scale was anchored at each end by "most serious" and "least serious." The survey also included a measure of authoritarianism, assessed on a six point Likert scale, with three items indicating varying degrees of agreement and three items indicating disagreement. Demographic variables were also included, along with a measure of church attendance and a single item measuring political ideology. The scales used to measure seriousness perceptions and authoritarianism are briefly described below.

Seriousness Perceptions

Several researchers have attempted to obtain consensus on the relative seriousness of criminal behaviors. An early seriousness scale, which included one sentence descriptions of criminal acts, was developed by Sellin and Wolfgang (1964). Rossi, et al. (1974) developed a similar scale, again with brief descriptions of criminal acts. Building on this research, Wolfgang, et al. (1985) conducted an extensive survey of crime seriousness. This scale included more precise descriptions than those used in previous scales. Variables including intent, relationship, gender, and severity of injury were included in the description of each act. Strong societal consensus regarding crime seriousness was found in each of these studies.

The scale used in the present research evolved from a crime seriousness scale developed for previous research by Mentor (1996). In Mentor's research, which was also related to authoritarianism, a number of non-criminal items were included in a scale (similar to that used by Rossi, 1974) rating the seriousness of crimes. The strongest reactions occurred in relation to non-criminal items. This unusual result motivated the development of a second scale, including a wider range of deviant, non-criminal activities, which was used in the present research.

In the present research the term "deviant" is used in a very general way. While defining certain behaviors as deviant may be presumptuous, and even offensive to some, others have suggested that sociologists have been too restrictive in their efforts to categorize and understand deviance (Mills, 1943; Lofland, 1969; Szasz, 1970; Liazos, 1972). Nonetheless, decisions had to be made about the acts to be included in this study. While a wide range of deviant behavior was included, a number of items were left out. White collar crime, institutional deviance, deviance that has been defined as criminal, and other acts that may logically be defined as deviant were not included. With few exceptions, acts about which there has been a general consensus in terms of criminalization were excluded. Exceptions to this limitation exist so that some relatively serious acts could be measured for comparison.

An effort was made to include a variety of behaviors that might quickly come to mind when asked to provide an example of a deviant act. The researchers saw a bias toward behaviors that could be categorized as "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Drug related items, many of which are illegal, were not included. Sex related acts were included, but an effort was made to expand the items to include legal, yet arguably deviant, acts (e.g., calling 1-900-hot-love for phone sex, participating in phone sex with lover, and using internet for explicit sexual conversations with strangers). The researchers also attempted to include less stereotypical forms of "deviance" (e.g., cleaning house in the nude, excessive use of profanity, and wearing clothes at a nudist camp). Acts included in the scale include behaviors as well as status differences. For example, suicide related items include a 15-year-old, a healthy adult, a sick adult, and a 75-year-old in good health. Several items related to sexual activity were worded the same, except for gender. Other questions were worded similarly except for the addition of a status difference related to income. In effect, the survey examined deviance as well as deviants, behavior as well as status.

When the survey was administered, respondents were asked to read the first ten descriptions in order to develop an idea of the range of issues before indicating their perceptions of the seriousness of the deviant behaviors. Respondents were asked to "rate the seriousness of the acts based on your opinion. In other words, rate these acts without consideration of any punishment prescribed by law."

Right Wing Authoritarianism

Interest in authoritarianism began with efforts to understand the origins for mass support of the Nazis. These efforts evolved into fascism, or F scales, which included measures of anti-Semitic attitudes (Adorno, et al. 1950). A link between fascism and authoritarianism was proposed in the 1940's as researchers began to move from general ideas about a culture to specific ideas about the personalities of individuals in that culture. (See Stone et al., 1993.)

The survey developed for the present research includes 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" (Christie, 1993: 97, see also Billings and Gaustello, 1993). Altemeyer's 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 efforts to control certain behaviors. For example, high authoritarian individuals may support increased governmental authority, and increased punitive measures, to limit behavior that has been defined as deviant. This may be especially true if the definition is motivated by a desire to define "immoral" acts as deviance.

In the present research, the RWA scale was adopted 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.


University students enrolled in a public policy program served as respondents. This sample was chosen for obvious reasons of accessibility. Although a convenient sample, many of these students were enrolled in criminal justice classes as they pursue management careers in criminal justice and other bureaucratic agencies functioning in social control capacities. This was a politically active group with the potential to serve in key policy making roles.

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 men.


1. High authoritarians, when compared to those scoring lower on the RWA scale, will provide higher seriousness scores for individual items.

2. RWA scores will significantly predict perceived seriousness scores for the entire scale.

3. When deviant behavior is categorized into subgroups, authoritarianism scores will remain a significant predictor of perceived seriousness scores.


The first research hypothesis was supported by the data. The relationship between RWA and the perceived seriousness of individual acts was tested through a least significant differences analysis of variance. This analysis tested the significance of differences between low, high, and medium (those scoring within +/- one standard deviation from the mean) authoritarians when each of the 50 items was treated as a dependent variable. There was a significant difference (p<.05) between the mean seriousness scores on 36 of the 50 items. On 11 items, there was a significant difference between each of the three possible pairings (high/med, med/low, high/low). On 14 items, there was a significant difference between two pairings (high/low, med/low). There was a significant difference between high and low authoritarians on 7 items. The final 4 items also had significant differences between the groups, but the order of the relationship was unexpected. In these items the middle score was either high or low authoritarian.

The second and third hypotheses were also supported by the data. The second hypothesis examines the effect RWA has on seriousness scores for the entire scale. Seriousness scores for all items were summed to create mean seriousness scores. Mean seriousness scores for those scoring highest (over one standard deviation above the RWA mean) on the RWA scale were 5.01, while those scoring lowest (less than one standard deviation below the RWA mean) on the RWA scale were 3.25. The mean seriousness score for all respondents was 4.31.

The third hypothesis is related to seriousness scores on several subcategories of deviant behavior. These subgroups included illegal consensual sex, body mutilation, and homosexuality. Bivariate correlations for each of these variables, as well as several demographic variables, are listed in Table 1. The subgroups, as would be expected, are each significantly correlated with each other as well as with scores for the scale as a whole. RWA scores are significantly correlated with scores for the "all acts" group as well as each subgroup. Age and church attendance are positively correlated with RWA scores. Women score higher on the RWA scale, and there is a significant correlation of RWA and political ideology, with conservatives more likely to be high authoritarians. RWA score is the strongest correlate for each subgroup, with the exception of body mutilation (used for lack of better term, includes various piercings and tattoos), where age and political ideology result in higher correlation scores.

Table 1 - Correlations of Variables

Variables 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

1. All Acts 1.00

2. Illegal Sex .698** 1.00

3. Body Mutilation .776** .363** 1.00

4. Homosexuality .787** .612** .532** 1.00

5. RWA Score .389** .337** .274** .461** 1.00

6. Age .232** .029 .334** .037 -.091 1.00

7. Gender -.111 .044 -.079 -.183* -.273** .121 1.00

8. Church Attendance .132 .050 .069 .188* .150 -.065 .029 1.00

9. Political Ideology .313** .186* .326** .296** .424** .132 -.147 .034 1.00

*p<.05; **p<.01.

The relationship of RWA scores and perceived seriousness was also tested through several regression analyses. These analyses were performed in order to control for the covariate effects of age, gender, church attendance, and ideology. Regression analyses were run with the perceived seriousness of all acts, as well as the seriousness of subgroups, as dependent variables. The results of two of these analyses are shown in Table 2.

In the first analysis, with "all acts" as the dependent variable, both age and RWA are significant predictors of perceived seriousness. In the second analysis, with homosexuality (includes male, female, and proposing homosexual acts) as the dependent variable, only RWA is statistically significant. Other analyses used the same model, the only change was relative to the dependent variable. These analyses, which are not listed in Table 2, yielded similar results. RWA was the only significant predictor of the perceived seriousness of illegal consensual sex (includes prostitution and solicitation, adjusted R sq.=.109, Sig.F=.0006). When body mutilation is the dependent variable, RWA is a significant predictor, yet so are age and political ideology (adjusted R. sq.=.191, Sig.F=.0000).

Table 2 - Regression Analysis of Seriousness Scores

Perceived Seriousness - All Acts Perceived Seriousness - Homosexuality

B SE B Sig. T B SE B Sig. T

RWA Score .698 .174 .0001 1.493 .319 .0000

Political Ideology .191 .124 .1260 .287 .227 .2079

Church Attendance .055 .047 .2400 .160 .086 .0638

Age .051 .015 .0011 .029 .028 .2915

Gender -.090 .212 .6717 -.341 .388 .3808

Constant -.307 .847 .7175 -2.901 1.549 .0631

Adjusted R sq. .212* .228**

* F=9.09, Sig. F= .0000; ** F=9.79, Sig.F= .0000.

RWA scores were statistically significant predictors of seriousness for each of the subscales. The predictive value of authoritarianism remained even after the effects of covariates were controlled in multiple regression analyses. The second and third hypotheses are supported in this research. The predictive value of RWA is especially strong for homosexuality and illegal consensual sex. The effect of RWA, independent of covariates, is less strong for the body mutilation subgroup.


Some of the more interesting results of this research became apparent when individual variables were examined. For example, seriousness scores were rank ordered dependent on authoritarianism score. While the rank ordering of variables was similar, on a few items there was a great deal of disagreement depending on RWA score. As we would expect from the result of the previous analyses, the greatest amount of disagreement was related to items that include descriptions of homosexual acts. For example, the item "proposing homosexual practices to an adult" was the 5th most serious act for those scoring highest on the RWA scale. This item was ranked 27th out of 50 for those scoring lowest on the RWA scale. Other major differences were related to items that individual "deviance" related to health issues. For example, the item "29, homeless, schizophrenic" was ranked 36th by high authoritarians, 12th by low authoritarians. Similarly, the item "bulimic college junior, weighs 90 pounds" was ranked 28th by high authoritarians, 6th by low authoritarians. High authoritarians may look at these acts from a societal "law and order" standpoint, while low authoritarians appear to view the acts with a certain degree of compassion for the individual.

RWA scores were not significantly correlated with several items. Several of the items were so serious that all respondents, regardless of RWA score, scored the item near the extreme end of the scale. These items included "HIV positive individual has sex with many unsuspecting partners" and "making sexual advances to young children." These items, included as control variables, were expected to be scored as among the most serious. Other items were scored very low on the scale, independent of RWA score. For example, there was general agreement about the relative "seriousness" two items, each related to 28-year-old virgins (either male or female), which were scored at the lower end of the scale. It was only slightly more deviant for a male to be a virgin at that age. Neither "bungee jumping" or "cleaning house in the nude" were significantly related to RWA scores. Again, these items were scored very low on the seriousness scale. These items may have fallen into a "who cares" category in which everyone agreed the item was trivial.

This research examined deviant statuses as well as deviant behaviors. The results are not surprising. For example, being an 18-year-old woman with three children became considerably more serious when the family was on welfare. Stealing a candy bar was seen as far more serious if the individual was 32 than if he or she was 12 years old. Status differences were also evident in an examination of suicide related acts. Seriousness of the act declined as the age of the individual increased. The lowest suicide score was provided for an individual with a terminal disease.

An interesting issue was related to the least significant differences analysis reported above. On 14 items, there was a significant difference between two pairings (high/low, med/low). There was not a significant difference between the third pairing (high/med). There appear to be differences between low authoritarians and others. The small size of the current sample may limit the significance of between group 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. The impact that low authoritarians can have on the process of "deviantizing" 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 the low authoritarians. Further research may more clearly describe differences between these groups, as well as the possibility for a coalition between high and medium authoritarians.

It is interesting to note that the interaction of authoritarianism and perceived seriousness held true for a wide variety of behaviors. The researchers expected a strong association between RWA and seriousness perceptions when referring to behaviors that are often condemned with arguments steeped in morality. The relationship in reference to body mutilation, a group of acts that do not generally provoke morally charged arguments, was somewhat surprising. The strongest relationship between RWA and perceived seriousness occurred in the homosexuality subgroup. It is interesting to note that an increase in homophobic attitudes (e.g. negative reactions to same sex marriage and gays in the military) has paralleled the increased political power of, and support for, politicians that may be defined as authoritarian.


The relationship of authoritarian attitudes to deviance seriousness was evaluated in this research. A clear relationship was demonstrated. Seriousness scores are higher for high authoritarians. The relationship of authoritarianism and deviance scores can have major implications for criminal justice policy. We can look at deviance, and the includable concept of crime, 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, at times somewhat arbitrarily, on this spectrum. Lines have also been drawn to appease certain political constituencies. 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. The line may shift as a result of pressure on either 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.

Durkheim (1893) would indicate that society is getting the amount of deviance that it deserves as increased amounts of deviance are actually created by the enactment of more and more prohibitions. Such legislation is functional in solidifying the conformist identities of citizens on the "normative side" of the shifting line between socially acceptable and unacceptable conduct (also see Lukes & Scull, 1983). If high authoritarians 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. For example, as indicated in the present research, homosexual behavior may be the target for this change. Conversely, prostitution, a behavior that is seen as less serious by low authoritarians, is not likely to decriminalized unless low authoritarians take a more active role in policy making.

This research has important implications for the ubiquitous "culture wars" played out in legislative, judicial, mass media, academic, and organized religious arenas (Hunter, 1991). Major questions raised here include the potential for policy changes as the result of increased participation and support for a particular type of policy maker. Results of this research suggest that more behavior may well 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 political participation of high authoritarians? Is gender, which was correlated with RWA, an important moderator of the association of RWA and perceptions of seriousness? What impact would status differences, such as income or employment, have on the perceptions scores? What about behaviors or statuses that are traditionally debated in terms of morality?

As is often the case, this research raises more questions than answers. Each of these questions should be addressed in future research. Future research could rely on an expanded research sample, or focus on individuals running for public office or occupying high administrative positions in agencies of social control. It is the researchers' hope that this methodology is extended to apply to crucial issues related to conceptions of deviance and the public policy ramifications of the interaction of authoritarianism and definitions of deviance.


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