Psychologists have always viewed authoritarianism as a rather rigid personality trait that is not susceptible to short term change. Authoritarianism refers to the “tendency to be deferent to authority and to be intolerant of deviance from existing social hierarchies” (Wu & Paluck, 2020, p. 2). The studies conducted by Wu & Paluck (2020) provide contrasting evidence to the idea of authoritarianism, as they argue that views on authority, justice and hierarchy can be change in a short period of time due to participation in workplace democracy.
The study consisted of two experiments conducted on Chinese factory workers and American university staff. Both the experiments were based on increasing workplace democracy and participation through a weekly, 20-minute participatory meeting in which workers were asked to voice their opinions, goals and visions without any input from the supervisors (Wu & Paluck, 2020). There two distinctly different environments of a Chinese factory and an American university were chosen to show the validity of the results in both authoritarian and democratic regimes.
Study 1 was conducted on female Chinese factory workers, with a total sample size of 1752 workers (Wu & Paluck, 2020). The factory management divides these workers into different groups which perform similar or related tasks. The supervisor for each group conducted a 20 minute meeting at the start of each day, dictating the objectives and expectations for the day. The researchers used 65 such groups for their study. They asked half the groups to attend a weekly ‘participatory meeting’, in which they were asked to voice their opinions about work without any input from the supervisor (Wu & Paluck, 2020). The remaining half were labelled as the ‘status quo’ groups. These groups continued to have meetings controlled by their supervisors, without any participation from the workers.
The workers were asked to fill surveys measuring their attitudes towards authority, belief in a just world, conflict between different social groups and their level of participation outside work. The results of the survey showed that there was an overall pattern of slightly agree with statements that were measuring obedience to authority. However, there was a significant difference between the results of the participatory group and the status quo group. Workers in the participatory group had a distinctly lower positive attitude towards authority as compared to the workers in the status quo group (Wu & Paluck, 2020). This was a common trend across all the categories of the survey- as workers from the participatory group were found less likely to believe in a just world, reported higher amount of conflicts between different social groups and reported to participate more outside work (family or politics) (2020).
The second study was conducted on the administrative staff at an American university. The same experiment was repeated in a more democratic setting, which explained the overall results of a slightly negative attitude towards obedience to authority (Wu & Paluck, 2020). However, the inspection and comparison of results between the participatory and status quo yielded the same results- the subjects in the participatory group had an even lesser positive attitude towards obedience to authority and were less likely to believe in a just world (2020).
The results from the study conducted by Wu & Paluck (2020) challenge the notion of authoritarianism as a rigid personality trait that is resistant to change. The change in perceptions about authority and justice that was observed in the subjects was not limited to the workplace, as they exhibited an increase in participation outside work as well. The shifting view on authoritarianism opens up new possibilities for research into the fields of workplace behaviour and management practices. The implications of the study also show that local and small scale participatory practices in any sphere of an individual’s life can alter their overall personality and views on authority, justice and social hierarchies.
Wu, S. J., & Paluck, E. L. (2020). Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-8.
Manav Agarwal recently completed an undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts and Humanities with a major in Psychology at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities (O.P. Jindal Global University). His interests lie in the area of organizational & business psychology, human resources and community development.